The Two-Income Trap and Why It’s Killing Us All

I don’t have a ton of friends who come to me for advice about marriage and motherhood but, when they do, there is always at least one warning I make certain I communicate: when preparing for your future as a family, avoid the two-income trap at all costs.

Also known as: your career isn’t worth what you think it’s worth.

Also known as: quit your job while you still can.

Okay, let me back up.

A few years ago, I picked up a book by politician Elizabeth Warren called The Two-Income Trap and it blew my mind.

Elizabeth Warren (who is rumored to be Bernie Sanders’ choice for VP if he wins the Democratic nomination this election cycle) is a brilliant scholar with a real heart for protecting the viability of America’s middle-class. In this book (and elsewhere), she writes about the economic shifts in our country that are forcing millions of “traditional families” (my words, not hers) to become dual-income families out of necessity. Where once a family could have a humble but comfortable life with one income, more and more families are now sending a second parent into the workforce to help pay for basic needs. Where once a mother would take a small side job to pay for frivolities such as an extra family vacation, she now takes a job to help pay for weekly groceries.

This, according to Elizabeth Warren, is a big problem.
In short, I agree.

Now, Warren and I are not necessarily political allies. She and I disagree a little bit about why we got here and how we are going to get out of this mess, but I think she has articulated this issue better than most and has some great things to say about the nature of the problem. (If you’re interested in the issue, I’d recommend the book.)

If you’d like the Liz McEwan version of the story, I’ll offer it here.

The concept of “the two-income trap” is simple and I’ve watched it happen over and over again to friends and strangers alike. The basic gist goes something like this: two wonderful, competent adults get married and build fulfilling careers and then, when it comes time to welcome a baby into the picture, they need both incomes to sustain their lifestyle. So, they spend the emotional and physical energy equivalent to a marathon arranging their lives to maintain both careers while trying to arrange daycare and nannies and preschool and still have time to make dinner and eat dinner and maybe play together for ten minutes before bed and maybe fit in a trip to the zoo on the weekends. It’s exhausting. It’s depressing. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.

Let’s pause for a moment
Maybe you see yourself in this situation and it strikes a chord and makes you depressed or offended or so mad you could spit. Money and parenting are touchy subjects, so I would like to clarify a few things.

First, my position on this comes as much from personal experience as it comes as an observer. I may not be a “career mom,” but when my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world, we were not ready to live on a single income. Because of that, the past 7 years have been hard. SUPER hard. My husband has taken many, many side jobs and I have continued working part-time so we can slowly work ourselves out of debt and eventually into the freedom of a single income.

So I know how impossible it seems to survive on a modest income.
And I know how much it sucks to drive an old car instead of a new one and to not buy myself clothes this season and to buy used furniture from friends and to not take a vacation when we could really, really use one.

And I also know how hard it is to give up a career.
And how hard it is to be “just a mom” in a world where being a mom is simply not enough to be validated. And I know what it’s like to know that I could be making a lot of money somewhere doing something super awesome and, instead, I am making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my pajamas.

Some of my friends love staying home with their kids; some of them don’t. Some of my friends absolutely love their careers; some dream of the day that can quit. My point is not to romanticize stay at home moms or judge women who choose a career instead. Every story is different and I don’t know yours, specifically.

My goal, instead, is to encourage younger (or childless) women to prepare now for what they want in the future and to count the cost of their career before it’s too late and they are trapped at work while they’re rather be at home.

Practically speaking, a few words of advice for those who want to work toward living on a single income:

Do the math.
Childcare is expensive. So are work clothes, that second car, and dinners out with colleagues. Before assuming that you absolutely must have two incomes, consider the money you’d save by staying home. Balance the cost of working against the value of staying home before you decide how much your career is really worth to you. Do the actual math. With numbers. You might be surprised.

Consider the benefits.
There is more than quantifiable monetary value to having a parent at home with the kids. A stay at home parent usually means more home-cooked meals together, healthier emotional/physical attachments with parents, more one-on-one time with the kids, and a more stable rhythm of the home life.

Consider the freedom.
The non-working parent in a single-income family is free to stay home with a sick child or to travel to care for ailing parents or help friends. They are also free to take on side-work or odd jobs for extra income when the need (or opportunity) arises. There is only one person’s work schedule to work around. There is always someone around to answer the door when the neighbor rings.

Re-imagine home life.
Erase the picture you have in your mind of the Betty Crocker stay at home mom and build a home life that matches YOU. Dream about the ways you are uniquely gifted to create a home that is a place you actually want to be.

Re-define your “work.”
Especially for those of you with a college degree: Don’t judge the value of your education by its pay-off in salary; judge the value of your education by the fruitfulness of your life. Be productive. Get creative and be proactive in putting your gifts and skills to work to support your family. Use your education, even if the way you use it doesn’t pay the bills. Keep your mind awake and your skills sharp because they will come in handy now and in the future when your kids are grown and out of the house.

Build a community.
Without a workplace for easy socialization, many moms get bored and lonely at home. (Face it: kids don’t always make the best company.) Find other moms like you, moms who remind you that being a mom is good, hard work. Then make other friends, too–friends who don’t have kids yet or whose kids are grown. Don’t blame your loneliness on staying home. Community is cultivated. It requires work.

Lastly, I know it’s dangerous to say this, but I’ll say it anyway.

Reconsider your lifestyle.
In her book, Elizabeth Warren is correct to attribute much of the two-income trap to risings costs in housing, education, and healthcare over the past 50 or so years. I think she’s right. There is no doubt that it’s harder than ever for an average middle-class family to pay for an average middle-class lifestyle. But I think her solution (which involves a lot of government-funded education and healthcare) is insufficient to correct the problem.

