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The whole "I can't afford a baby" debate in this episode reminded me of an article published in Elle published 10+ years ago (I think it ran in a hard copy of the magazine around 2008-09). https://bit.ly/3YL4Oei

It's a personal essay about a woman who wanted a second child and when her second pregnancy revealed she was having twins. She and her husband chose to have a selective reduction. I remember the story not sitting well with me — and this isn't necessarily a general indictment on abortion — but she wrote about how the driving factor was financial:

"My husband was convinced that twins would radically change our lives for the worse. We'd have to leave our beloved neighborhood for a place with cheaper rents and better public schools—there was no way we could afford private education for three kids. We'd kiss goodbye any hope of career advancement, at least for the foreseeable future. To his list, I added the loss of my income, necessary to meet our expenses. I couldn't see how I'd be able to resume working after the birth since we could never afford full-time help, and—no matter how well they napped—two infants wouldn't leave much time for anything else."

It just seemed so cruel to me to say, "We can't afford kids because we can't afford private schools, etc., etc." (Especially when I know families with even more children, fewer resources, and have *still* had kids that went to Ivy League schools — it all just felt so pretentious to me.)

I think to some extent, when people say they "can't afford children" it's because of misplaced priorities. I think the solution includes two things:

1) For some of these people to just admit they don't want kids. If you like something more than the prospect of having a family, it's okay. But don't put the burden of "not being able to afford" something on a kid who had no choice in whether they joined your family.

2) For society to reprioritize how we value its members. Personally, I think it's okay if there's a wage gap (so long as it's caused by a motherhood penalty.) We just need to stop seeing people's value as being determined by how much money we give them for their job. Raising children is valuable work. So is managing a law firm.

"Women's work" is valuable work, even though we don't value it as much as we could (and we certainly don't value it with money.) We also don't value and respect children the way we should. We'll throw everything at them to placate them, but we don't actually see them as valuable investments in the future.

I think it just comes down to a cultural shift in how we view the world.

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author

Oh my god. I am just drafting a piece on substack about this, and the piece you linked was so good. Thank you!

And I think you are right. Not too long ago, it didn't really matter whether one wanted kids, you had them if you were capable and wanted to have sex. Now, it's a matter of juggling endless sleepless nights and missed opportunities with the (totally normal) desire to live an enriched and free life.

Poor people actually have less of a terrible decision to make on that score--they don't have money to go on a safari (or even, to visit NYC) in the first place. The opportunity costs of children *increase* as one becomes better off.

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Oh my goodness! I’m so happy I helped!

And yes, so much of it is subjective relative to our lives now.

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Feb 12, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

Class anxiety is such a motivator for the PMC cohort. If you tell someone they can have a beautiful baby boy, but they'll have to eat Kraft mac and cheese for dinner for the next five years, they'll say "I shop at Whole Foods, bitch". Let alone if you tell them they have to move to the Midwest to afford housing.

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That seems to be the case. And maybe I'm alone in this, but it just feels so short-sighted to me. Kraft Mac n' Cheese is kinda gross, but Whole Foods doesn't exactly love you the way a family — or at the very least, for those of us who don't have a family, a community — does.

Again, I feel like if you're the person who's just not about having your own kids and comfortable in that decision, that's one thing entirely. There's no need to justify yourself. But the whole idea of I-have-to-justify-this-by-saying-I'll-be-too-poor-to-shop-at-Whole-Foods is just a bit ridiculous.

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Feb 12, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

I think what they're talking about with 80% of childless women being those who could have and would have had children but didn't is illustrative of the shallowness of people's decision-making. Disgust is a powerful motivator, and I don't know about you, but when I hear Sarah talk about growing up poor, I just get an instinctive revulsion at the idea of ever willingly accepting a lower standard of living. (And, feeling dutifully terrible about ragging on Sarah all the time, I am compelled to issue a reminder that I did voluntarily pay money to listen to her bachelor's-level commentary).

