Below, is an excerpt from my book, “Not Quite Right: Mostly True Tales of a Weird News Reporter.” It is about life as a Southern mom, author and journalist. This section is about the birth of Baby Girl and being a single mom, just in time for Mother’s Day. Enjoy! To order a signed copy of the book for your mom, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I hear couples say they plan to wait to have children until they can afford it, my first reaction is to leave the room until I can control my convulsive laughter. It takes a while. My second reaction is to fight the urge to tell them the truth: They will never have that much money. Current estimates for raising a child until age eighteen hover at about $250,000 and that doesn’t include college or those precarious early 20s when you have to keep the kid on your health insurance policy until he or she finds a “grown-up” job. So let’s just round that up to, say, eighty gabillion dollars.
The best way to go about making the decision to have children is the way I did it – with absolutely no thought to the consequences. Really. It’s not an idea you want to overthink, especially the whole growing another human person inside your body thing, which can get creepy if you dwell on it. I didn’t want to know I was cultivating fingernails, a pancreas and (whisper) a lady flower in there, all while grocery shopping and standing in line at the post office.
Couples need to face the fact that they can never be fully prepared, financially or emotionally, to parent a tiny being. For one thing, they don’t even know what kind of baby they’ll be getting. I’m not talking about whether you get a girl or boy. It’s like a grab bag at Christmas. You might be percolating a little Ruth Bader Ginsberg in there, but it could just as easily be a Larry the Cable Guy or Miley Cyrus. Until you know, you have no idea if the baby will spend her time peacefully thinking important thoughts, wearing onesies with the sleeves cut off, or lying in the crib, screaming and sticking out her tongue. (But don’t panic if your little one does that last one. Lots of babies who do that don’t grow up to be Miley Cyrus.)
The point is, planning for a baby is like planning for a natural disaster – you should have all the materials on hand to survive the first few days but what happens after that is anyone’s guess. And while new parents may think they have a handle on the expenses for the first few years, especially when grandma buys about $300 in new clothes and toys every two weeks, they will get a rude awakening when school begins.
It’s called “public school,” meaning funded by the public, right? Sounds like a pretty nifty concept until you remember you’re the public. Only you’re not some random, generalized public; you are a public whose name and address are on file with the school. You will get a letter every few days demanding ransom: Pay your money or everyone will know your child has a cheapskate for a parent, bless her little heart.
A few of the notes you’ll get in elementary school demand money for:
- Class photos
- Class parties
- Fall photos
- The pumpkin patch field trip
- The state capital field trip
- The science museum field trip
- Christmas photos
- Snacks for field day
- Spring photos
- Spring field trips
- Paper towels for the classroom
- New tires for the school bus
- And a toupee for the principal (Actually, that last one doesn’t apply to every school)
You will also need money when the school hosts educational dress-up days that are designed to help children learn in a fun environment and make parents cry into their beers. There’s Dress Like Your Favorite Book Character Day, Retro Dress-Up Day (like the 1980s were that long ago), Opposite Day, Inside-Out Day, Mismatched Day, Dr. Seuss Day and World Naked Bicycling Day. Oh, wait. That last one is for another chapter.
None of these activities is scheduled because that would mean you’d have time to come up with a creative outfit and save the money to make it. What fun would that be?
Instead, you will get a note three days before payday, when you were planning to use the $2 in your bank account for gas to get to work for two more days. This is also when you get a note saying your child will be left behind if you don’t pay the field trip fee. Of course, field trips are not required and any parent who does not want to send his or her child can feel free to refuse payment, which means your child will sit alone in the cafeteria all day – looking like the child whose parent want to deny her chance for happiness – while all her friends are buying souvenirs in the zoo gift shop. (Did I mention she’ll need money for the gift shop?)
By the time the end of school rolls around, you will be feeling relieved to have a break from those little surprise expenses, right after you pay the $35 the class mom is collecting to give the teacher a thank-you gift of a personalized tote bag filled with personalized coffee mugs and personalized key rings that she can add to her collection of personalized tote bags, coffee mugs and key rings.
This all changes by the time your child reaches high school, of course. It gets worse.
You’ll not only need money for yearbooks and photos and field trips, now you’ll need money for labs and tickets to school dances and sporting events and prom dresses.
And that’s if your child isn’t a member of a school cult, er, team. Holy rhubarb pie, you better hope little Tina or Tony doesn’t make the team. Their tears of disappointment are much easier to bear than the expense of what lies ahead, by which I mean twenty-five outfits/uniforms, twelve pairs of shoes, two types of warm-up jackets, fundraisers, secret Santas, goody bags and trips that require airfare.
School teams aren’t like they were back in the day. Sure, people think the purpose of teams is to perform or play against other local teams and represent their school to the best of their ability. Those people are stupid. These days, cheer/band/dance /chess/tennis teams have to also compete at the Regional Tournament, the State Championship, then the Hollywood Classic, and, if they win, the Nairobi Invitational. Because their true purpose is to kick the world’s butt.