I think, before we even consider outside solutions, we need to reconsider what we’re working ourselves to death and sacrificing valuable years with our children to pay for.

The truth is, you probably don’t need that bigger house with the extra bedroom.
Or the extra two days at the hotel.
Your son doesn’t need his own iPad.
Your daughter doesn’t need to take ballet and tennis lessons.
Your kids might do just as well at the neighborhood school as they’d do at the private school.

The truth is, for many of us, it’s not a life we’re paying for–it’s a lifestyle. And that new pair of shoes or the eighty dollar dinner or the last-minute trip to Portland this weekend might be worth it to you, but it’s not worth it to me. And, if you asked your kids, they’d probably say it’s not worth it to them, either.

And then a word of encouragement for those in situations where you simply cannot make it work on one income: Maybe you are underpaid. Maybe you are unemployable or injured. Maybe you owe a small fortune in debts. Maybe the economy where you live just sucks. If this is you, I encourage you to plod along as faithfully as you can until your situation changes.

And, when it does, get out as quickly as you can.
It’s a trap.

An Ode To The Imperfect Church

You messed up the words again
in the second song, third verse.
It was supposed to be
“You,” not “Thou.”
Maybe no one else noticed,
but I did
because I’m a Professional.
Professionals notice.

And it wasn’t your only mistake this week.

The coffee ran out.
There was a misprint.
I think you forgot to take out the garbage
in the first floor ladies’ room.
And I’m pretty sure
there were supposed to be three,
not two,
greeters at the rear door
by the parking lot.
(South side parking lot.)

my friend,
have not achieved perfection today.

And I’m thankful for it.
Lord, I’m thankful for it.

It’s nice to know that mine isn’t the only home where
the toilet paper runs out
and there is never a pen when I want it
and the kids are
too     damn    loud.

And I’m thankful for it
because I may be a “professional”
by some imaginary definition
but sometimes my voice cracks, too,
like the lady behind me
who claps off-beat
but is always quick with a smile
when she shakes my son’s hand
while sharing the Peace of Christ.

And I’m thankful that we can
smile at each other
when the microphone goes silent
because we both know that
it’s easy enough to forget to change the battery
and it’s easy enough to hate ourselves for forgetting
and it’s easy enough to believe that the
future of the Kingdom of God hinges on
whether or not we remembered to change the battery.

(Spoiler: it doesn’t.)

It’s hard to learn the art of
being a church that’s good enough
at making space for
the Word
the Table
the People of God
without taking ourselves so seriously
and doing everything so well
and so seamlessly that
we end up
only make a space for ourselves.

And it’s hard for me to avoid the
nagging voice of professionalism
and perfection
that makes me want to create a church that
is easy to invite my friends to because
it is never too hot
and never too cold
and it requires nothing
other than showing up
to watch the show.

So I’m thankful for you,
all you gloriously imperfect churches with your
broken lightbulbs,
shaky voices,
and never quite enough salt on the sidewalk.

You are as much home to me as my own home is to me.
And that really is the point,
isn’t it?

How We Homeschool

Hang out with homeschooling families long enough and you’ll realize that “homeschool” is not a one-size-fits-all education. There are about a million different homeschool methods and just as many competing curriculum. The world of homeschooling makes space for conservatives, cultural progressives, religious folk, atheists, strict academics, and unschoolers. So I guess it makes sense why so many people have questions about what our method of homeschooling actually looks like. Let me see if I can explain our method of homeschooling in a way that makes sense.

First of all, every family has an underlying philosophy of parenting, childhood, and education. It’s what guides their decisions about educating their children.

To grossly oversimplify, I believe that:

  • Children thrive as adolescents and adults after forming strong attachments with their parents at a young age.
  • Parents should be the primary influence in their children’s lives at the age when they are most easily influenced.
  • Children thrive with multi-generational, real world socialization, rather than the peer-to-peer socialization characterized by a manufactured school environment. (A child cannot teach another child how to grow to be a healthy, mature adult.)
  • Children are neither machines nor animals, yet most standardized educational institutions educate children on an assembly line toward homogeneous mediocrity with no respect to their diversity of skills, gifts, challenges, and passions.
  • Children are naturally curious and thrive in an environment that leaves space for deeper curiosity about subjects that matter, not in an environment dictated by academic standards, measures, and guidelines.
  • The quality of a child’s mind cannot be quantified by standardized tests and time-wasting busy work.
  • A child’s mind is best cultivated with high-quality “nutrition” (or content), not educational fads or popular media.
  • Children need to be outdoors on a regular basis, in wild places rather than in paved playgrounds. It is good for their bodies, minds, and souls.

Like I said, that is a gross oversimplification (and leaves a lot out). But it at least tells you where I’m coming from and why I decided to homeschool my kids. You might disagree. You probably do. And that’s okay. I’m teaching my kids, not yours.

Moving on.
Once you’ve decided what you believe about parenting, childhood, and education, a homeschooling family must decide what that means for their method of homeschooling. Will they buy a pre-packaged curriculum or write their own? Will they join an alternative school or go solo? Will they teach at home, outdoors, or at the library? Will they keep a strict schedule or allow more flexibility? There’s a lot to decide.

I’ll offer an over-simplified explanation of our method.

– We follow the Charlotte Mason method of schooling. You can find a good explanation of Mason’s philosophy here. But, as with most things in my life, I’m not a purist. But I find her philosophy of education most closely aligns with my own, so I’m using her writings (and the writings of other CM educators) to help direct our schooling. One morning a week, my son attends a non-traditional school of sorts with a bunch of other kids from Charlotte Mason-influenced homes. It will be interesting to see if, as time goes on, our homeschool gets closer or further from her method.