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You are not feeling terrible enough!

~Sarah Haider, B.A.

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Ah, well I too am a self-hating Milennial activist. And I have walked he halls of Congress to tell my story to various congresspeople (and more often their young female staffers). I have fought for truth in a post-truth world and watched my words twisted and my actions betrayed. I have counseled young people in crisis. But I didn’t run an organization; I was on the advisory board. I ran the listserve. And then I quit. And we were worried about suicide with our kids, but not homicide. So I am in a unique position to appreciate to some degree what it must take to be a professional ex-Muslim activist, while also saying that I have not myself displayed such a show of courage, competence, or integrity as a Sarah Haider.

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Feb 10, 2023·edited Feb 10, 2023Author

We are fixing the technical issue. Stand by!

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Meghan Daum

Junior Mints truly are the best candy. Also, people really miss out if they don’t stay for the bonus content.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Meghan Daum

I second both of these opinions.

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It appears that our technical issues have been resolved. Let us know if you're still having problems. Thanks for your patience!

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I'm still having the problem that Thia described below, though I use a different podcast app than Apple. It's a recent problem for me. This current episode does show up for me. But all the previous bonus content episodes have disappeared.

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Ugh, sorry about this. We have notified our production team. Thanks for your patience.

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Thank you! Everything is working well now.

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Hi Lana! Mine is finally fixed now - I can see both the regular and bonus episodes in my podcast feed - I think it’s finally fixed on their end in Hell. All I had to do is unsubscribe, close the app, and resubscribe using the link in the “thank you for subscribing” email I got when I coughed up my cash ;)

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Thanks, Thia! That did the trick. Mine is fixed too now.

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You’re welcome!

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Feb 13, 2023·edited Feb 13, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

I agree with Sarah, I think that people have higher standards for living and that is impacting whether they think they can afford children. I have friends where only the husband works, he is a medical researcher on a grant. They live in Philadelphia, their kids go to public school, they rent a modest 3 bedroom house in the city. They go on road trips to Maine a few times a year. They have cell phones but are a bit hippie-ish and probably don't have cable or other luxuries. The mother stays home with the 3 kids. Their kids do not want for anything. But I think most educated urban parents want more luxuries than that. I would guess he makes around $50k-$60k. Shouldn't that be a nice life?

Edit: Actually they are both European so they don't have college loans. I imagine if they had $500/mo of student debt that would change things. In fact, I feel like student loans are a huge part of people feeling poor. And I agree with Sarah- I want my 2 kids to be entrepreneurs and not go to college, unless they want to do something technical like engineering, in which case they should go to whatever bumfuck university gives them a scholarship. My sister was very smart so she got a full ride to Marshall University in West Virginia.. they're so desperate for talent you can get a full ride if you have a decent GPA and some extracurriculars// at least in the early 2000s that's how it was.)

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I have a family member who did just that--very smart but went to local school for compsci, dropped out to start a company, now has millions in seed funding and is just barely old enough to drink....

Mind you, not everyone can accomplish something on that scale, but there are many paths to success if one is open-minded enough.

But too many are too status-oriented to even see the possibilities and would rather go to Columbia for a masters at the teachers college because that is what Prestige demands (as another relation did...)

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I don't know if you're familiar with Persuasion by Jane Austen, but whenever I'm facing a financial setback, I think of Lady Russell, an older friend of Anne, the heroine: "You must retrench!" (Or maybe it was a different character in the book).

Retrenching the budget, selling the house, relocating to Nebraska or the suburbs, all these things pop into my mind when I'm unsure about the future. Americans can afford kids, more or less. But you must retrench.

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Oh, and I'm reading The Quality of Life Report, Meghan, and I LOVE it! My mom regularly complains about the wind in eastern South Dakota. It catches at the loose siding and makes strange moaning/mooing sounds. Prairie madness indeed.

