Friday, June 12, 2009

The Wrong Formula for Babies

Many people subscribe to the following life formula:

Get married --> Get a house --> Start a family --> Get a bigger house


Sure, I can understand the get married part, though it's not for everyone. I can even understand the start-a-family part, which is also not for everyone. But why, pray tell, does buying a house ever have to factor into the equation, particularly for those who wish to be married and to start a family? Are people who get married and those who start families without owning homes somehow bereft as parents or as citizens of their nation? Are those who rent their abodes guilty of abusing their children by not giving them their own rooms?

I would like to challenge the notion that "nesting" and "owning" are somehow synonymous or even related terms. I would like to question the thinking that when one starts a family, they need to upgrade their living conditions immediately. I would like to test the definitions of need and want when it comes to raising families.

Note, first of all, that single bachelors and bachelorettes are exempt from home-owning pressures. Nobody insists that George Clooney own a large house, because he's single and unmarried. Likewise, if Jennifer Aniston wanted to rent a beachhouse all of her life, nobody would call that into question, because she has no kids and no husband. However, the moment that a person gets married, or has children, then society seems to feel that it is obligatory for them to "settle down" and buy a home. If they don't, a stigma is attached to them; either they must be "too poor" (cue the pity) or too wasteful (cue the derision and judgment).


Is it not possible to "nest" in a rented apartment? The short answer is yes. Nesting is really just the process of preparing a space to make it livable. In the case of birds, it's about making a soft nest so that the eggs can rest comfortably before and after they hatch. In the case of people, it's about preparing a home so that it is comfortable and safe for when a baby arrives. Whether the home is rented or owned is immaterial; the point is that it is furnished and ready for people to live in. I am pretty sure that babies cannot tell the difference between an owned and a rented home, and frankly, I don't think that most people can tell the difference between whether or not we own or rent. The only people who really feel the difference are us and our landlords, and that's just in the wallet, much to our pleasure and our landlord's loss.

Now, when a couple has a baby, the formula suggests that they have to upgrade their DINK (double-income, no kids) living conditions to more family-friendly homes. In most cases, this means buying bigger, and buying a house (or at the very least, a townhouse).

Um, why?

Sure, I agree that at some point, people with children will probably need to upgrade the size of their home as their progeny get older and taller. However, babies are not usually born 4' tall; there are a good few years between birth and the time when they outgrow even a small apartment. Such a fact should bring much relief to most new parents; they can get used to having another person around for a while before they have to go through with a move, which is a very stressful event (and not one that should accompany the ever-more-stressful event of childbirth).

Unfortunately, so many new parents or soon-to-be-expecting couples fall victim to the idea that the moment they start trying, they must upgrade their living conditions to make it suitable for the baby. I guess that all of those commercials and Sears catalogues featuring designer-looking nurseries have successfully ingrained certain messages in the mind of these folks. Personally, I suspect it's just a conspiratorial ploy between baby furniture manufacturers and real estate agents to drum up business.

There is far greater value in taking one's time to research out the neighbourhoods, the economic conditions, and one's own financial capability before entering into a real estate purchase (or upgrade). I won't go into details about today's market, but suffice it to say that the current economic climate isn't exactly ideal for anyone to sign on for more debt. The baby factor should not be the stimulus for home buying or living larger. Honestly, the baby would probably feel as comfortable in a dresser drawer as in a giant crib.

Which brings me to what our world (at least, so says the media) likes to suggest are an infant's "needs." They need their own nursery, and it needs to be colourful and stuffed full of toys. They need a separate change table that matches their crib, and a large back or front yard in which to ride their much-needed Big Wheels and tricycles or play on their giant plastic Playskool jungle gyms. They need a separate recreation room for playing. They need the space for their Jolly Jumpers, their playpens, and every other space-consuming toy advertised on Saturday morning TV.

Oh, really?

From my vague recollection of child psych 101, children seemed to need very different things from the ones listed above. If memory serves, they needed loving parents, a safe and healthy environment, food in their bellies and roofs over their heads... I don't remember nurseries, furniture, toys, yards, or big houses ever being listed. Hmmm.

When I was a kid, I found tremendous joy playing under a blanket propped up by two chairs. In our "tent," my sisters and I had great "camping" adventures. I also recall a lot of fun being had with large cardboard boxes. The conversations my sisters/roommates and I had for those 11+ years in our shared bedroom were sometimes the highlight of my day. Our rusty old swing set in the backyard didn't even see as much action as those found on the playground at school or in the neighbourhood park. And you know what? I don't even remember what my change table or my crib or my stroller or my car seat looked like. I'm not even sure if my Mom does.