– I do not use a pre-packaged curriculum like many of my peers, but I am not an un-schooler. I toss together various materials to create a complete course of study. For a subject such as history or geography, I choose a general historical era or geographic region for our term (this term we are continuing with pre-Colonial and Colonial America, as well as the American Revolution) and then I use all first-source materials and “living books.” For a subject such as math, I teach through oral lessons and related activities. In a lesson about telling time, for example, we spend more time discussing the relationship between the clock, percentages, and fractions than we do taking quizzes about telling time. I began teaching my son to read using this book but then began using sight word lists and practicing on nursery rhymes instead. We are now using BOB books for reading. This sort of hodge-podge curriculum may get more difficult to manage as my kids age out of elementary school, but it works well for us for now.

– We are on a three-term school year (plus some schoolwork during the summer) and I have a loose lesson plan for each term, including a list of materials and resources. I schedule our daily lessons on a bulletin board. On the board, I have a couple dozen library cards filed in envelopes (the kind you used to find inside a library book cover when you were a kid) by subject categories. You’d find the usual subjects of reading, math, handwriting, history, geography, and science on our lesson board. I teach my son beginner piano. My husband handles fine art with the kids. We are intermittently learning beginner German. You would also find life skills (like making breakfast or preparing our snack), health and safety, hymn study, and Bible study/memorization on the board. At the beginning of the week, if I have my act together, I pull out the cards of the lessons I’d like to accomplish during the week and then choose from the week’s lessons each day. But it’s more likely that I choose each day as I see how our schedule goes. Then, after we complete a lesson, I note the date and content of the lesson on the card (the chapter read, for example) and file it back in its envelope until next time. This is how I keep track of our progress through the year. Lessons are short and we take many breaks during the day.

– We read a lot of books. Good books. Old books. Books without kid-friendly cartoons or funny characters, but full of adventure. Many of our books come recommended from other Charlotte Mason educators and websites like Ambleside Online that provide entire book lists by grade. These are many of the same books that were considered “classics” when I was young, but these books are for more than entertainment. They are teaching my children advanced vocabulary, grammar, and storytelling skills. They are teaching complex ethics and morality. They are teaching patience and mindfulness when being read to and then teaching communication skills when my kids narrate the story back to me.

– We spend time outdoors. We take a lengthy hike at least once a week and do our best to leave the house for a bit every other day, as well. If possible, our lessons are done outdoors. In addition to the physical and emotional benefits of being outdoors, the real world is where our kids see the complex relationships present in the created order. It’s where their minds can most clearly seen connections. They can tie together their experience of the seasons with Earth’s orbit and the lifecycles of plants. They witness the changing behavior of animals throughout the day, the relationship between the sun and the time on their watch, the sounds of the city compared to the sounds of the woods. They learn to be comfortable in and adaptable to heat, cold, rain, and snow. They becomes masters of their environment, learning to navigate by map, by compass, and by memory.

– We have Tea Time. Our Tea Time is most often around 4pm, when my daughter wakes from her nap. We heat the water, we set the table, we prepare a small snack, and then choose our book while the tea is steeping. This is the time of day when we collect ourselves after naptime/quiet time is finished, before I prepare dinner. It is usually our last focused “school time” of the day, when we practice narration (when my children report back to me what I’ve just read) and sometimes recite poetry. This is also the part of the day when we could choose to do an art study or song study.

– We take trips to the library, to the zoo, to the museum, to local historic sites, or to other places where we can learn in an immersion atmosphere. In a city like ours, there are countless opportunities for this. It’s also a great way to teach multiple ages side by side with the exact same source material.

– Our homeschooling is not anti-technology, but it is technology-lite. We were gifted an iPad to use for school and have a couple dozen apps we use here and there. The ones we use most frequently are for math or science. (Khan Academy is probably our favorite.) We also use the iPad for listening to audio books (on LibriVox) and the occasional YouTube video for a history or art lesson (such as “How the States Got Their Shape”). We also use computers at the public library every week or two. My son is learning to use a computer and will eventually learn how to type. So, in general, our media use is for school and not for entertainment. But we’re not anti-media or anti-technology.

This, in short, is how we homeschool. It’s a bit unrefined at this point and it will likely change as we incorporate our other children more and as we advance through the subjects. For now, I am an imperfect educator and am, in many ways, learning as I go.

IMG_0838“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” — Charlotte Mason.

Thinking About New Orleans

I’ve never been to New Orleans, LA. I’ve had a lot of friends who love it, but the truth is: it’s never much appealed to me. Ten years ago, though, New Orleans was on everyone’s mind.

I honestly don’t remember much of the news coverage of Katrina. I was new to Cincinnati, in the midst of acclimating to a brand new life, and didn’t have a television or internet access at home. My first memories of Hurricane Katrina were the pictures from newspapers I read while tending bar at work and the stories of a customer at the bar, a refugee from New Orleans.

This weekend is the tenth anniversary of the hurricane and there’s still a lot I don’t really understand about what happened and why the destruction was so severe. And then, of course, why the fallout was so bad. I’m not going to pretend to know where to point the blame or to posit what could have been done differently. The news stories I saw and heard this week prove that there are still a lot of unanswered questions on all sides.

Disasters happen. Is this really a surprise? Yet, more often than not, we are simply not prepared for them–individually or corporately.

