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The case against kids; when parents sacrifice their ideals in the name of their children, both suffer.

The Case Against Kids

My friend Henry's a great guy. He's got a cherub's face and a gift for empathy. He's generous with his time; in college he spent a night a week as a prison counselor. He's generous with his possessions, too, as I know from college days spent tooling around in his car. And though he's smart enough to have succeeded in any number of lucrative professions, he chose the ministry.

These days, my friend Henry is also a father. I know he approached that event with pride and awe and the occasional ministerial musing on the mystery of creation. But when he wrote about it for the "About Men" column of The New York Times, he stressed something else: money.

"I have chosen what amounts to a vow of poverty by choosing the Christian ministry," he worried, "but i don't see how I can expect my family to take a vow of poverty as well. My children will feel limited--perhaps even trapped--by this decision of mine..." Realizing that his children won't have as much as they would if he practiced medicine or sold insurance, he began to "feel pretty slimy about it."

Slimy? About being a minister? This was no character from Wall Street talking, this was Hank. He'd been heading toward the ministry for as long as I'd known him. The fact that he was overcome with worries that his family would "feel its sacrifice and may not enjoy any of its rewards" raises questions for lots of parents: Is it selfish to pursue your chosen work when you have a family to support? Do parenting and principle mix?

Having no children, it's not a question I've had to face yet. My biggest financial worries have to do with things like record players and fishing trips, not hospital bills, day care, or tuition. Childbirth can become an occasion of wild hope, deepened reverence, new tenderness--these are unambiguously fine emotions, and the accompanying financial worries, the urge to protect, flow from the same wellspring. Having kids, for most people, is a fine thing to do.

But even those of us without kids can legitimately wonder whether parents don't sometimes use them as a cop-out, an excuse to retreat from commitment. Henry, happily, vowed in his column to "regain perspective" and has stayed with his work. But not all parents do.

At its most cynical level, the kids' defense can be used to justify a greediness that has a life of its own. The Wall Street Wizard may be applying the bulk of his hefty paycheck to a second Mercedes and a house in the Hamptons, but he can quiet his conscience and critics with these words: "I'm doing it for my kids."

But usually I'm-doing-it-for-my-kids takes a more earnest form. Many parents set aside the work they care about most for more lucrative pursuits with the sincere intention of helping their children. The high school English teacher joins a public relations firm, for his kids. The unhappy corporate manager sticks it out, for his kids. The GS-15 with a fantasy of opening a restaurant resists it, for his kids. Small business ideas get shunted aside, flights of fancy (large and small) deterred, and incomes maximized--"for the kids."

To be sure, children need a certain level of material support. But the people I'm talking about--the people who mostly are my friends--aren't facing questions of subsistence. They have college educations and they typically have spouses who work, Usually, they're puzzling over whether to make $30,000 in pursuit of something they care about less. Say they find themselves with two $25,000 incomes while doing the work they want; they'll still rank among the top fifth of American families. While most of the world is busy simply surviving, these are people fortunate enough to have choices. It's worth wondering whether too often they limit those choices in the name of their children.

The alternative--forgoing the more lucrative option for work that is more enjoyable, interesting, and significant--has several advantages. The first is purely selfish. The father who wants to join the foreign service will find greater satisfaction there than he will as an accountant. Or maybe he likes debits and credits, but wants to be his own boss; if so, he's likely to find greater satisfaction owning his own firm than in the bowels of Arthur Andersen. The challenge is to fill his professional life with work that's useful and enjoyable--to lead his life rather than letting it lead him.

Sure, not everybody has grand dreams about writing novels or starting businesses or helping the poor. Some would rather play basketball, but, being born too short, survey the available options and go to law school instead. Others, like Steven Jobs, can do useful work and still get rich. And some jobs that used to be regarded as low-paying and idealistic, like portions of the civil service and journalism, can now push the two-income family closer to $100,000.