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I think about the "cost of children" all of the time. How could bigger families in the past afford it? Well real estate prices have gone up of course, but mostly not everyone had their own bedroom either. And they spent a lot less time "doting" on their kids and instead time supplemented the family with small farming, canning, etc. Those are examples but I think that is a much bigger part of it. I just think there are a lot of examples like that which are not as acknowledged.

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I'm not sure if Meghan/Sarah mentioned the burdens of student loans, I may have missed it. But your reference to the impact of loans is an understatement. It's hard to do the standard adult life arc when you start out 5 figures in the hole.

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5 figures? I mean, maybe if you're on scholarship at a state school you can get a bachelor's for under 100 K.

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At the heat of student loan debate a few months ago, I read somewhere that the average Bachelor's student loan debt is about 30K. (The overall numbers get pushed up exponentially by professional schools (medicine, dentistry, business, law).

If that 30K loan number is correct and your 100k overall cost is also correct, students must be getting Pell grants and tuition scholarships.

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Averages are funny things. I see the same figure you do (https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-student-loan-debt), but I assume that this average includes many people who have only an associate's or who do not graduate with any degree (a concern in and of itself). But I would agree there must also be some working your way through college element, plus family money, etc. etc.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

I’m totally with Meghan regarding home ownership as a woman. I graduated from nursing school in 2001 and bought a house 9 months later at the age of 23. I think it was related to wanting my own space and also not waiting for a man before starting my life. Thinking back to that time, I had many male friends, none of whom owned houses, and many female friends who did. When I met my now husband in 2009, we moved in together pretty quickly but I wanted my house not his, which is not what happened for various reasons. I remember selling my house and it was a little emotionally hard for me to give up my independence and this world I built for myself, and harder as Sarah says because I was already established in my life. I was 30 and had never been married when we met; my husband was 40 and divorced. I’m happily married and glad things worked out the way they did, but I’m also happy I lived on my own for nearly 8 years and I know that I can do it and can take care of many projects around the house. I have a lot of female friends who’ve never lived alone and that’s so bizarre to me.

Regarding the population decline, my husband and I are also child free by choice, though I do think if I’d gotten married younger I probably would have had kids. I am thankful every day that I don’t have them though. It does seem unethical to me to bring more children into the world when there are so many children in foster care and in unstable homes who need loving parents. I don’t understand why so many people who struggle with fertility are so resistant to adoption. I do acknowledge that the process needs to get easier, but everyone wants their ‘own’ kids and that’s sad to me, especially given what I see daily as a pediatric nurse.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

My take on home ownership is that I've lived in a lot of places recently (in the past four years, four states plus Australia, with another move coming), so settling down didn't make sense to me. And this is common; one reason men earn more money than women (besides the motherhood penalty-which isn't really a penalty; it's not like private businesses have some obligation to pay you to produce children) is that we are, on average, more willing to move around and make other massive life changes for a job. I've rented, done extended Airbnb stays, and crashed to make it as a doctor. Home ownership does not fit my lifestyle.

I also think it reflects a difference in values. For me, the norm is that value comes from experiencing more things in life. Telework has turbocharged this trend. I'm writing from my flash long weekend trip, something I could never do if I had kids, a pet, or any real commitments. I've been around large swaths of the country, and besides listening to podcasts, seeing a variety of places in person (not on the news) gives me insight into what's happening that I would otherwise lack. Settling down in one spot seems anti-intellectual to me. But this does carry with it a lack of investment in one's community (which I think generally characterizes the professional class) and lends a sense of cheapness to some aspects of life.

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Feb 11, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

Another difference in values is that buying property as an investment implies that you believe that both you and that property are still going to exist in a decade. As the saying goes, you can't take it with you. If we all die in a pandemic or a nuclear war or a slight warming of the globe, you'll wish you'd spent more on your exotic world-spanning vacations and less on some lame suburban house. If there's another housing crisis, or our economy breaks even worse than it did in 2008 (I agree with Sarah that the influence of that period is probably still underrated), people who bet on the future will look foolish.