A few quick thoughts:

1. How seriously would you have taken the warnings?
Personally, I don’t take most warnings very seriously at all. Not even from “reliable sources.” Yet, when I read this warning, issued ten years ago by the National Weather Service about the impending storm, it was hard to believe that more New Orleans residents didn’t heed the warning. Or that the City of New Orleans didn’t work harder to evacuate and warn low-income residents, the ones in the most vulnerable areas, the ones least likely to evacuate on their own. Or that so few of us outside of the region knew what was happening.

I know that evacuation is complicated and would have been very difficult for people who had nowhere to go (no family or friends outside the area) or no way to get there (literally had no transportation or no money to use it). And I’m sure that many long-term coastal residents had seen storms come and go. They thought: why should I believe this will be any different? (Or maybe some never heard the warnings? That’s possible, I guess?)

Among other foreboding statements, the warning said that “most of the area would be uninhabitable for weeks… perhaps longer.” If you saw a warning flash across your tv screen that said your city was going to be decimated by a storm within 12-24 hours, would you run for the hills? Or would you hunker down and wait for the storm to pass? I would like to think that I’d react quickly, but I honestly don’t know that I’d take the warning seriously.

2. Are you prepared?
I’ve talked briefly about this before. (I wrote a post about it two years ago.) And I hope that many of my friends and family don’t let events like Hurricane Katrina pass by them without asking important questions about their own preparation for emergencies.

A couple months back, there was a heavy snow storm in our city. Many suburban areas were hit hard and some lost power for days. A new neighbor texted me and asked if our neighborhood had ever lost power and admitted that her family wasn’t quite prepared if that happened. I was able to assure here that, in the time I’ve lived here, we’ve been pretty insulated from the weather and that our power grid has always stayed in-tact. But, there is never a guarantee.

There is no way to know what lies around the bend. And there is no way to guarantee that you’ve crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” in your preparation. History proves that even the most prepared people can be caught by surprise by things they never saw coming. All you can do is be ready for what you can reasonable anticipate.

Living in an urban area, our preparations for severe weather or other emergency situations may look different than yours. The threats are different here. But I think it’s important to assess the threats and do at least a reasonable amount of preparation for what is most likely to happen where you live. And, no matter where you live, you should make preparations for evacuating. I came across this video a few years ago and it was really convicting and, frankly, a little scary. My area might not be experiencing wildfires at the moment, but there may sometime be another reason to evacuate downtown, either by suggestion or by choice. Since I saw that video, I made it a point to be reasonably ready. Ready without obsessing about the unknown.

If you’ve been listening to talk radio or checking the news this week, you’ve likely had Hurricane Katrina on your mind, too. According to the reports I’ve seen, much of the Gulf Coast is coming back to life. I saw this movie a few months ago and it was filled with love and hope for New Orleans. My parents are headed down to the Alabama coast in about a month and I’m curious what their experience will be (we’ve been there twice before–years before Katrina).

Do you know anyone who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina?
Have you been to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast since?

Can I encourage you to think a little more this weekend about how you’d react to a similar scenario and whether or not you be ready?

On my mind especially this week was that old customer of mine. The refugee from New Orleans. His life had been completely dismantled by the hurricane and he was laying low in Cincinnati, alone, until the smoke cleared. I wonder if he’s still around or if he managed to, eventually, find his way back home again.

How Strong is This Marriage?

10 years ago, I sold a guitar so I could pay my way to Cincinnati. I had no job and no savings; I had found an apartment only a few days prior. I was moving for a relationship, not for a city. In fact, Cincinnati was barely a blip on my radar and, as far as I could tell, the move was temporary.

10 years ago.

When I knew my ten year anniversary was around the bend, I considered doing something to celebrate. Throw a party. Release a new cd. Write a Top Ten list of my best Cincinnati memories. But as the days inched closer and closer, my heart grew more and more conflicted and I let the day pass last month without making much of a racket at all. Not publicly, at least. Privately, my mind and heart were wide awake and wild.

What the hell am I even doing here?

Oh, I know what I’m doing here. I’m living a pretty wonderful, charmed life. I am wife to a wonderful husband; I am mother to three beautiful, spirited children. I sometimes play music and sometimes plan community events and sometimes host parties and concerts and sometimes write articles and blogs and other assorted read-ables. Heck, I “do” a lot.

But how many of us really measure the wealth of our life by what we “do?”

I don’t.

I want to know “why” and “for what” and “to what end” am I here?
And, in that way, the “do” is rather inconsequential.
The “do” can come later.

When did I fall in love with Cincinnati?

From the moment I arrived, there have been wonderful people who have embraced me as their own and shared the best parts of Cincinnati with me. Many of those parts are hidden away in their favorite corners of the city, tucked into houses and storefronts and laughter and singing songs that no one other than those they call their own would care enough to notice. This city has become familiar to me in a way that I never expected. It welcomed me as its child and I fell in love with it, hidden piece by hidden piece.

But what does it mean to truly love a city? And how much of my love for Cincinnati is more about what it has given to me than about what I can give for it?

And, what does loving a city truly require?

Cities change.
Living in a growing, changing neighborhood has been a huge challenge for me because this neighborhood was a huge part of that first affection I felt for Cincinnati. And, with every small change, I’m losing a little bit more of what made this city feel like it was “mine” in the first place. And if I, being here only ten years, can feel such torn affections, imagine the heart and mind of someone whose entire history centers here.

There have been many times in the past few years when I was ready to cut and run.

The truth is: I. Want. Out.

But I’ve thought a lot about love and commitment and the concept of marriage recently. Not related, specifically, to my marital relationship but more related to my marriage to mission and work and my love of place. Wendell Berry talks about the idea a lot when he talks about farmers and their relationship to their land. It’s the idea of husbandry and it’s, sadly, a concept that has lost its gravity in its modern usage.