But lots of gratifying and important work (like teaching, social work, nursing, and some forms of government service) offers only modest pay. And lots of people set aside what might be their second or third choice, for a ninth choice just for the money. Selling out has its costs. No one wants to face death-bed notions of what-I-might-have-done. And the country shouldn't be built around life with the high-paid blahs.

Nor should a family. The second advantage of a parent's committed life is the invaluable gift it can offer a child. Work does more than put food on the table; it communicates values. The used car my friend Henry may wind up driving while pursuing his work as a minister can set an example for his daughter. Perhaps the most precious thing a provider can provide is an indiferrence to whether the car is new or the coat says Calvin Klein. And what better time to care about making a difference in the world than the occasion of becoming a parent? What, after all, is parenthood if not some statement of faith in the future that children will inherit?

Not that work compromises aren't involved. They are, but they involve time more than money. What kids need most of all are love and attention, especially when they're young. These commodities are available at all income brackets.

For one instructive view of how responsible parenting gets portrayed, there's "thirtysomething," ABC's wildly successful look at what it means to be young, professional, and parental.

The show's main characters, Michael and Hope Steadman, have a baby. Michael and Hope have a house; Michael and Hope have a new car. Michael and best-friend Elliot (also a parent) have just started an advertising agency. A galaxy of unmarried pals revolves around Michael's and Hope's house, which serves as center stage for Sunday brunch, Scrabble games, and boy-girl gossip. A voguish crowd, these singles. While Michael brings home the bacon writing corny ad copy for diaper commercials, his pals include a free-lance photographer, an urban planner, and a professor of medieval literature with a flair for reciting Arthurian tales. (What, no cellist?) But for all the dash and dare of the singles' office hours, they lack Michael's and Hope's nurturing home life. A quiet, even self-deprecating, message gets voiced: Be like Michael and Hope.

Scurvy little spider

And what does that entail? The first episode begins with Michael at work, screaming about "having a little integrity." Some tempter named Teller is offering him $200,000 to undertake an ad campaign that requires a little no-one'll-ever-know plagiarism. "It's sleazy, Mr. Teller," Michael shouts. Slamming down the phone, he tells Teller the contract "would make me sick to my stomach and throw up."

But as the show progresses, baby worries mount. "What if she grows up ugly?" he muses to his wife. "What if she grows up poor?" Ugly rests with the genes, but poor he can control. With the firm facing bankruptcy, Michael grovels back to Teller, who patronizingly accepts his apology, saying, "I know you kids got principles."

The scene cuts to a vision of Hope rocking their daughter in the inviolable comfort of home, and we all know why Michael did it. "I sold out," he announces, back in his domestic refuge. A heart-to-heart ensues. (Hope: "I don't want you to compromise." Michael: "But your going back to work is a compromise, too.") The ending suggests that it's all for the best, with Hope serving up the bottom line: "We have a wonderful baby who we love so much and who needs us."

They manage to wring their hands over having "sold out"--the phrase is Michael's--enough to assure themselves of their sensitivity but not enough to change their lives. Back at the office, Michael's partner sums it up: "We've got two wives, three kids, four cars, two mortgages, and a payroll. And that's life, pal. You be the breadwinner now."

Life involves compromises, to be sure, but there's a hold-on-there quality to this sellout. Accept for the moment the dilemma on its own terms--a young father has to choose between bankruptcy and principle. (In fact, the financial choices that the Michaels of the world have to make seldom involve options as drastic as bankruptcy.) One can envision an endless succession of arguments to justify Michael's decision. Wouldn't it be indulgent of him not to put his family first? (That was the question facing my friend Henry.)

But what would have happened to the family if Michael turned down the contract? Michael and Hope both have college degrees--Hope's a Phi Beta Kappa--that have landed them well-paying jobs before. Their parents have lent them money and might do so again if needed. They could sell their house or new car, options they consider but quickly dismiss. Like their counterparts in real life, they would have landed on their feet. Little Janie would scarcely have faced a future of soup kitchens and homeless motels. Moreover, she would have been raised with a family legend that celebrated the value of a principled life.