The trend away from home ownership may on some level reflect the general grim and pessimistic sentiments of the American elite and a desire to live fast and die hard.

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A 30-year mortgage is rent control for the middle class, though it doesn’t account for taxes. And how ownership offers freedom from the whims of a landlord (though HOAs can also be erratic and tyrannical). It makes sense if you end up in one place. For location, I like living near my family. I was homesick when I was away in grad school for most of my 20s. I will probably move when my kids are older and my parents have passed away, but I would still want to be near my grandkids if I am fortunate enough to have any. I think all of this might be hardwired. If people don’t have the urge to have children (and it was a strong seemingly-biological impulse that struck me at age 28) then maybe they shouldn’t, why force it? It is just sad when the impulse strikes at 38 and it is too late without expensive medical intervention, which may not work, or expensive surrogacy, which insurance doesn’t pay for, and the person may not have a partner at that time. They will be fine and happy anyway because that is how the brain works, but it is a loss that some people grieve.

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I guess I'm kind of skeptical that there are a ton of women specifically (the Meghan Daums of the world being exceptions of course) who aren't interested in having children. At least in my professional cohort, it seems like something that women are suppressing and/or are misinformed about.

And on the male end of the spectrum, I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment that children are purely downstream of finding a specific woman to have them with, and I just don't meet a lot of women with wife potential. What I see are various behavior patterns-hypercompetitive careerists, out of shape victim card players, the "instagram ho"-that seem to arise out of intrasexual competition among women who are completely oblivious to what men actually want in a partner, and then seem lost as they get into their 30's.

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Oh no, that sounds terrible! Sarah should be a Penelope-Trunk-style advice column for women in their 30s. She would be good at it.

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Ideally the broader society would be feeding them fewer lies to begin with. If you really believe the things the educational system in the U.S. teaches, you're likely to be marginally useful to large corporations as a worker bee, but not ready to do anything else.

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The idea that happiness is directly correlated with autonomy and independence is a big myth. It is hard for some to believe that with kids you can have less sleep, free time and money and yet still be happier than ever. Not that it is easy. But easier doesn’t necessarily mean better.

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*have

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I think one can also have a desire to have ‘roots’ and a permanent place to land, and also see the world. My husband and I have traveled extensively, and continue to do so, but appreciate having a stable place to come back to. We’ve lived on the road in an Airstream for a while, lived in different states, owned homes and lived in an apartment, all while continuing to adventure and see the world and other cultures. We live where we do now because we want to be available to help my parents. We cared for my mother in law until she passed away just over a year ago, and now we help my parents navigate our complex health care system and spend as much time with them as we can. I think it’s possible to balance travel, family and having a home base and it works well for us.

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founding

It's actually almost impossible to adopt in the US anymore (see link). It's competitive. If you want to get a child through foster care, it's emotionally grueling and you might have to give the child back to their birth parents. I can see why surrogacy is growing. IMO surrogacy should be legal only for people without living children already. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/10/adopt-baby-cost-process-hard/620258/

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This was my friend’s experience with foster-to-adopt. And, she can’t have children. It has been heartbreaking for her because she really wants a baby and is now 40 and really grieving the loss of that.

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The Jussie Smollett news story sounded wrong to me as well. If I remember correctly, it had a lot to do with these MAGA supporters prowling Chicago streets at 2am during a serious cold snap, that was making national news at the time, WITH a noose and bleach, as if they were hunting for a victim when people were least likely to be out, and they just happened to recognize the supporting actor on a predominantly black show (MAGAs watch Empire?)?? I did not buy it at all.

Meghan, I was a budding minimalist (except for my books) until I met my wife, who is a sentimental a pack rat. 90% of arguments since moving in together 6 yrs ago have been over clutter and cleaning. Since we bought a house, we have more space but we’ve also filled some of it.