What would it mean to marry myself to this place?
What would it look like to make a covenant with this city?
How can I love this city and these people with the kind of love required in marriage?

Look, I’m not suggesting that a person’s relationship to their place holds nearly as much weight as an actual marriage. But I am suggesting that maybe we don’t really understand what we claim when we claim to “love our city” if we’re willing to just walk away when the affections wane or when the greener grass next door peeks our interest. Most people don’t think twice if a better opportunity, a bigger house, or a higher-paying job shows up.

But maybe, like a good marriage, loving our city means much more than the tickle in our belly or the ebb and flow of our affections.

I like the word “efficacious.” It’s a word I don’t use in conversation because it would make me sound obnoxious. But it’s a good word. And it’s one of the words I remind myself of most often when I consider whether or not I am acting in love toward another person. In the context of loving, efficacious love would be a love that is productive, effective, constructive, or beneficial. It is a love that is fruitful. One of the best ways I’ve heard it expressed is by St. Augustine when, in relationship to God, he wrote: Quia amasti me, fecisti me amabilem. (In loving me, you made me lovable.)

In loving me, you made me lovable. How awesome is that?

What would it look like to love this city in that way, in a way that made it better? Made it truly lovely?

Then, after committing to see that love through, what does it look like to love a city that doesn’t always love you back, at least not in the way you wish it would? What about when it no longer feels as welcoming or accepting? And what would it look like to truly love a city that grows up to be something other than the thing you always wished it would be?

How do you love a city that no longer resembles the city you first loved?

I’m sure most people don’t care too much about this stuff. They just move on when their affections shift. Find a more comfortable place to call “home.” But I can’t get the questions out of my head.

Wendell Berry writes about the responsibility to one’s place:

When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong.

What is my responsibility to this city– to this place that adopted me as its own, who gave me back my faith, gave me another chance at love, brought me my babies, and cradled me into adulthood?

The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have it in me to give back. Sometimes I feel like I’ve already given too much and that I’d like to take some time for myself. I want to find a wooded, wild, quiet place to raise my children without the fuss of loving a place and a people in return. (Because, in the city, it’s impossible to ignore the heart beating next door. You can hear it through the walls. And I’ve got enough damage to repair in my own heart and my own home, thankyouverymuch.) Why not find someplace more comfortable? A place that doesn’t require so much work?

So, I’ll ask it again: why am I here?

How deep is my love for this city?
How strong is this marriage?

I can’t honestly say whether or not Cincinnati will be my home in ten years’ time. This city doesn’t really need me. Not in the same way my family needs me. There may be another vision or mission around the bend.

For now, I’m thankful for this city. And reminiscent. A little melancholy. And pretty hopeful for its future.

This city has given me a lot in ten years’ time. I am praying I have something to offer in return, even if it’s not for forever.

Why You Should Take Your Kids On A Hike

Did you hear that Cincinnati was ranked #7 in ParkScore’s Top 10 list of municipal park systems in the country? Yes, it’s true. Read for yourself.

So, if you weren’t already aware, you can now rest assured that Cincinnati (and the Tri-State region, as a whole) has a great park system. And that doesn’t just include public greenspace like the wonderful new riverfront developments or Washington Park. We have forest preserves and trail systems galore.

This region is rich with wild places and your kids need to see them.


Hiking is good exercise–for you, for me, for your kids. You’ve heard it said that “kids these days” spend too much time indoors and far too much time in front of a screen. Even if your kids aren’t the average couch potato, we can always use a little more exercise.

Wild places are always changing. Backyards are great, but they are familiar. In the woods, there are always new things to see. Every new season brings new plants, new flowers, berries to pick, birds to see, and animal tracks to discover. You can take the same hiking trail over and over again until it’s memorized and still experience something new every hike.

Hiking is almost free. Aside from the occasional park pass (Hamilton County Parks and the Cincinnati Nature Center both require them), entry is free to many parks in our region. And although it’s possible to spend a good deal of money on hiking gear, it’s almost completely unnecessary for the fair-weather hiker. Strap on a decent pair of shoes and weather-appropriate clothing, pack a few snacks, and you’re good to go.

You can invite friends. Hiking is a great activity to share with friends, whether they have kids or not. Not only is it free, which means it’s accessible to everyone, but it’s great for all ages. As long as other moms are comfortable carrying small children in a comfortable carrier and other adults are willing to let the kids set the pace, everyone can enjoy the hike together. There aren’t very many indoor activites that a 3 year-old and a 10 year-old can truly enjoy together, but there are a million of them outside.

The woods provide a living education. You can teach your kids a million things while you hike. Whether you focus on life skills and problem solving or science and natural history, it’s all there if you have an eye to see it. And if you don’t think you know enough to teach them anything, buy a decent nature guide for trees or bugs or wildflowers and you can learn alongside them.

Fresh air and outdoor play are good for the soul. I know I can’t speak for every family, but my kids are high-energy and require a lot of physical activity to maintain a good attitude and behavior. Especially when our week has been a rough one, when I’m stressed out, or when my patience is waning, hiking is a perfect way to improve everyone’s mood. Whether it’s the extra oxygen, the sound of the birds, or the physical exertion, I’m not sure. I just know that it really works.

Hiking is a great summer activity. Have you ever been in the woods on a hot day? It can easily feel ten or more degrees cooler than in it does in the sun. If taking your kids to a playground in the heat sounds like torture come July and August, consider a trail instead. Look for one with a creek bed, wear waterproof shoes, and treat yourself to a dip in the creek!