It's hard to think about this scene without being reminded of a different cinematic hero who faced a similar quandry. In Frank Capra's 1946 sentimental classic, It's a Wonderful Life, it's Potter who plays the role of tempter and Jimmy Stewart who's cast as the tempted. Stewart's community savings and loan is imperiled, and Potter, Town Enemy Number One, is anxious to hurry it to its demise. The old misanthrope summons Stewart to his office where he attempts to ply him with a big salary and a vision of the good life. "You wouldn't mind living in the nicest house in town, buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while to Europe," Potter says. "You wouldn't mind that, would you?" Puffing one of Potter's expensive cigars, Stewart savors the delicious vision. Nice house...trip to Europe snazzy clothes for the kids...But as he begins to agree, his conscience rebels. He calls Potter a "scurvy little spider" and stalks off. Unlike Michael Steadman, he doesn't go crawling back. (Ironically, the "thirtysomething" production company, Bedford Falls, is named for the town where Stewart makes his stand.)

Admittedly, it's tough to live up to Frank Capra's standards; most of us are more Steadman than Jimmy Stewart. And the analogy is only partially apt. If anything, Stewart may have been too selfless in his service to his town, at a cost to his other aspirations.

But at another level, the contrast is an instructive one, and it points toward one of the ironic failings of American affluence--the ability of education and wealth to constrict freedom rather than expand it. Stewart, unlike the Steadmans, has no college degree to fall back on, no assurance of even minimal comfort in refusing to sell out. By contrast, Michael and Hope have lots of choices of how to live their lives. They have the ability to just say no to Teller at only modest personal expense. But instead, like a lot of us who share their social class and education, they feel imprisoned by it. Michael can walk away from his "integrity"--again, his word--easier than he can walk away from his house or car. Little Janie's not the real issue; Michael is.

Benetton is spiritual, experts say

How much do kids really cost? A 1984 Urban Institute study spent 100 pages tackling that question--with edifying chapter titles like "Choosing an Isoprop Measure"--and came up with figures that ranged from about $52,000 for a poor black child to $143,000 for a well-off white one, up to age 18. The point is there's no way to measure how much kids cost, only what parents spend. To a large extent (barring isolated incidents, like serious illness), kids cost what parents want them to, especially when they're young.

If a pre-schooler is donning a $145 Armani blazer, he's clearly going to cost more than his playmate whose parents shop at Sears. The explosion of pre-school boutiques in the past few years ought to raise a few questions about what the upper middle class defines as necessities. Pre-schooler pants sell for $36 at the Georgetown Benetton's, but run only $3.99 at the Wisconsin Avenue Sears.

When the Los Angeles Times reported recently on the explosion of childfashion that's making natural fibers hot for tots, it found a "heartwarming, spiritual side. It's parent's desire to share with their kids the same high quality and style they demand for themselves, many experts say." Maybe "many experts" would say that "spiritual side" was what a New York mother had in mind when she bought a pair of $100 glittered sneakers for her four-year-old. "I'm trying to teach the right values," she told Newsweek, "to buy a few quality things." Next time you read one of those "Going Broke on $100,000 a Year" articles, check the labels in Junior's closet.

Assuming a sustenance level somewhere between Dickens and Dominick Dunne, there's only so much a child can eat and wear. Add in a few new bicycles, ballet lessons, a trip to Disneyland, and some weekends at the beach. These are still costs that a $50,000 family income can accomodate.

The two big ticket items that parents have to worry about most are housing and schools. (Medical care is sometimes a third, but families in this income bracket usually have good insurance from their employers.) These are important worries; few parents would enjoy the option of taking a $300-a-month room in an Adams-Morgan group house. Depending on what part of the country they live in, the $50,000 work-I-want-to-do family may have to make some choices and even sacrifices. They won't face poverty, by any means, but they will have fewer options than their MBA classmates. The point is that spending 30 years at work that lacks meaning is a sacrifice, too.

