by Dr. Boyce Watkins
When I see young single parents, I sometimes wish that they knew how much easier things would be if their kids had both parents working with them every single day. Obviously, most people don’t expect to become single parents, things just happen.
But I can’t believe that life is just a series of missteps, one after the other, where our fate happens by accident. I can think of a very attractive friend who could have had a lot of boyfriends (and lots of sex if she’d wanted it), but she carefully planned to get into a long-term commitment with a good man who was going to be a consistent provider for her children. She now has four beautiful children in a stable, two parent, upper-class household.
So, thinking about how my friend prepared her relationships over time, I realize that issues like this give a new meaning to the term “Planned Parenthood.” A good and happy life doesn’t usually happen with luck or without planning. It seems to come from careful thought and preparation, as well as a little bit of impulse control. This is not to say that accidents don’t occur (I had a baby when I was 18 myself, and it cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars), or that the desire to mate with another human being is not one of the strongest forces in the universe. These things are true.
But believing that you’re simply meant to stumble through life with one unfortunate, uncontrollably stressful situation after another is a defeatist way of thinking. At the core of the idea of empowerment lies the fundamental understanding that YOU play a critical role in your destiny and outcomes. By simply thinking that you can pray away the impact of bad decisions or that you’ve just had a 20 year string of bad luck, you’re submitting yourself to losing the financial, spiritual and psychological battles in front of you.
Kids are expensive. Really expensive. Hundreds of years ago, parents would put their kids to work on the farm, thus making large families an asset that added value to the bottom line. Now, most kids don’t work; instead, they play Xbox and ask you for money. Therefore, children might be best defined as what we economists call a “luxury item,” or something that you produce if you can afford to do so.
So, when you are spitting out kids at 100 miles an hour, with baby daddies/baby mamas all over the place, you are basically engaging in the procreational version of “making it rain” without worrying about where your resources are going. So, the man who spreads his seed like he’s delivering newspapers will find that a) child support courts aren’t going to care if you can’t find a job to pay all that money, b) his rewards for working hard for his kids are few and far between, since his kids won’t even get to live with him (much of society will typically define him to be a deadbeat, even if he’s paying his support and spending time with his kids), and c) if he decides to clean up his act and start a new family, his previous life is always going to be a financial drain.
After getting my girlfriend pregnant at the age of 18, I never made that same mistake again. I did adopt other children later on down the road, but I thought carefully about the financial expectations before making these commitments. I won’t say that things always worked out perfectly (even my adopted kids were expensive), but I avoided situations similar to the one I created when I was a freshman in college. In the first case, I was paying thousands of dollars with no control over where that money was going and given little credit for my contribution. In the second case, I was able to define where my money was being spent and my children knew that their father cared enough to work hard as a provider.
The point is that parenting should be done under your terms, not just be the result of whatever happens after you decide to sleep with another person.
Single mothers are in a similar predicament to single dads. Having children without the help of a second parent becomes a full-time job that consumes your entire life. You can’t work as much as you want, you can’t buy very many things for yourself, and you certainly can’t have as much personal time. If you compound this with several kids with several different fathers, you’re creating what is almost always going to be a financial and emotional mess.
Let’s not end this with me telling anyone what to do. I prefer to say that I’ve laid out some facts to consider. The truth is that how we plan our families plays a CRUCIAL role in whether we have a chance to have a solid financial future. By choosing the right partner or having a child at the right age, we can provide the financial security that that we’d like, while still having a chance to obtain the economic outcomes that make us happy in the end.
Your family is a huge investment. Don’t be sloppy.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Financial Lovemaking 101: Merging Assets with Your Partner in Ways that Feel Good.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.