Kids don’t need lots of stuff, they say. ‘They’, in this instance, are sometimes stay-at-home mums trying to persuade me that we should live on one income. Sometimes my parents’ friends trot it out. It comes up in discussions of welfare, it comes up in tut-tutting articles about the overly materialistic child.
Here’s the thing. No, actually – here’s the caveat. After which, the thing. The caveat, which shouldn’t be necessary but is, is that I don’t care one whit about whether it suits your family better to have one earner or two. I’m not even slightly trying to imply that the former is a worse choice. I am merely, and only, saying that I want to add some honesty to what’s involved in that choice. And not all of these things will come into the equation for everyone, of course. If you can afford everything that’s important to you on one income, well done. You’re very lucky. I’m happy for you. But don’t reduce it to ‘stuff’, because, finally, here’s the thing. Stuff is cheap. Plastic toys are very, very cheap. Children’s clothes are very, very cheap. Even an iPad, which seems to be replacing wide-screen TVs as the symbol of All Things Profligate, is not actually that expensive. Not compared to the things that actually cost money.
What costs money is everything else.
All these children, surrounded by piles of plastic, when all they want is their mother’s time and attention. Take away the Wii and take them for long autumn walks along a nature trail!
If you want your children to go on nature walks, you need to live somewhere where there are walking paths, and green trails, and preferably nobody sleeping rough outside your front door. If you want your children to go and play outside in their garden instead of inside watching television, you need a garden. And/or a safe neighbourhood.
Kids don’t need stuff; they need experiences!
A family zoo membership costs hundreds of dollars for a single year. Ditto live theatre, music, the aquarium and almost every other activity favoured by the middle class. If you live in an outer suburb, there’s petrol and parking, or there’s an hour on a train with whiny small children. Cheaper, by far, to stay home with the plastic toys, and the TV, and the first-generation iPad.
Good, plain food, sensible clothes and a cosy home, that’s what’s important. Not all these name brands and things!
Organic food costs money. Natural fibres cost money. A decent, healthy living space costs money. Keeping it clean costs money. If you want your children tramping the green laneways on a frosty afternoon, you want them doing it in a proper coat and good quality boots. If you want your children to be secure in their environment, it helps to own your own place. Or rent somewhere with a good, understanding landlord, in an area with low turnover. Guess whether those places cost more money?
If you didn’t drive that big fancy car, you could cut your hours!
You can give up your car, of course, or drive an older, smaller model. But you’re less likely to be able to head down to a camp site four hours down the coast that way, or to drive interstate to visit relatives.
Do kids also not need extended family? Or holidays?
And then there’s the issue of education, which is so thorny it could surround Sleeping Beauty’s castle, confident in the knowledge that no prince could ever penetrate its tangles. Public vs private, and if the former, certainly you want to be in a decent suburb with an enthusiastic set of parents and motivated teachers. Do you live in the expensive suburb, or do you drive your children across town every day in your old, beaten-up car? But then they don’t meet friends in their own area, and what about the extra-curriculars?
There are a million reasons why a family might choose to have two incomes over a stay at home parent – those reasons range from the presence of two parents who both like and value their work, to the lack of childcare options for non-9-5 workers, to the desire to build up a nest egg for one’s children’s future. But let’s not pretend that a second income merely provides the unnecessary fripperies of life; the iPads, the Disney merchandise, the overseas holidays.
For most people, a second income is the difference between owning and renting, or between renting in an outer suburb or one better served by access to amenities. Between running a reliable car and worrying if you can afford to replace bald tyres. Between paying for insurance and crossing your fingers that a health crisis or car accident don’t wipe out years of savings, because you can’t compromise your children’s health even if it goes on credit. And between being a single-income family and a no-income family if the breadwinner loses their job.
The fiction that a second income is disposable is just that. It’s politically convenient for a government that wants women at home rather than expand child care options. It plays right into the narrative of the angel at the hearth, who keeps house and home together out of nothing.
And it obliterates the value of all mothers. It reduces the value of the work that women do to nothing. Those of us out there working for a wage are suddenly mindless consumers, salivating for the latest gadget at the expense of our poor neglected children.
And those of us at home, managing in reduced circumstances, worrying about which bill needs paying first, isolated in an outer suburb without a second car, saying no to music lessons or cancelling a birthday dinner on a tough week, worrying about high school options in an underprivileged area… we’re dismissed too.
Because those aren’t real problems. All kids need is love.