Why don’t you just hire someone to take care of that? Why don’t you find a nanny? You really went back to work that soon after your baby was born?
The answers to these questions vary greatly depending on so many factors. But the factor that impacts a parent’s decision-making process the most, regardless of the issue or concern, is class. And the reason is simple: what you need and want to do as a parent, as with anything else in life, depends on what you can afford and what resources you have access to.
Income and Options
To begin, since a person’s economic status directly impacts the choices they make in nearly every aspect of their life; how much they earn, and how often they must work to earn it, influences their decisions. According to a 2018 MDRC report, 14.5 million children in the United States live in poverty and the majority of those children are Black and Brown children in rural areas. The report also details the ways in which poverty impacts parents psychologically and emotionally. When parents are “unable to provide both basic needs and culturally enriching activities” for their children, their parenting abilities are affected and they often face difficulty coping with stigmas associated with poverty.
In addition, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that poverty causes stressors including, but not limited to, food and housing insecurity which leads to further emotional instability for the entire family. When food and housing insecurity, and other poverty-related stressors, are combined with lack of access to things like medical care, healthy food, mental health resources, and quality education, parents are left to navigate intersecting systems of oppression with inadequate support. Once you factor in race, disability status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other aspects of parents’ identities, things become even more complicated.
Birth Plans and Access
Consider the experiences of soon-to-be parents who are deciding where the birth will take place, figuring out how they’ll navigate the first several months postpartum, and preparing their living space for the arrival of a new family member. In the U.S. sociocultural imagination, the traditional journey from pregnancy to baby’s first birthday is complete with monthly checkups, a gift-filled baby shower, nursery decorating, and planning for leave from work. But the reality of parenthood looks much different depending on the soon-to-be parents’ social class.
Take, for instance, data regarding more than 1,000 pregnant people—most of whom were from low-income communities—in the United States prison system who were included in a Johns Hopkins study between 2016 and 2017. Or the 1.1 million children who faced housing insecurity with their parents in 2017 as reported by Covenant House. Alternatively, consider the 3 million K-12 students in the United States who lack internet at home, causing them to fall behind in their schoolwork. Whether you’re a pregnant person whose birthing choices are limited due to incarceration, a parent forced to search for a shelter in order to give your child a bed to sleep on, or a parent who can’t help their child finish a homework assignment because you don’t have WiFi, your parenting choices are directly impacted by what you have access to. And class influences that.
But even for parents who aren’t impacted by the prison system, housing insecurity, or lack of access to resources like the internet, issues related to access and affordability still impact their parenting choices. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of childcare ranges from $4,000 to $22,600 annually. Further, the median household income is around $61,000. Given the rising costs of living for families and widespread wealth inequality, the cost of the basic aspects of parenting can mean extreme financial strain for countless parents. In turn, choices are impacted related to things like parenting classes, extracurricular activities for children, and purchases that can improve quality of life for family members. And if parents are working multiple jobs just to stay afloat, choices are impacted even further due to lack of time outside of work and lack of energy levels due to parental burnout.
Access to Resources for Parents, A Social Justice Issue
Finally, every choice a parent makes depends on what they can and cannot afford. It’s inappropriate to make assumptions about what a parent can or cannot do given wealth disparities and income inequality. In addition, class impacts proximity to the prison system and overarching carceral apparatus in ways that also limit parenting choices. The wide array of choices parents have to make from pregnancy until—and sometimes after, depending often on financial circumstances—their child leaves home are impacted by class and it’s important to keep that in mind when making judgments about the choices parents make.
Maybe that parent who’s feeding their children food you don’t approve of, turning down playdates, not returning to work, or skipping the mommy-and-me classes you’ve been raving about is struggling financially. Maybe that parent who isn’t taking your advice cannot afford to. The cost of parenting impacts families differently and it’s time that we talk about that honestly and within the framework of reproductive and social justice.