One solution is to avoid New York, San Francisco, Washington, and a few of the country's other highest-priced cities if possible. The $50,000 family won't do too well on Q Street in Georgetown, and it might even have problems buying into some of the nicer suburbs, like Montgomery County, Maryland, where the average home sold for $190,000 this spring. But a $50,000 income can house a family quite well in places like Orlando or Austin or Portland. Three-bedroom homes are still available in good neighborhoods of Jacksonville, Florida, for $80,000.

Of course, this isn't always possible; the work you want to do may put you in a city that's hard to afford. In a handful of cities, New York most of all, being there with a family may rule out some types of attractive but low-paying work. Still, there are options. The family that needs to be in D.C. can find affordable homes in parts of Arlington and Prince George's County. They're likely to have some combination of a longer commute, a smaller house, or a smaller yard, but kids can grow up just as well in Bowie as they can in Bethesda.

The second parental dilemma centers around education. Imagine how much freer middle-class professionals would feel to experiment with their lives and talents without tuition anxiety. The confusion between educational substance and appearance makes tuition a slippery topic. Educational worries can be born of the purest desire for a child to grow and blossom, but they can also be born of the same status anxiety that makes Benetton a growth stock. How many of those station wagons with the Country Day stickers are really advertising a love of physics?

In some cases, private schools may be crucial and the tuition woes unavoidable. There are lots of godawful and even dangerous public schools out there that I wouldn't want my child to face. Yes, a compromise in my life would be worth it to save that kind of crisis in theirs. My mother made precisely such a sacrifice when she increased her part-time secretarial job to full-time, in order to keep me from attending seventh grade in a Jacksonville public school that wasn't even accredited. It was an important decision; private school put me in a position to enter a good university, which put me in a position to find the kind of job I wanted after graduation. Education is clearly the commodity that most distinguishes my life from the lives of my parents, neither of whom attended college. It gives me choices they didn't have.

But for all the problems that have befallen public education, there are still some pretty good public schools out there, and most often they're concentrated in the places the $50,000 family can live--not just in Bethesda but in Bowie too. The public schools I attended through sixth grade in an integrated, working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport, Connecticut put me at no disadvantage when my parents' move to Florida landed me in private school.

Of course not every parent faces the cake-and eat-it-too situation of good schools and free schools. But most $50,000 families can either live in neighborhoods with good schools or afford to send their kids to some type of private school. (My parents did it on considerably less than that, albeit with the advantage of having just one child.) The worst public schools tend to be in big cities where cheap and good parochial schools can be an option. It may not be Groton, but it won't be the ghetto.

(And imagine what improvements might come if more talented professionals did choose public schools and were willing to monitor school boards, fight incompetent teachers, and pay higher taxes for public education.)

Hot College

Then there's college. "Congratulations," says a recent article in Baby Talk magazine. "Your newborn has her mother's looks, her father's high energy, and a personality all her own! Well, have you started planning for her college education yet?" College anxiety hits "thirtysomething's" Michael before Janie has learned to walk. "Oh, it's so green here, so beautiful," he rhapsodizes in a return to his old campus. "I can't deprive her of this."

It is a fine desire to wish for your children the rewards--social, intellectual, and career-wise--of higher education. But Hot College mania has no few things in common with the Benetton boom. Readers of this magazine may remember the story of the woman whose resume listed that she had a son at Brown and a daughter at Princeton. Her resume.

Before Michael Steadman takes too many sleazy contracts to send his daughter to Princeton, there's something he should remember: Princeton and lots of other prestigious schools offer substantial amounts of financial aid. Can everyone attend, regardless of family income? No, and ironically it's often harder for the family with $50,000 to send their child than the one with $20,000. At times, families with two or three tuitions to pay and skimpy aid packages will have to forgo Princeton for Rutgers. And the Princeton aid student may find himself spending 20 hours a week wiping dishes while his classmates read Browning or chug beer. More troubling, he may come out with a heavy loan burden. (This is one reason why a long-term--say, 30-year--government loan program makes sense, to be repaid annually alongside income taxes.) Still, for many students, particularly the best, Hot Colleges can still be an option, regardless of their family's income.

