With his five-bedroom Colonial house set in homey Orange, Conn., beautiful wife, two dachshunds, and a three-year-old son so cute that his face graces the packaging of diapers sold in hundreds of Stop & Shop grocery stores, Richard Samela, by all accounts, is living the American Dream.
But behind the lovely suburban setting, 42-year-old Samela works his butt off to keep it alive.
In addition to his full-time, breadwinner job as a technical project manager, Samela takes on 15 to 20 hours of freelance work each week in order to afford anything beyond the basic mortgage, health care and child care expenses. This cuts into his weeknight family time, and dampens his ability to contribute to household tasks.
As a result, Samela says he and his wife, who both have college degrees and white-collar jobs, are not planning on having any more children.“It’s insane,” says Samela, whose wife Amy, 36, also works full-time. “Most weekends I have to worry about, ‘Do I work on maintaining the house, or spending time with my family? I basically have to work two jobs just to get by, and most of my free time is spent doing yard work, laundry and that sort of thing.”
“The cost of day care is exorbitant,” says Samela. “It’s $1,300 a month, which is the cost of a mortgage. Can you imagine, in 15 to 18 years from now, what the cost of college will be?”
Samela’s challenges speak to the sentiments of many Americans, especially middle-class parents, who according to “The American Dream 2.0,” a recent survey by LearnVest, say they face unprecedented financial and social pressures when it comes to staying afloat themselves—while raising kids.
In fact, 72% of respondents say there are more concerns when it comes to rearing children today. More than half feel it is too expensive to raise children in this day and age—and 60% believe you need dual incomes, like Samela’s and his wife’s, to make ends meet. Over 1 in 3 respondents say they have delayed having children because of their financial situations.
We’ll take a closer look at how the landscape has changed since our parents were parents, as well as how a new generation is interpreting the dream for themselves.
Our Parents, Ourselves: How Raising Kids Has Changed
The sour economy and mounting financial pressures were actually enough to make one newly minted family flee the country. When an opportunity arose for Emily Bond, her filmmaker husband, Robert, and their baby son, Ezra, to transplant from Brooklyn to Seville, Spain, in September 2010, she jumped.
Border-hopping seemed a means of escaping the pressures of parenting 2.0.
“People were [already] asking me what school he was going to and what waiting list he was on,” says Bond, 35, of her newborn. “Moving to Spain presented an alternative choice.”
The same financial pressures didn’t exist in her childhood, she says. Bond, who is African American, grew up in an “idyllic suburb” of Washington D.C., with a lawyer mom and physician dad. In essence, they had achieved the American dream.
“I grew up very comfortable,” says Bond, who has three other siblings and often compares her family to the Huxtables, actor Bill Cosby’s 1980s TV family. “We had cars, private schools, the whole shebang.”
After moving to Spain, things were great at first for Bond and her husband, 50. But slowly, they started to change. “I lost two contracts, and as the economy recovered in America, it became difficult to convince employers to outsource to Americans overseas,” she recalls.
Then, in mid 2012, Bond gave birth to her second son, Finn, and she and her family decided to move back home.
Her reality today–raising a family while looking for a full-time job, while living in the house she grew up in—is certainly a stark contrast to the one her mother enjoyed.
In fact Bond’s mom, Susan Greenwood, grew up in a small town in the southeast corner of Kansas in the 1950s, at a time when there were far fewer opportunities for both African Americans and women. Neither of her parents had a Bachelor’s degree – in fact, Bond’s grandfather barely finished third grade. Still, through hard work, education and (as she puts it) the help of affirmative action, the 64-year-old not only got into the only law school she applied to, but she also obtained the only job she ever applied to while pregnant with Bond in 1978, and is still an attorney for that same government agency.
“The sour economy and mounting financial pressures were actually enough to make one newly minted family flee the country.”
“I think it’s very, very difficult to achieve the American dream, but I guess that depends how you define it,” says Greenwood. “If you define it as being able to buy the large house in the suburbs, or send the kids to a private school or a good public school, it’s almost unattainable.”
Greenwood says she doubts any of her children will be able to afford the same lifestyle they grew up with, or even whether she would have four children today. ”I could not afford to educate four,” says Greenwood. “I’d probably just have one or two.”
Many would-be parents agree. In 2011 the U.S. birth rate dipped to its lowest-ever recorded levels, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which reported 63.2 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. That rate is almost half of what it was in 1957, when it hit 122.7 per 1,000 women.
A New Generation, Redefining the Dream
Emily Bond doesn’t expect to have the same material luxuries she grew up with, but she’s at peace with that. And, in fact, she says, having those things doesn’t define the American dream anymore. At least not for her.
“It wasn’t until I became a mother myself, and I realized it cost a lot of money to have a house, that it cost a lot to maintain the American dream, but it was really just an American fabrication,” she says.
Like many of her peers with children—and plenty without—Bond wishes some things were different, including the pressure on Americans to become successful and independent so quickly after college.
“What Americans say they want out of life, Spaniards get quite easily,” says Bond. “I think that in Spain, it’s very natural for people to stay with their families until they’re well into their thirties. That’s why you have so many boomerangers [in the U.S.], because they never had an opportunity to save up an emergency fund, a down payment.”
Perhaps it’s a good thing, then, that so many define the American dream beyond material acquisitions. More than one out of four (27 percent) Americans told LearnVest that achieving the dream was all about finding spiritual happiness—however you choose to define it.
“There is also some redefinition of the American dream away from economic success and more toward a spiritual component,” says John White, coeditor of the book “The American Dream in the 21st Century” and professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. “I use that term loosely. It means finding a job where you can spend time with your family, [that] allows for personal growth and a real partnership with your colleagues. This spiritual dimension first became evident in polling after the 9/11 attacks and has remained.”
And the reorientation may help parents like Samela and Bond, face-to-face with new realities, to define what it means to grow and thrive in America today.