If you’d like to start the habit of hiking with your kids, but don’t know how to start, browse your local park system’s websites for tips and trail maps. (To get you started: Cincinnati Parks, Hamilton County Parks, and Kenton County Parks.) Don’t be afraid to explore on your own (especially if it’s a well-traveled, popular trail), or grab a friend and a trail map and give it a shot.

I’ve written before about tips for hiking with kids, and I’ve reviewed a few local parks like Burnet Woods if you want more specific help. A quick Google search of “hiking with kids” will yield a million results to help you, as well.

As an aside, I once-upon-a-time tried to start a family hiking club. That first summer was so-so as far as participation, but it was a lot of fun. Our family schedule right now only allows us one or two hikes a week and it’s nice to keep them to ourselves sometimes, but we are usually up for planning hikes with friends every other week or so. Let us know if you want to come along!

Why We Don’t “Do” Disney

Before you had kids, did you have any idea that taking a position on how to best parent would be so divisive? It starts with disagreements with friends over birth control and pregnancy and then childbirth and sleep training and continues well into your child’s adolescence.

Trust me. I have a lot of strong opinions. And I’m not afraid to share them. But I try not to be one of those “holier than thou” elitists about stuff like this because it’s not my job to parent your children. It’s my job to parent mine.

For example, we get questions a lot about why my almost-four year-old daughter still has not seen the movie Frozen. As if it’s a crime. As if she’s missing out on a life-defining childhood experience. So, in a brief diversion from current affairs, let me offer a quick peek into our family life and why we, generally, don’t consume a lot of popular kids’ media.

First of all, my kids are not sheltered. And no, don’t worry, we don’t throw away gifts given by friends and family. My daughter has a Disney princess book (which she loves) and an Elsa doll. My kids play with lightsabers and make references to Batman. They know that the worlds of Disney and superheros and Star Wars exist. They know the stories and characters and have read many of the books.

Kids like “kid stuff.”
No big deal.

But, because exposure to popular media is almost a given these days, we are intentional about exposing our kids to more of what we think is “good” media and entertainment. It’s similar (in my mind) to a family that says to their children, “No juice before bed,” or “No dessert before dinner” regardless of what their friends’ parents allow.

And although I’m speaking most specifically here about Disney princess movies, this post could have just as easily been titled “Why I Don’t Buy My Son Star Wars Action Figures” or “Why We Watch 10+ Year-old Movies On Family Movie Night” or “Why I Hate That My Kids Love Paw Patrol.

Let me quickly clarify that, yes, I know that not all kids’ media is equal and that I’m probably being too hard on Disney. There are many, many intelligent, funny, enlightening kids’ movies, television shows, and books in existence, produced by Disney and others. We’ve seen some of them. We have really liked some of them.

Also, I’m sure you can argue a “Yeah, but, have you seen….. ?” for everyone one of my arguments. Feel free to make recommendations, but I still consider them the exception to the rule. And we shouldn’t set standards based on exceptions.

And, no, you don’t have to worry that I’m going to be weird about my kids coming to your house and seeing your kid’s Superman bedroom or that we’ll balk at your big-screen tv. That’s not the point of this. Please don’t take this personally. I’m just trying to explain the decision we’ve made with our kids because it does seem so strange to some people–especially to other people’s kids. And I understand that there are probably things we do allow our children to consume that confuse other people just as much as what we don’t allow. (I’ll keep an eye out for someone to write a post about “Why We Don’t Let Our Kids Listen to David Bowie Like The McEwans Do.”)

I know some of my ideas are unpopular or might make people uncomfortable. I think it’s worth sharing this kind of stuff anyway because, in the world of parenting, there are a lot of things that we take for granted about what is “good” or “best” for our kids just because it’s popular or recommended or it seems to work for everyone else. I’m simply suggesting some reasons why we should question these assumptions and consider that maybe, just maybe, popular kids’ media is feeding us all too much “dessert” and not enough “dinner.”

So, here you have it.
Seven reasons why we don’t “do” Disney.

Every new popular movie is just another fad. Fads are created by multi-million (billion?) dollar marketing schemes that specifically target impressionable young children and parents who are willing to give into their child’s desires. I don’t want my kids to get into the habit of latching onto what’s new just because it’s new. The best of the best of the new shows and movies will have staying power and will be just as good when they are 10 years old as they were when they were brand new. That’s why our kids will eventually see all these popular movies–but it will probably be in a few years, once the fad has passed.

The ubiquitous marketing by companies like Disney is overwhelming and confusing for a child. (For more on the manipulative nature of marking to youth, read this book.) What a child wants is not always what a child needs and what a child needs is not always desirable at first glance. When a young child walks through a store and everything in their sight, from snacks to water bottles to t-shirts and pull-ups is branded with a Disney character, the difference between want/need is blurred. They are manipulated into believing that the items branded with Frozen‘s Elsa are the better ones. They don’t learn a thing about quality, only desirability. This is a dangerous lesson to teach children. It will not prepare them to be wise consumers as they age. Yes, sometimes “want” and “need” can be found in the same item, but not always. We need to teach our kids to put first things first.

The meta-narrative of most popular media is weak and confusing. What exactly is your average Disney princess movie about? Ask three people and they’ll tell you something different. Is it about “true love?” Is it about “finding yourself?” Is it about “breaking free from restraints?” Who the heck knows. Case in point: I recently heard two different people discuss the story from the movie Frozen in two different church sermons. One thought it was a positive and liberating story; one thought it was completely godless and worldly. Does it really matter if it’s not super obvious what these stories are about? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, we are the ones who help our children interpret these stories. I’d simply rather choose better stories.

