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Parenting Shouldn’t Be About Self-Sacrifice, Whatever Your Income

Mark Davis/Getty

Since becoming a mother five years ago, I’ve been careful about how I discuss parenting with my childless friends. I try to avoid clichés. I try not to describe it as a more noble and sacred act that I’m experiencing it to be. I tell them it’s fun; it can be like reliving my own childhood, playing a new role in each familiar scene. It makes me cry—and laugh—far more than I am used to. It’s terrifying and interminable. And yes, I can imagine my life without parenting. And yes, I probably would trade it for the world, if presented the opportunity on a particularly frustrating day. But there’s one concept I’m especially hesitant to associate with my parenting experience: sacrifice. Though it’s long been a societal buzzword when discussing what constitutes good parenting, to me, sacrifice has always connoted regret, solemnity, and even martyrdom. However reluctant or difficult, the choices I make in order to prioritize my daughter are a kind of pragmatic barter.

Last weekend, I stumbled upon a new Buzzfeed video called, "Children From Black Families Reveal Sacrifices Their Parents Made.” In it, six black millennials recount the difficult decisions their parents made in order to prioritize their kids. Some of the parents’ choices sound reasonable and healthy—like the dad who never misses his child’s performances or the mom who picks up the phone for her daughter, even if it wakes her from a much-deserved nap. Others are more troubling. “Thank you for giving up your skating and dancing dreams,” one young woman says, addressing her mom. “Thank you for giving up finding love, for me,” another says, after recalling her mother’s decision not to date following divorce.

Their gratitude is both moving and relatable. As the child of a former single mom, I found myself nodding as one teary participant described childhood with a mother who didn’t want to be disturbed after long hours at work. “I remember you going to sleep and you would ask us not to bother you, and I didn’t understand why you didn’t want any of my attention or none of that stuff, but I’m 30 years old now. And I understand.” It saddened me that he considers his attention and affection to be things his mother gave up for him. Children have a way of internalizing and personalizing their parents’ decisions; words like sacrifice can reinforce the idea that kids are culpable in their parents’ hardships—that if it weren’t for them, their mothers and fathers would be able to rest regularly or work less hard or pursue their pre-parenting dreams. More than anything, a child’s belief that their presence in this world is the cause of a parent’s suffering is the most regrettable outcome of all.

The idea of high-stakes trade-offs—overtime at work instead of quality time at home, sleep traded for attentiveness, retirement as opposed to a job that afforded the children free tuition—are familiar to parents, especially working- and middle-class ones. But not all trades are created equal; they vary according to income, education, area of residence, and number of children, among other factors. According to a 2013 U.S. Census report on income and poverty, “median income for African American households ($34,600) is significantly lower than their non-Hispanic White counterparts ($58,300).” For families who fall within that bracket, attempts to provide basic needs will result in fewer hours of undivided parenting attention.

Similarly, a one-income household with one parent present will mean fewer hours of engagement with kids than a household where two parents are present. According to 2014 Pew Research Center analysis, black stay-at-home moms spend 16 hours per week on childcare, while black single working mothers spend nine hours per week on childcare activities. Boosting those numbers means letting other responsibilities or personal needs—paying bills, affording groceries, or getting adequate rest—languish.

Regardless of race, class, or household structure, parents make difficult choices in their children’s best interests. The problem is presenting all of these decisions as “sacrifices.” Focusing on that word may seem like a quibble, given how appreciative these interviewees were for everything their parents had done for them. Maybe it is. But I don’t want my daughter to grow up feeling as though the decisions I make to provide for her were the result of giving up on my own dreams, happiness, or health. That’s a burden she doesn’t need to carry in the future—and it’s one I’m not interested in carrying now. I’d rather she learn that her needs won’t always be met before mine; sometimes, they’ll be met in tandem with mine. The quality of her life and my parenting will improve as I pursue personal fulfillment. 

“Parenting as sacrifice” isn’t a new concept, and usually when people discuss it, they do so with a certain amount of reverence and admiration—just like the young people in Buzzfeed’s video. But it can be damaging to frame the work of parenting as self-sacrifice, rather than what it is: conscious decision-making and conscious compromise. We decide to have children, whether or not we’re aware of the financial, emotional, and physical tolls it will take on our personal enrichment—and we decide how much to let parenting reroute, derail, or otherwise impact our pursuits. Those choices are ours to own. 

So much of our experience of parenting has to do with how we think and talk about it. There’s no way to put a neat bow on what it means to raise a child in a household where earning and education may be lower than the national average, where hunger is prevalent or electricity isn’t as consistent as it should be. But there are ways to positively frame the daily decisions we make to forgo or postpone pursuits that may have been easier to undertake without children. Life is different for me now that I’m a parent; sometimes it feels more limited. But that feels like an extension of my decision to raise a child, not a sacrifice. When my daughter is an adult, I hope she’ll understand the choices I’m making, both the ones that center her and the ones that don’t.