I understand the whole house as an investment strategy, but it has no appeal to me whatsoever. If I go through the stress of finding and buying a home and put all of that work into to upgrading it, it is going to stay my home as long as I’m comfortable.

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The idea that a white MAGA person, especially one who was actually crazy enough to try and commit violence, would even know *anything* at all about Smollet or Empire was the instant giveaway for me.

It clearly showed that Smollet was enough of a narcissist that he actually thought he was a household name and face.

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Some actual facts about declines in fertility in the developing world that Sarah seems unfamiliar with.

1. Fertility declined dramatically in the course of 1-2 generations all over the world (for example, average fertility in Bangladesh dropped from 6 kids per woman to approximately 2 in a period of 30-40 years) not because governments were making inept attempts to force it, but because women decided to have fewer children and had the means to do so.

2. The main reasons for women's having fewer kids is (a) increased female literacy (b) rural electrification and (c) rising incomes. Plus access to birth control.

3. Women / families with rising incomes have fewer kids because what they hope for their children changes. In extremely poor traditional societies, you have lots of kids so they can work the land and provide for elders, and you know that many will die. Plus no birth control. As parents get richer, they want their children to have education and access to better jobs, which means the investment per kid gets higher.

4. This is the point the hosts overlook when saying that women in the US have fewer kids because "things are so expensive" nowadays. Not true. Parents invest a lot more in kids, which means they are going to focus that investment on a smaller number. You can have sports, music lessons, good schools, and good healthcare for a couple of kids more easily than for 4, 5, 6 or 7.

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I wonder how old are Sarah's seven kids. She spoke of some mythical time when the kids will be in school, not want you to be with them, and then you can focus more on your career. I am at that point with my two kids and our family still chooses to have one parent (me) only work part time and I fully acknowledge this is a choice our family made. The fact is that society, and I think we really saw this highlighted in the school closures during COVID, is not structured to support two full time professional parents. School hours don't cover a full work day, sports and other kids' activities routinely take place in the early afternoon when most people are still working. Until one or both of my kids can drive they still need a parent to at a minimum drive them to places. I also want them to remember us in the stands supporting them. There is also the saying "Small kids, small problems, big kids big problems." My kids need me now more than ever even if they can wipe their own butts and make their own foods. Our pediatrician explained this perfectly when she told me "Little kids are physically demanding on your time, big kids are mentally demanding of your mind." So part time work for me works best for our family to give both parents and the kids the best work life balance.

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I wondered too! I had more free time, both literally and in terms of mental space, when my kids were younger. I know more than a few people (dads too) who quit their full time careers when their youngest child was in elementary school because that was the point where they lost the ability to juggle. A good friend made that decision when her kids were in middle school.

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This was a truly great episode. I kept telling myself I’d have time to come back and comment on the 1000 fascinating subjects you talked about and your many different takes and my takes on your takes and so on… but I just won’t have time. I did want to say though how much I LOVED this episode -especially the bonus content -and how truly impressive, entertaining, and interesting I find you both! Great show!

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I agree that it’s atypical for coastal college educated people to settle down in their twenties, but the exception seems to be the children of stupendous generational wealth. This is based only on anecdata -- years of browsing the class notes in certain alumni magazines, including an old east coast boarding school -- but it does seem that if your dad is a member of the Society of Colonial Wars, if your middle or surname appears on buildings at Yale or Princeton or on wings at the Met, you’re far more likely to be married by 25.

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(And maybe that’s telling: commitment requires a vision / meaningful project. The perpetuation of familial fortunes and legacies, for old money; of culture or of familial heritage, etc. In which case rearranging the economy to accommodate young mothers’ delayed entry to the job market wouldn’t actually be enough to cause people to settle down and start having kids earlier. You’d still have to persuade young people that creating the next generation is a meaningful enough project on a personal level that it *deserves* prioritization over their career.)

