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I'm poor and I'm a great mom. Come at me.

December 19, 2019 by Katie Smith

Illustration of a woman holding a child in her arms
Illustrations by Meredith Sadler

Income level should not determine whether someone is fit to parent

I once heard a couple at a family event talking about how being able to afford to go to Disney should be the litmus test for being allowed to become a parent. I stayed quiet, aware I was likely the only person there whose kids hadn’t been. And I spent the rest of the night hoping no one would ask.

Our family has as much chance of affording a Disney vacation as we do of orbiting the moon. As a single mom of three, I use any money left over from the most basic food and shelter expenses on needs like prescription meds and new winter boots. But when it comes to being a mother, I have neither regrets nor shame.

There’s an unwritten rule in our society that you must wait until you can afford to raise kids properly, before you have them. But what does that mean?

Being able to pay into a college fund?

Being able to afford braces?

Having a home big enough for each child to have their own bedroom?

Our family is among the roughly 10 percent of Canadian families deemed to be living below the poverty line. There are more than 60,000 kids in our demographic. Their parents—like me—are probably more preoccupied with paying for coats and shoes for our children, than for time with the world’s most famous mouse. And most likely, those moms and dads have also felt judged about the rite-of-passage experiences and must-have gadgets their kids have grown up without.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article called “Why I Hate When My Friends Say They’re Poor”, which was later picked up by the Guardian (UK). I braced myself before venturing into the Guardian comments section, to see how I was being assessed as a mother of limited means.

Some readers said my story was a cautionary tale as to why people on a low income shouldn’t have kids. Others leapt to my defence, saying that because I’d been in a good position financially before I had children (to give some context: I’d lost my job and depleted years of savings after back-to-back bouts of ill health), I didn’t deserve to be judged. While I appreciated that those well-meaning people had my back, I did wonder if the flip side of their defence was: had she been poor when she became a mother, well then you could pass judgement. That’s a belief that doesn’t sit well with me.

Why is it that the only yardstick for parenthood our society cares about is money? Parents from all income brackets will tell you that providing financially for your children is just one part of the job. Supporting your children in their dreams and through their disappointments; passing on values of honesty, compassion and respect; and having the time and willingness to be available to your children—those things matter too. When you think about all that goes into raising a child, it quickly becomes clear that a good childhood isn’t something we can purchase.

Research shows that once adults reach a certain income level, having more money doesn’t make them happier. This concept is called satiation point. Interestingly, scientists have identified a satiation point for children too, and it’s in relation to stuff. When U.S. researchers put toddlers in a room with either four toys or 16 toys, they discovered that the children with fewer toys showed more creativity, played with each toy twice as long, and had deeper focus in their games. Kids don’t need more things to thrive. They need just enough to activate their imagination and resourcefulness.

Of course, just as a child can have more things than they need, the question of having enough is important too. When my kids were younger, we used a food bank after my oncology surgery left me unable to work. I lost sleep trying to afford the basics, and there were many things I would have liked my children to have like therapies to help with their special needs, the opportunity to participate in school pizza lunches, and the chance to buy gifts to bring to friends’ birthday parties.

Because of that period of poverty, my kids’ childhood looked different in ways I won’t minimize. There were fallen faces when a form for a field trip came home, and I couldn’t give them the $10 they needed to participate. There were a few times I had to sell things we owned to pay for antibiotics when one of my kids got sick. And for four years, I rented my room to students and slept on the living room sofa so I could pay our bills.

My lowest moments were not what you might assume though, because I’m good at finding creative solutions. By and large, I was able to give my children what I’d consider a good childhood, with abundant one-on-one attention, family time and nurturing.I don’t think my children were any unhappier with secondhand clothing than new gear, nor with free community sports instead of lessons through private clubs. (And I go on record saying they aren’t any worse off for not going to Disney, even if I do wish I could afford things like braces.) The hard parts were those times when I felt I was being looked down on—that I fell short because my wallet was empty. I will never forget the look of horror on the face of another parent when they asked about my kids’ RESPs, and I admitted I couldn’t save for their higher education.

Experiences like that made me feel too anxious to mention I had children, when I first sought health supports, following my surgeries. I didn’t want it running through the minds of people on my medical team: She’s poor and she has kids, because I didn’t want my family to be ‘flagged’ as at-risk to social workers.

I recognize that even during that particularly rough patch, I had privilege. While I may have worried about being judged, at least I had stable housing and a bedroom to let out. Imagine the judgment parents face when their family enters the shelter system. And what about when they are totally reliant on the food bank to nourish their kids? When they don’t speak English and have a lower chance of accessing employment? The type of judgment that parents can feel under those circumstances can lead to the valid worry that your children will be apprehended.

I’d go as far as to say no one should be judged for having a kid when they are poor. No one. Not the people who became parents and then lose everything and not the people who found themselves pregnant despite living in inadequate housing. They shouldn’t be judged, because judgment doesn’t do anything to help either parents or kids.

Judgment won’t stop people from having children on a low income. Most people who want to experience parenthood will exercise their fundamental human right to do so. And judgment also won’t create a climate in which women, people of colour and people with disabilities (three communities more likely to find themselves in socio-economic groups facing systemic barriers to income equality) can lift themselves out of poverty. Expending our energy on judgment means we’re failing to channel our outrage over the inequities in Canadian children’s welfare by taking meaningful actions, such as putting pressure on governments to raise minimum wage, to build affordable housing and to ensure workers in precarious employment have access to safety nets, like unemployment insurance and extended health benefits.

If a parent slips into poverty because they can’t access paid sick leave, is their financial situation more to do with the policy makers or the individual experiencing medical issues? If a parent can’t afford rent because luxury condos and short-term rentals are the new normal, should that be a personal struggle, or a problem society needs to fix?

The irony is that the same social supports that would help lower-income families are the ones governments fight about not being able to afford. Many people—a number of whom are in positions of power—hold the deep bias that poverty is correlated with laziness. This is simply not true. You have only to look to recent reports from Food Banks Canada to see that Canadians who use food banks today largely consist of the working poor and people who’ve recently lost their job or have a disability.

When Quebec implemented subsidized daycare in 1997, the rate of working moms increased 16 percent between then and 2016. Making it easier for more parents to participate in the workforce is a gain for all of society—employed people pay taxes and contribute to the growth of the economy. According to a report in the Atlantic on Quebec’s daycare initiative, “One study estimates that the program raised the province’s annual GDP by the equivalent of about $3.9 billion.” While it’s not a perfect system—the waitlists for Quebec’s 233,000 subsidized spots are long—it’s a stride in the right direction. Were a similar program rolled out across Canada, I think we’d see more children thrive, whatever their parents’ financial starting point.

The truth is, for the last four years my income has been under $20,000, and I raise children in Toronto, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Policies to address the gaps between how children in the GTA live would have made a big difference, both in terms of our quality of life and our dignity. And a shift in middle-class assumptions would help too. Maybe feeling like I didn’t have to hide the fact we’ve never been to Disney would allow me to focus wholeheartedly on what I have to be proud of as a parent, and on how to tackle the real struggles that hold us back as a family—struggles that are increasingly common in our city.

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