What You Actually ‘Need’ to Have a Kid, and What You Don’t

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When I started telling people I was pregnant again, all of my friends and family hit me with some version of the same question: “Are you guys getting a bigger place?” “Will you get a new car?” “Will you leave the city?” These are questions I genuinely had not asked of myself because it didn’t occur to me that we needed to do any of those things.

We — me, my husband, and our 6-year-old and 3-year-old — live in a small three-bedroom house in Toronto and have an old but very hardy Honda CR-V, both far bigger in comparison than some of the apartments and cars we’ve had in the city before. We brought our first baby home in a tiny Car2Go to a small loft with exactly one door — and looking back that place felt like a palace compared to the one we brought our second baby home to. Essentially a hallway with a kitchen where all four of us were cooped up during the pandemic. Not that I really had time to even bemoan the cramped quarters though, life just went on. Just like it will, it stands to reason, in this current place we call home.

I understand where these questions come from though. There is an assumption out there that to effectively raise kids you need to constantly upgrade your surroundings, a bigger house and bigger car, more stuff, more money.

There’s no question that it’s expensive to have kids. A recent figure from LendingTree puts the average cost of raising one (1) child in the U.S. at around $240,000, from birth to their 18th birthday. In Canada, the average is a little higher, with estimates at around $350,000 CAD for kids up to 17 years old. Some of those costs like child care, health insurance, education and food are fucking expensive no matter where you live. But two of the biggest factors in determining how unaffordable kids are, are driven by housing and transportation. Even for the statisticians there’s an unspoken understanding that parents must, and will, move on to larger homes — adding a bedroom for each kid, of course — and if not multiple cars, at least a bigger one with more and roomier seats. Are either of those things actually necessary? I’m not convinced.

Growing up, my family moved around a lot — always living in a lot of small apartments, all three of us girls sharing a bedroom —  as my parents desperately searched for stability in a new country as immigrants. They had three young kids and no money, living in such financially precarious situations that even today I struggle to comprehend, yet we didn’t know to complain. Instead, my sisters and I made the best of it, pushing our beds together so we had a giant bed boat and though one of us always got stuck sleeping in the crack between beds, we refused to have it any other way. When we eventually moved to places where I, as the eldest, could have my own room, I still found myself crawling back into my sisters’ shared room for post-bedtime jokes and gossip.

I can still remember the day my parents bought their first car. We were at a neighbor’s apartment while they spent the day picking out the perfect family vehicle, a life-changing purchase. They came back with a four-door Chevy Sprint, which was hardly a family wagon, but it was what they could afford and the three of us crammed into that back seat for nearly a decade as we drove that thing all across the country and into the ground. Yeah, there were a lot of fights about who got stuck in the middle seat — playing “shotgun window seat” became a blood sport — and tantrums over someone’s bony knee crossing over someone else’s imaginary border of space, followed always by tearful accusations of “she’s on my side,” but it was also our car and it turns out we didn’t need more.

So yeah, my approach to wants and needs when it comes to kids is an evolution of how I grew up. But when I asked other parents online to share what they thought they needed versus what they actually get by with, a lot of them echoed similar sentiments.

Like Maya, from Toronto, who felt a sense of pressure to buy a house when she and her partner were expecting their first baby, a decision she now feels she could have put off a lot longer. “Something I’ve told pregnant friends since I had my child was that they do NOT need more room to roam,” she wrote me over DM. “We definitely could’ve saved a lot of money continuing to rent for years of his babyhood rather than buy our place.” Caitlin in Sydney, Australia, said the same. “When my husband and I were first considering having kids,” she wrote, “we were convinced we needed to move further away from the city so we could find a bigger place (ideally a house) with a yard to raise a family. We are currently living in a two-bedroom walk-up apartment with our 14-month-old and I genuinely feel like it’s everyone else who thinks we’re crazy. It’s so fine!”

Ashleigh, a mom of four who left New York for Minneapolis, describes that “crazy” perception as parents having been “conditioned to expect a certain lifestyle, and to view providing that lifestyle to our kids as a moral good.” “But our narrow focus on ‘stuff,’ she explains over email, “prevents us from focusing on the things that really sustain us as parents: building community, supporting each other, sharing resources.” Ashleigh finds freedom in denying (literally) buying into “all the shit we don’t need,” like, say, a bedroom for each kid.

There’s been a lot of discourse online recently and all year long about what’s keeping more millennials and Gen-Zers from having a kid or more kids. There are real social and structural barriers for parents and would-be parents that are indisputable, but there are also perceptions in place about what you “need” to be a “good” parent, to be perceived as doing right by your babies. I bristle at the idea that only the upwardly mobile deserve to have the kind of family they want, that money is a guarantor of your ability to love your children and provide them with a healthy, supportive home. That extra bedroom, roomier car, and pricey stroller won’t change the real work of caring for a child, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But I will say this, I probably wouldn’t buy a Chevy Sprint for three kids.

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What You Actually ‘Need’ to Have a Kid, and What You Don’t