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Yes! I noticed that right out of college. While everyone else was focused on climbing the ladder or teaching English in Nepal or whatever there was a small subset of very rich people who could marry early without injury to their social reputations or cool factor. The way I saw it, they were SO sophisticated that not even a rube-ish move like early marriage could knock them off the pedestal. If was as Richard Avedon was their wedding photographer and then he followed them around for life. Their lives were a form of art. Which came in handy since the women all had starter jobs at Sotheby's.

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Agreed. And the message to the rest of us seems to be that to have children you have to be as rich as they started out as being, otherwise your children will be at a disadvantage compared to their children.

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I have strong anti-natalist feelings, but given that I'm a nihilist, I can't say that it's immoral to have children 😆

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And a bored one at that!

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so many of our so-called choices are due to circumstance and chance.

chance: my husband and I were lucky enough to buy a house when it was still affordable for young couples starting out (although we did have to move to a town 45 minutes away from our jobs to meet that affordability criteria)

circumstance: I assumed getting pregnant would be easy - it was not. but that made my desire/choice strong enough that it altered my future choices: I homeschooled my kids whereas I'm certain I would have 'chosen' public school if getting pregnant had been easy. what we think are choices are often just patterns presented to us.

also Sarah? that poem Good Bones was so powerful and I'll be forever grateful that you shared it

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That was the more challenging episode for me so far, and I erased my comment twice and I am very proud of me for not sharing it. I realized I am a moderate anti-natalist and a profound doomer.

Thanks for this.

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I think the environmental and economic arguments are real, but that's not the end of anti-natalism. Having kids is kind of a thing among legitimately rich people, and certainly among the poor, but among the upper middle class, the professional managers, it always just seemed utterly contemptible to me on a cultural level. I mean, would you want to be an MTV teen mom?

When I was in my teens or early 20's, getting pregnant seemed a sign of stupidity, for people who lacked the skill to correctly apply a condom. Merit was in having as much sexual experience as possible with as many people as possible without getting tied down. Getting married was for people who weren't attractive enough to continue dating. Getting a minivan marked you as a loser. Kids were largely unseen and objects of disgust and derision. This is an East Coast mentality; being in the South or the Midwest has been noticeably different.

Mind you, not my personal views. My personal antinatalism is because I hate some of my blood relatives so much I want to breed their genes out of existence. I've come to like kids. I see the humanistic argument for wanting to have more of them. But I don't remember a single peer in my undergrad years even discussing the possibility of intentionally having children (shouting your abortion, however, was definitely a thing). Even thinking about getting married was just such a quaint idea. This is way bigger than Malthusianism.

I also remember being very influenced by that Alexandra Pelosi documentary on Jesus Camp, where some looney evangelical Christian rambled on about how she had to outreproduce the Muslims and indoctrinate the kids in her camp for a holy war. Any time someone talks about pro-natalist positions, I think about that lady. When you talk about having more kids as a middle-class white American, it makes it sound like you're worried about Great Replacement and you're trying to fight against that, and of course, you wouldn't want to be that person either.

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"Getting married was for people who weren't attractive enough to continue dating." Ouch. But sounds about right.

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It's kind of a variation of the same question. Who buys a house in Cleveland when they could be living in a box in Manhattan and vacationing in Bali?

Who settles down with a plain-looking brunette when you could be at a bender chasing twenty-year-old exchange students from Sweden?

The culturally condoned answer in the circles I inhabited is that the only person who isn't pursuing the high life is one who can't. I always found it distasteful.

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It's not a good longterm strategy.

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How confident are you that there is a long term for humanity?

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Re: the cost of raising a family, one major change in the last 50 years is that housing costs have outpaced inflation. It used to be that a working class couple could have a single breadwinner who earns enough to buy a house. Nowadays that’s a lot harder, especially in high de and metro areas. Meghan mention Boise - it’s been one of the fast growing cities over the last 10 years and housing prices have gone through the roof. Indianapolis? Not so much

https://www.in2013dollars.com/Housing/price-inflation

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