Nor is a Hot College necessarily the best. Name a Hot English department from the early forties, where students could drink in the lectures of Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and Cleanth Brooks. Harvard? No, LSU. Where would a student have to go today to study economics with authorities Frank Levy and Mancur Olson? Answer: the University of Maryland. Want to study history with the leading biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon? Write Stephen Ambrose at the University of New Orleans.

The most loving thing a parent can do is help a child find the right school for his or her interests, regardless of the label. It might mean encouraging the child to spend a few years painting houses or wandering around in order to figure out what his or her interests are, rather than rushing off to a status-charged school (where lots of people are similarly screwing around at $15,000 a year). Most of us go to college too early anyway, often, in part at least, to please our parents. I did.

That's not to argue that the average education at Harvard is no better than the average education at LSU. Four years at a top liberal arts college can be a precious, even life-transforming, experience. My semi-hot college, Duke, offered lots of advantages that weren't offered to my friends at Florida State. In part the advantages came from classes and connections. In part it came from what I could learn from unusually talented and creative friends. Most important of all, perhaps, was the confidence that can come from being at a place that had sent people on to do wildly divergent and exciting things. More than anything, it expanded my appreciation of what was possible.

But confidence and imagination begin most of all at home--with parents. An inquisitive mind will find much to fill it at any number of universities, and an unsearching mind won't, no matter how high the tuition. For evidence of the poverty of imagination that can haunt even the nation's best schools, consider the scene at Yale several years ago, when a third of the graduating class sought jobs at First Boston. It seems like the greatest parental challenge isn't footing the tuition bill as much as it is helping children's minds and spirits define their lives in ways that fill them with meaning and purpose. And what better place for a parent to start than with the example of his or her own life?

Quigley's quirky quest

The world is full of people who have balanced their commitments to their families with work that they value and enjoy. The people I spoke to haven't stuck to lesser-paid work in order to make statements to their families about political commitment or artistic devotion. They have done it simply because they like it. But subsidiary benefits do flow: their work does communicate values to their kids and helps, in their minds, at least, make the world their kids will inherit a better place.

Patrick Welsh began teaching at T.C. Williams High School in Arlington, Virginia while in law school. The classroom was exciting. He enjoyed the work. "And I have the illusion that teaching is important," he said. Welsh's influence has extended beyond the classroom. Five years ago, when editors at The Washington Post went looking for a savvy teacher who could provide the city with a candid look at life inside a big city high school, they wound up with Welsh. His series of Post articles was later expanded into a book.

In the middle of this forsaken career as a lawyer, arrived Welsh's children--now aged five, seven, and 16. Inevitably the thought arose: Would my kids be better off if I dropped my teaching job and dusted off that law degree? "I had those feelings--that it's okay to do this for yourself, but when you have children you wonder if you're screwing them over," he said. "You may not be able to give them things that the guy who works at Bell Labs can give them."

"But I've seen so many fucked-up rich kids it doesn't bother me anymore," he said. "And as a teacher, I can be a better parent, because I know what goes on in schools. I can keep a better eye on my children."

Bill Quigley is a New Orleans lawyer known for his controversial representation of penniless clients. After several young children suffered brain damage from lead-based paint in the city's housing projects, Quigley won a court order requiring the housing authority to clean them up. Representing the homeless, he won a suit that declared unconstitutional city statutes that made sleeping in public a crime. He has spent endless hours representing men on death row. It's all work that he enjoys and believes in--and little of it pays.