(As an aside: I’ve never understood how many Christian families boycotted Harry Potter but take their preschool children to see Disney movies. Although Harry Potter is admittedly “dark,” the series has so much more depth and rich truths to the story than any Disney princess movie ever did. And no, my kids have not seen/read Harry Potter, either.)

– Disney stories cannot stand apart from their visual presentation. In other words, without the screen, a Disney princess story is crap. Have you ever tried to read a storybook adaptation of a Disney movie? They are horrendous. That doesn’t mean the movie itself isn’t a good movie, only that its value is completely dependent on visual stimulation. There are some exceptions to this rule–movies like The Lion King and Frozen that have a good soundtrack, for example. But in general, I’d say it’s true. Why is this a bad thing? Well, because children don’t belong couched in front of a screen for hours upon end. Every once and a while? Sure. As “dessert” after a healthy “dinner” of profitable consumption? Sure. At Grandma’s house or on vacation or while passing time during a 10-hour car ride? Sure, pull out that DVD player. But on a regular, daily, or multiple times daily basis? No way. And since there are no decent, non-movie versions of Disney stories, we’d rather skip the stories entirely and find something better.

– I’m a Conservative. And I know that this doesn’t make me super popular, but I believe in inherent differences between men and women. And, often times, the gender distinctives in popular media are one-dimensional and the characters are inaccessible to the opposite sex. I don’t want my kids consuming media that only presents their differences in one-dimensional characters whose entire identity is predicated on their being “girly” or “manly.” And when I say these characters are inaccessible, I mean that they are so shallowly presented that the characters themselves have no lessons to teach children of the opposite sex. The heroine is beautiful and naive; the villain is masculine and conniving. This obviously exists on a continuum (Anyone remember Mulan? I loved her.), but if I read one more princess story that starts with the phrase, “the princess was the most beautiful baby in the world,” I might puke. They write it because it sells. But it only sells because we’re buying. How this manifests itself: Merida, the female protagonist in Disney’s Brave, was physically altered in post-production to look prettier. Apparently, the strong, brave, spunky young woman of the popular movie was not good enough to be sold as a doll.

– The love stories are full of lies. “He fell in love with her the moment he saw her” is garbage. Do I want my daughter to place a high value on love and commitment and sacrifice? Absolutely. Is a fairy tale the best way to communicate the nature of “true love” to my young, impressionable daughter? Probably not. At least not the grossly exaggerated, manufactured, feel-good Disney-ification of a fairy tale. You may believe the lady-in-waiting, “Prince Charming is just around the corner” messages are harmless and all in good fun and that “all little girls dream of being a princess.” But I would argue that lies about love and devotion and Prince Charming have gotten my generation into a big mess of broken relationships, fear of commitment, confused sexuality, and disappointment in marriage. Children will listen, as another fairy-tale tells us. Be careful what you tell them when they are young and listen to you most.

Many animated movies are simply immature. You see, it’s not necessarily the stories that I find objectionable, but the dumbing-down of decent, edifying stories. Many Disney movies are based on wonderful, historically significant folk tales and fairy tales. In their original form and their cultural adaptations, they are complex and subtle and engaging for both adults and children. But in trying to make them “kid-friendly” and easy to swallow, we strip these grand stories of their strength and meaning. We reduce them to two hours of poop jokes for the kids and innuendos for the parents who are forced to watch. Children don’t need their stories dumbed-down; let’s give our children more credit than that.

The world is full of beautiful stories for children, stories of princes and princesses, heroes and adventure, love and loss, goblins and witches and giants and pirates. We should be offering the best of what is available, not what is easiest and most accessible at any given time on our nearest electronic device. It may take a little bit more work at times for parents, but the payoff is worth the effort.

In closing, let me leave you with a quote by author Madeline L’Engle:

“‘Why do you write for children?’ My immediate response to this question is, ‘I don’t.’ … If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.

“Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it’s perfectly true. Children still haven’t closed themselves off with fear of the unknown, fear of revolution, or the scramble for security. They are still familiar with the inborn vocabulary of myth. It was adults who thought that children would be afraid of the Dark Thing in Wrinkle, not children, who understand the need to see thingness, non-ness, and to fight it”

– Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

*Ironically, Disney is set to make an adaptation of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, one of my favorite books. This is both a little heartbreaking and a little exciting. Disney did a pretty good job with CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and several other live-action films based on children’s literature, so I’m hoping for the best.

But Where Do You Park Your Car?

The three most frequent questions I’m asked by people (parents, specifically) who are curious about living downtown are:

“Where do you buy groceries?”

“Where do your kids attend school?”

“Where do you park your car?”

Of these three, the first two are easily reconcilable. I have good answers for both. But the third question kills the conversation pretty quickly as soon as I answer, “Well, I can usually find a spot within a few blocks.”

The parking situation in my neighborhood has become more and more of a headache in the past two years as A) new businesses have opened and non-residents have decided that OTR is the “place to be” and B) as the City instated new parking restrictions including more metered spaces, higher parking rates, extended hours of enforcement, and started actually enforcing current laws. Together, these have all have forced residents to compete for the few free spaces available. Whereas, five years ago, I could find a parking space on my own street just about any time of the day (except Final Friday), I now sometimes circle for 20 minutes if I want a nearby space and often park 3-4 blocks away. (More on why that’s a problem in a minute.)

Today, we are on the brink of a City Council decision about the fate of parking in OTR and the (likely) institution of a permit parking program that–in my opinion–is too little, too late.

But, back to the issue at hand.
For the average family, the parking issue is one of the main factors in deciding whether or not a place is truly livable, meaning a place that goes from pie-in-the-sky, “I’d love to live there someday, in another life” to an actual, potential place they can thrive as a family. 