Even when my bank account was registering in the negative, I would rather be water-boarded than participate in a team fundraiser. For one thing, I don’t like to bother my family and coworkers who have their own kids’ ransom-raisers. For another thing, I haven’t met the fundraiser yet that didn’t cost me more than it raised, whether in materials for signs or decorations or cookies. I once spent $95 buying decorations and goodies for a Breakfast with Santa to help pay for my daughter’s dance team outfits. Since the event lasted four hours – eight including set up and clean up – I would have much preferred to take out a second mortgage and sleep in. But that wasn’t an option. These days, if your kid’s on a team, you are contractually bound to participate in a pre-determined number of fundraisers, by which I mean all of them. Failure to do so means your child will be kicked off and then you’re back to being the parent who’s trying to deny her child’s only chance for happiness.
There’s another thing no one, except me, tells you about having kids. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it nine-hundred-gabillion times: Moms can’t think of enough things to tell their kids not to do when left to their own devices.
Experienced moms know why I say that, right?
You come home and find a skunk in the bathtub and ask the logical question, if you’re a parent: “Why is there a polecat in my powder room?”
The kids will respond, “You didn’t saaaay we couldn’t put a polecat in the powder room.”
Or let’s say you get a call at work and learn your teenage son is in the emergency room. Why? “You didn’t tell me not to ride my bike down Suicide Hill steering with my feet.” Or maybe you catch a teen boy in your daughter’s bedroom and she says: “Well, yeah, you said not to go out with him but you didn’t say he couldn’t climb in my bedroom window.”
Here’s the problem with trying to warn them beforehand: Moms would have to be pretty twisted to think of all the trouble our kids could get into when we’re not looking.
Consider the case of my brother Doofus. Remember him? Mom would have had to have the foresight to say:
“Go on out and play, Doofus. Just don’t lean against that fishing rod in the garage and get a really large, barbed hook stuck in your hiney, the kind that requires a physician – and large pliers – to remove.”
Or: “Have fun, sweetie. But whatever you do, don’t sled on a trash can lid down that ice-covered hill with cars parked on either side. You might hit your head and wipe out the sixth grade.”
That’s why – and I’m muttering heavenward as I say this – we have to pray our kids will use some common sense. Of course, we know that rarely happens. I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s called common sense when so few people seem to possess it.
But I couldn’t know in advance. So I was excited to learn we had a baby on the way. For a few days.
Then I suddenly realized I was growing a human. Inside my body. I knew from the photos in books that she started out smaller than a butter bean but before long she would have fingers and limbs and a head and a brain and a vajayjay, and then she would emerge from my body fully formed, something I’d never considered. It would be a great scene for a sci-fi film … oh, yeah, they already used that one in “Alien.”
That’s also when you realize you’re in this thing for the long haul. Not just nine months or nine years or nineteen years. For the rest of your days. Whatever you’re growing in there, preferably not the face-sucking, crab-thingy from “Alien,” you will be its mother for the rest of your life. And you don’t even know if you’ll like the little critter.
I knew I had some major decisions to make, first and foremost to never again watch “Alien.” I also decided not to ever watch any live birth videos, which are pretty much the same thing. I figured the baby was bound to come out, no matter how hard I begged for more time to research the most practical car seat, so why traumatize myself?
When Baby Girl did arrive, there was a moment of panic when I held her and saw she had a cone head. It wasn’t as pronounced as Dan Akroyd’s in the “Coneheads” skits but it was obvious enough for Doofus to start calling his niece “Conehead” within minutes of her birth.
Thankfully, the doctor explained her head was misshapen from coming through the birth canal. It was nothing that should cause me to worry … or my brother to convulse with laughter. Once her head rounded out, Baby Girl showed every sign of becoming a normal human being.
Then, after her dad died when she was two, we faced plenty of new challenges. And each Mother’s Day, some radio or TV host would really grind my grits by mentioning how much money stay-at-home mothers would make if they were paid for their work, such as doing laundry, driving carpool, changing diapers, vacuuming or cooking. It was like they were saying some moms get paid to go to work while others, the conscientious moms, stay home with their children and don’t get any pay other than the satisfaction of knowing their children are in the best hands possible.
I always wanted to scream on behalf of single moms everywhere: “Just because I work forty to fifty hours a week in an office doesn’t mean the laundry, cooking, vacuuming and everything else magically get done while I’m gone. No. I still have to do all those things after I work. And I don’t get paid extra to do them.”
I hate when people try to pit moms against each other. We all struggle in our own ways, and we earn our wisdom, which I think makes us much tougher than men. Don’t you just hate those lists of all the reasons Chuck Norris or the Most Interesting Man in the World from the beer commercials are so special?
Like: “When he drives a car off the lot, it increases in value,” or “He once brought a knife to a gunfight… just to even the odds.” Blah, blah, blah.
Just once I’d like to see someone appreciate a harried, middle-aged woman. The Most Interesting Mom in the World would be like:
- She doesn’t always wear pajamas but when she does, they’re flannel.
- When she changes a diaper, it stays changed.
- She never waits thirty minutes after eating before going swimming.
- She eats food that has been on the kitchen floor longer than five seconds because “waste not, want not.”
- When playing Scrabble, she always uses the Q, X and Z.
- She is right-handed but can put away groceries with either hand.
- She never stays up past 10:30 p.m. because nothing interesting would dare happen while she’s asleep.
- She doesn’t always cook but when she does, she uses the microwave.
- When she has a stain on her blouse, she hangs a picture over it and starts a new fashion trend.
- She pretends she’s not good at crafts so she is never chosen as room mother.
- Each May, the entire nation takes a holiday in her honor. But, really, it should be the whole month. Or year.