To balance his desire to pursue his cause-oriented practice and his need to support his family, Quigley works half-time for free and half for pay. It brings in $30,000 to $35,000 a year. "You have a lot of different feelings when you're a parent," he said. "You see the baby on one table and your wife on the other, and all your protective juices begin to flow. Everybody wants the best for their kids, but it depends what's best. If your definition of what's best includes working for the poor and underdog, you'll want to give your kids that."

Family commitments have made him cut down on the hours he spends working, especially at night and on weekends, but not on the type of work he does. He does it for himself, but at the same time it sends a message. When he drove by the jail one day, his nine-year-old son, Patrick, asked him if he'd ever helped anybody inside.

"I don't think you do your kids any favors by giving up your purpose in life, your dream," he said. "When they become teenagers they're going to ask what's the purpose, what's life all about. What are you going to say to them if you've given up everything that's hopeful and beautiful and idealistic?"

Any number of sad contrasts comes to mind, of friends whose parents had worked hard at essentially unhappy jobs that left them with lots to spend on their children but little to share with them. The father of one college friend had earned plenty as an accounting executive and was anxious to give it to her. New car for graduation? No thanks, she said, opting for climbing ropes instead. She worked two jobs for spending money her parents would have provided gladly, and the one thing she wanted more of was always difficult for her father to produce--time for them to spend hiking together.

Rocky Mountain high

Like most people, my ideas about parents are wrapped up in the joys and anguish of having them. Truth-in-advertising compels me to divulge that my father faced an important choice that made him weigh conflicting responsibilities as a parent. About the time I was turning seven, he was building a career as a salesman of commercial refrigeration. It paid well, more than he'd ever known as a child, particularly after my grandfather, a saloonkeeper, died when my father was 16, leaving him with four younger brothers and sisters to help. But it also required long trips, by car, up and down the east coast, away from his family. When his company urged him to take a promotion to national sales manager, meaning more travel and more time away, he quit.

He bought his uncle's venetian blind company--a one-man shop--and embarked on the financially risky route of entrepreneurship. He also spent a lot more time at home and became a Boy Scout leader. There was a financial cost to this: rather than take the $10,000 step up to the $35,000 position (in 1967 dollars) the refrigeration company offered, he stepped down to about $15,000, and the family income never again hit $25,000 until after I had left home in 1978.

There was no public principle involved (with the modest exception, perhaps, of the Boy Scouts); selling refrigeration is as socially useful as selling venetian blinds. But there were other principles: he felt the gratifications of independence, the challenge of running his own business, and the rewards of more family time--all at the cost of a lowered income. What's most pertinent is this: I never felt cheated by his decision to pursue less lucrative work.

If anything, it was something that brought us closer. By the time I was in high school, I was spending Saturdays and summer vacations making window shades with him. Of course, we didn't grow close because he made window shades; we grew close because he is an affectionate, devoted father--qualities that he could have retained in any number of more lucrative occupations. But I know, too, that many of my friends were awash in a sort of purposeless affluence of new cars and beach homes and club memberships, accompanied, at times, by a kind of look-how-much-I've-given-you parental resentment. It's a feeling, I'm sure, that will ring true for the graduates of many private schools. A running joke in my family was one friend's boast at another's tennis racket: "I've got 14 of those!"

I'm convinced, moreover, that the most important experience of my adolescence occurred not in spite of my family's limited finances but precisely because of them. It began when I was 13 and I answered a Field and Stream classified ad for a fly fishing trip in Montana. My father and I grew captivated by the outfitter's cassette-tape response, a promise of proud mountains, pristine waters, and plentiful trout. But it took a year-and-a-half of shademaking--on weekends and vacations for me, every day for my Dad--to save the money to pull it off. We kept a savings schedule and a map of the West taped to my bedroom door. Two summers later, our ten days of soggy sneakers in Rocky Mountain streams produced about two hundred cutthroat trout and something more enduring: a lesson in our ability to dream big dreams and make them come true.
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Author:DeParle, Jsaon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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