I’ve heard many Cincinnati residents (including the Mayor himself, City Council members, and other OTR residents) write-off the parking issue with a naive and condescending “If you don’t want to pay for parking, just get rid of your car. You’re the one who chose to live downtown.” And, sure, in a perfect world or in a world-class city, it would be that easy. Heck, even in Cincinnati, it is possible for many people. But we are still a long way from having an infrastructure that supports a completely car-free life. Especially for families (those of us with more than just ourselves and our own stuff to transport around town).

So, let me explain a few reasons why inconvenient parking kills the urban living dream for the average family.

The distance between your parking space and your front door seems quite a bit more significant when you’re responsible for unloading after a family-sized grocery trip or now have to carry the sleeping babies that fell asleep while you circled the block for twenty minutes.

You cannot leave things in your car when you live in the city. Or, at least you should not. This includes that stroller you’d rather not bring in and out of the house twice a day and the groceries you’d rather just leave for a few hours while you get the kids inside the house for their nap. There is no garage to keep your car/things safe. Leave it and you take the chance of coming back to a broken window and a lost stroller.

Good luck getting friends and family to come visit you at your downtown home when there is no place to park. Other families with kids don’t want to walk six blocks from the nearest parking garage just to visit you. And Grandma doesn’t want to, either. Before too long, Uncle Elmer out in the suburbs will start hosting Easter again because it is just so much easier for everyone. And what about your babysitters? You’ll have to pay them an extra $2 an hour just to pay for their parking.

– There are definitely some housing units available with off-street or designated parking spaces, but these are at a premium and the added cost of the parking space is prohibitive for many families. Most young families I know are sacrificing at least part of an income (if not a complete income) to care for their young children. Many of them live on a strict budget. The difference between a $150k and $350k home to them is like the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

– The cost of paying for a garage space is the same way. An extra $60-95 a month might not be a huge deal to a couple with two full-time jobs and no one to feed other than themselves and a pet cat, but it’s just another unnecessary expense that a working- or middle-class family doesn’t want to deal with.

Have you ever driven an SUV down a tiny cobblestone alleyway? In homes with off-street parking, a family-sized vehicle simply cannot fit. Take us for example: we have the potential for a parking pad in our backyard. But, with three kids and a mother in-law who doesn’t drive, we need a 6+ passenger vehicle. Big cars and small alleys aren’t exactly a good match. For us, parking in the backyard would be a headache every single time.

– With young children in the house, you cannot “just leave the house for a second” to walk down the street and feed the meter. This is why I’d rather circle the block for twenty minutes than park at a metered spot (and why extended meter hours stink). This goes for babysitters, too. If my babysitter arrives in the morning and has to park at a meter, she’ll need to leave my house every few hours to feed the meter and avoid a ticket. With older kids, this is not a big deal. They can be left alone for a few moments. But what do you do when there is a sleeping baby upstairs and the parking meeting around the corner is about to expire? Or when there are three kids who you have to pack up in jackets and shoes to take with you around the corner to pay that meter? It’s obviously not impossible. But it’s obnoxious.

“Just get rid of your car” doesn’t work when there are large grocery trips and grandparents to visit. It doesn’t help when you have a sick child and need to be able to speed to the doctor at any moment. It doesn’t do the job when you have two or three kids who need to be at two different places clear across town within moments of each other. Now, sure, this could be argued as a matter of lifestyle choices. The in-laws could move within walking distance. You could do all of your shopping in small trips around the neighborhood. You could buy a $3000 cargo bike to replace your car. But, like I said, above, our city is just not at a place yet where being completely car-free is a practical decision for most families. Until it is, let’s stop pulling the “Just get rid of your car” card on people who really would like to find a way to make it work for their family.

Okay, now let me be frank for a second. 

My husband and I knew what we were getting into when we moved here. We knew that parking could be difficult. And for the past seven years, we’ve dealt with it as one of a few nuisances among the many benefits of city living. We have also adapted our lifestyle to make it easier on ourselves and, at this point, can go quite a few days without actually needing to use our family vehicle. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’ve been so angry with how hard it is to find a decent parking space that I take those laps around the block red-faced and cursing under my breath so my kids can’t hear.

I don’t consider us your “average family.” Your average family may have never moved here in the first place. And they most certainly are not going to move to place that almost requires playing the parking game we have these days in OTR.

So why does it matter? Do we really want a bunch of average families moving to the urban core of our city. 

Yes, absolutely.

And if you want a city that the average family actually considers livable, you have to build your city with them in mind. Amenities like grocery stores and affordable restaurants are key; healthy and thriving schools are an absolute necessity. Add the availability of family-sized housing that is affordable and offers off-street or near (affordable) parking, and they’ll be moving in droves. Trust me.

For now and for our city, I’m feeling a little helpless at the moment. Not about the neighborhood, in general, but about its livability for families like mine. High-cost developments and inflated market-rate housing costs have already priced-out most of my peers. Neighborhood schools don’t seem to be improving. And this ridiculous parking situation may, quite honestly, be the nail in the proverbial coffin for most working- and middle-class families.

I know that, from an economic standpoint, parking in busy urban districts can seem to be the quickest way to make a buck. Sure: raise the rates, increase the hours, charge visitors a pretty penny to visit our booming downtown. But we need to remember that it’s a city’s residents and business owners, not its visitors, that keep it alive. What our Mayor and City Council are saying to us right now is, basically, they care far more about making some extra cash than they do about ensuring that the urban core remains a livable community.

And that’s an awful shame.