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The cost of being a millennial and a mother

Young women who want children face too many financial barriers

May 11, 2014 1:00AM ET

There are endless articles written about the plight of millennials — from last year’s Daily Beast article about us abandoning the American Dream to Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent piece on our frugal shopping habits — but most of them gloss over a very important issue: Many young women wish to have children but feel financially unable to do so. The birthrate is plummeting, but not a lot of media outlets show concern for the conceivable root of this trend. Nor is there much concern for the young men and women who are caught in this reproductive quandary. Though the decision to have children is certainly a matter of choice, it’s seldom discussed in the public debates over reproductive rights.

Many women of my generation are grateful to have the choice to avoid pregnancy with birth control, or terminate one if we think it’s necessary. I'm grateful that I have never had to carry out a pregnancy I didn’t want. Because of this, I’ve been able to — in most ways — live on my own terms and chase dreams that my Mexican immigrant parents have never had the opportunity to pursue.

Like many young women in their early 20s, I figured I’d get excellent grades, attend grad school, establish my career, then get married and have children. As I push 30, the reality is that I’m an independent writer often scrambling to make ends meet, fretting about when I’ll be able to have children. And I’m not alone.

Emma Halling, 22, a third-year student at the University of Kansas, says she and her peers worry about the prospect of having children in such a tough job market. Halling says she assumed she’d get married between the ages of 22 and 24 and have children by 25, but she completely changed her expectations because of the financial realities her generation faces. “Child care is more expensive than college sometimes. It’s absolutely terrifying.” Halling says that seeing her boyfriend send résumé after résumé without any response is intimidating. Because of this, she says she will be postponing having children until she's at least 28 or 29.

Halling feels she is worse off than her parents were at this point of their lives. According to a 2013 study by the Urban Institute’s Opportunity and Ownership Project, people under 30 are today worth only half as much as their parents were at the same age. Unemployment for people ages 16 to 24 hovers at around 16 percent, which is twice the national rate (PDF).

The Pew Research Center has also found that nearly 3 in 10 parents of adult children report that a child of theirs has moved back in with them in the past few years because of the economy. On top of that, millennial student loan debt is staggering. Two-thirds of recent bachelor’s degree recipients have outstanding student loans, with an average debt of about $27,000. Two decades ago, only half of recent graduates had college debt, and the average was $15,000.

But even many of those who are better off than their parents are afraid to procreate due to bleak career prospects. I hear it again and again from other children of immigrants: “I don’t want to have to live like my parents did.” When I express my fears about having children, people often tell me that we can just “make it work,” but the truth is, I don’t want to just make it work. Like a lot of women I know, I want a substantial income before I take that plunge. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

“In theory, I should be able to afford having children,” says Patricia Valoy, 27. She graduated from Columbia University with no debt, and has a fairly high income as an engineer in New York City. But Valoy, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was a child, has what she calls a “Latina millennial problem”: She has to help support her family. Her mother makes minimum wage working for a school bus company and often needs financial help, and her two younger sisters, who are in college, often rely on Patricia to pay for fees, books and even food. She is a cosigner for her sisters’ student loans.

Most of us millennials are working hard and trying to plan our lives in conditions we never would have imagined when we were younger.

On paper it looks as though she has a high income, but Valoy says she is unable to save because of so many financial emergencies. She imagined that at this point in her life she’d be in better financial shape to have children. But she’s had to adjust her expectations.

For instance, in New York City, where she lives, the price of day care can be exorbitant — up to $10,400 (PDF) annually for only one infant. It’s not a problem limited to New York. Child care across the country is incredibly high. According to a 2012 report (PDF) from Child Care Aware of America, center-based child care fees for two children exceed annual median rent payments in all 50 states.

“I saw my parents struggle, and I don’t really want to have to do that,” says Valoy. “We’re better off than our parents, but we’re not ready for different reasons.” Because of this concern, Valoy has postponed both getting married and having children.

Vanessa Hernandez, 28, has a 6-year-old son and would like to expand her family, but can’t afford to because her financial situation is so precarious. She works both in security and in the National Guard, and her income fluctuates frequently. She wants to work full time for the government, but is unable to because of hiring freezes. She doesn’t feel she can have another child until she finds some stability in her career.

Hernandez has been trying to put money aside every month to prepare for another child, but she says it’s hard to be consistent because of unexpected expenses. Like Valoy, Hernandez grew up poor and is afraid to be in that kind of position again. “I had to grow up fast and have been really conscious of my finances,” she says. “I need to know that financially I’m going to be OK.”

In order for more women to be in the position to afford children, Washington has to listen to what advocates have been saying for years: raise the minimum wage and address the wage gap. That wage gap, says Monica Simpson, executive director of Sister Song, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, is particularly wide for women of color. While women overall are paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the National Women’s Law Center, African-American women make only 62 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. “Women need to make the same amount as men. We need fair wages all across the board,” Simpson says.

Just as important is addressing the crippling student loan debt many young people face and expanding the conversation about family planning to include budgeting and financial education. Simpson points out that holding onto thousands of dollars in debt will inevitably affect the ways young people make decisions about their reproductive health.

Millennials are a resilient group with ready access to a plethora of information, but Simpson is worried for their financial future and the dramatic drop in birthrates as a result of the weak economy. From 2007 to 2010, the overall U.S. birthrate declined 8 percent.

Under the Affordable Care Act, young women can more easily control their reproduction, and if they choose to have children, they probably won’t be bankrupted by hospital fees.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make having children much more affordable in the long run. Because of this and a slew of other barriers, we need to start incorporating this issue into more reproductive rights conversations. Though women have the choice to have children or not, some don’t have much of a say when it comes to the conditions within which they will live.

Many millennial “think pieces” paint us as entitled, whiny and self-centered — from Time’s frequently criticized “ME ME ME Generation” to Forbes’ articles about our terrible work ethic — but they tend to overlook the stark realities young people are forced to grapple with. Most of us are working hard and trying to plan our lives in conditions we never would have imagined when we were younger. We have had to reframe motherhood, readjust our hopes and dreams. Most of us are simply trying to make the best choices possible for ourselves — and, for those of us who want them, our future families. We want the income to afford child care, feed our children nutritious food and live a dignified life. Call me entitled, but I think we deserve that.

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and other publications. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a "Discovery"/Boston Review poetry prize. Find her at www.erikalsanchez.com or on Twitter at @ErikaLSanchez.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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