Kids As Status Symbols

“Having a child is constraining. There’s a lot of things you used to do that you can’t do anymore. But it’s also extremely expanding.”

“How is it expanding?”

“Because you suddenly relate to everyone else on earth who has a child. No matter what race, class, or creed.”

— Humans of New York

Recently, when at the kids’ section of the library with my three-year-old son, I started a conversation with the woman next to me. Motherhood is an instant ice-breaker, and I asked the usual questions to the woman staring with adoration at her curly-haired 18-month-old girl. Usually, the third or fourth question into a conversation with a fellow mom is something like “is he/she your first?” Expecting her to say “yes,” or perhaps, “no, my second,” she surprised me by saying, “no, she’s my fifth.” I was a bit more than surprised, if not shocked at first. My response wasn’t due just to the number of kids, but that this woman didn’t seem like a mother of five.

Then I realized I had typed this woman. A mom of one or two, perhaps. But five didn’t seem to “fit” her persona upon first impression. She seemed relatively young, well-groomed, well-dressed, and physically fit. She seemed like she had better things to do than take care of five kids.

I have had conversations with my friends who are moms about the number of kids we want. I hear various numbers, but one thing we’ve discussed is how it seems like the number three (as in three kids) is the new “big family.” If you have three kids it’s like “oh wow, you really want to do the whole ‘big family’ thing.” Four kids? As a friend of mine put it you’re “straight-up Amish.” Which is an interesting assessment because the Amish are some of the happiest people in the country.

[The girl seated front left is the author’s grandmother. She is one of nine children.]

Whether intentional or not, the cultural assumptions based on the number of kids in a family are not unfounded. Kids are both emotionally exhausting and rewarding, so the number of children a parent has is a reflection of how much time and emotional energy they are willing to invest – or, at the very least, how much money. As child labor laws were passed in the US, the main battle was the protection of childhood. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer coined the terms “economically useless” and “emotionally priceless.” So in modern culture, having children reflects motives to fulfill happiness rather than economic stability.

But cultural assumptions seem to reflect that there clearly is a price. Three or four children may be acceptable if you are willing to stretch your funds or have a high income. But there seems to be an invisible line that can be crossed in which a parent is seen as just a “kid-lover,” versus a financially irresponsible, overly sentimental adult who is trying to fill a void with babies. Kids are expensive, with the average cost to raise a kid from birth to age 18 at $241,080. And the return on investment may mean stuff like macaroni necklaces when they are in preschool, and mouthy comments when they are teenagers. I joke, but really there is merit to this reaction, as well. Women like Nadya Suleman, “the Octomom,” bring up the ethics of weighing personal fulfillment of parenting versus your sustainable income.

So the ROI of kids has changed. Having a lot of kids one hundred years ago was practical for helping tend the farm and taking care of parents in their old age. It’s an outdated notion in developed countries, but a rather practical and long-standing tradition that kids take care of their parents in old age. A friend of mine grew up in Eastern Europe under communist Russia as a kid. She said her parents would always joke that their kids were their “social security.” So the more the merrier! Now children actually hinder economic freedom, not add to it.

The number of kids also speaks to an individual’s beliefs on reproduction and gender roles. I met a woman who said she is one of ten kids and, though she is religious, her parents had kids for personal reasons rather than religious. She said that she was constantly asked if her family was Catholic or Mormon. Annoying and repetitive as these assumptions may be, they are somewhat warranted. With the Catholic church standing by beliefs that birth control is immoral and Mormons traditionally having large families, these beliefs inevitably change what a family looks like. As far as gender roles, birth control and changing ideas about a woman’s role has opened doors to opportunities that women didn’t have in the past. The cultural assumption is that kids can get in the way of those opportunities, so a large number of them creates a perception of not valuing opportunities for women outside of motherhood.

As economic, personal, religious beliefs and ideas of happiness continue to unfold in modern society, it’s interesting how a particular number can reveal a family’s values. Children still symbolize the tension between economic and emotional factors. While the balance between the two is determined by the individual, the perception by society is still a reality in symbolizing status.