Babies and children have simple needs, and they learn to be content when their primary caregivers model contentment in their lives. If anyone cares about a decked out nursery and swanky matching furniture, it's not going to be the infant, but the parents. Why? To impress the Joneses next door? To succumb to social pressure or avoid stigmas?

The truth is, anytime one invites debt (even in the form of a mortgage) into their lives, they run the risk of it getting out of hand, and controlling their existence. If they lose a job, or get injured, or the interest rate goes up on their loan, or their investment depreciates in value, these all lead to a type of instability that is arguably more detrimental to a child than not having a large yard to play in. When finances get tight, people get stressed and oft come into conflict (it's the #1 reason why couples fight). Sometimes one or both parties have to take on extra work, reducing the amount of time they can spend with their child(ren) and decreasing the quality of the time that is spent with them (energy supplies being depleted and all). Quality of life diminishes as the couple scrimps and saves to try to survive; excesses and "treats" like eating out or seeing a movie at the theatre are among the luxuries first to go.

That doesn't seem like a winning formula to me. I'd rather keep it simple, and remove the social "expectations" of home ownership and consumerism from the family equation. It would be far preferable for us to live in our humble rented 2-bedroom, park a crib in the living room when/if we are blessed with a new life, and look into renting bigger or owning a home only when the economic situation, our personal financial situation, and true need align. Until then, consider us counter-culture radicals who refuse to be victims of a losing formula.

We're not losing sleep over it, and frankly, we don't really care what anyone else thinks. ;)


Anonymous said...

This is why Max and I bought a big house to begin with - no need to upgrade for when we start a family :)

- Jo

~Rain``` said...

Amen sister. As a mother of one, I already feel the "pressure" to get a bigger place with a yard. And honestly, our home is fine for our family, even a larger family, if we are so blessed. After all, the majority of children in our world grow up in less space than our smallest rooms!

Also, I often have to refrain myself from buying excess toys. Your tent idea reminds me of how important it is to foster imagination and ingenuity in the lives of children. Plus, often my daughter's favorite toy of the moment is something insignificant. Right now she is enthralled by a little plastic spoon!

Don't feel pressured to follow the stupid formula. Just do what you and your husband feel is the best when the time comes.

Linda said...

I agree! I dislike the expectations that society can impose on people.

I grew up in an apartment complex in the Oliver area (although it wasn't nearly as developed as it is now) until I was like 10 and I loved it. There were people to play with, my sister and I would bike around the parks that were nearby (which is probably why we continue to be so active now) and I even got to see Wayne Gretzsky get married because St. Joseph Basilica was within walking distance. I think growing up in an extremely urban area can provide the best of both worlds. Plus isn't Stanley Park the best yard a kid could have??

Although there is nothing wrong with getting a house/townhouse, I can understand why you want to stay in the condo.

tejanamama said...

The best thing is that you guys are on the same page about it. We never have been! ULTIMATE urban dweller meets suburbia in our marriage so its always been a point of contention. I don't think we need tons of room but esp as the kids get older I do like having an outdoor space. We don't really have one now but I hope we will eventually. I think if I had the option of living in a REAL urban area like NYC I would do it in a heartbeat though because those kinds of LARGE towns have more to offer than most towns. You dont need a yard or much space. THE ONLY THING is that kids come with SO MUCH crap. You do need space as they grow. Where will the play kitchen go??? ;) The less room you have the less you get though which can be good. I can see the benefits of both sides of things. Having girls I think is better though cuz they dont tear things up nearly as much!!! LOVE having GIRLS! ;)

Mrs. Loquacious said...

@Jo - Yes, you got in the market just in the nick of time, although I know it's still expensive to get your place in the shape that you want it to be in. Wood is expensive ;)

@Rain - My sentiments exactly. As you know, I'm not good at following formulas ;) This is why I'm not the math teacher :P

@Linda - I didn't know you grew up near the downtown area! But I am with you in that we sort of have the best of both worlds right now. Hopefully it stays that way ;)

@Tejanamama - Daughters need more closet space, but less running-around space ;) We're both uber-urban and I think Hubbs would die in a suburban life, so for his sake we'll stay in the big busy center hub of activity. There's tons to do - you're so right about that. I don't understand how folks like it all boring and stable in a little town. Mind you, your man grew up in the big city so maybe it has to do with opposites? I grew up small town so little wonder I prefer the opposite...maybe it's like that w/him?!