AS THE NEW year approached, I was searching for the big parenting story of 2009 until it hit me in the face. It’s the economy, stupid.
The recession threatens to reshape our parenting culture during the next year, as the nation’s most consumption-driven generation of parents copes with arguably the greatest economic contraction of their adult lives.
The convergence promises to create big and small changes within the American family, everything from more stay-at-home dads and fewer children in child care to less money spent on gear and a greater sense of community, experts say. Parents may even have more sex.
Since we’re talking about a future driven by a manic economy, nothing is certain. But some of the sharpest parenting observers in Seattle and across the nation see changes coming.
“That kind of idea of a perfect parent as defined by their stuff; that era is over,” said Greg Allen, who runs one of the nation’s most popular dad blogs, daddytypes.”I think there is going to be a lot of improvising for a while.”
Parents aren’t waiting to improvise. They’re already cutting back on baby sitters, nannies — and possibly child care.
The chatter in the popular Queen Anne Moms online community has shifted from parents posting desperate pleas for good nannies to moms and dads saying their wonderful nannies are now available, says Tyler Crone, a group member and mother of two.
“I just remember my two years of struggling to find a good child care provider,” said Crone. “There has been a definite uptick in the number of nannies available.”
At Seattle-based Child Care Resources, the telephone isn’t ringing as often with parents seeking help finding good child care. That’s because when an economy sags, parents may rely more on grandparents, friends, neighbors and older siblings than on child-care centers, which can cost $7,000 or more a year per child, according to Marty Jacobs, Child Care Resources’ director of family services.
It may get worse before it gets better, said Annie Davis, chief executive of Annie’s Nannies in Seattle. Davis estimates her business could fall 10 to 15 percent next year.
“Even if they haven’t lost jobs, I think they are cutting back just because people are nervous,” Davis said.
It isn’t all bad news. The new nervousness may spark positive changes within a parenting culture too often defined by families striving to give their kids everything. And The Great Depression may offer families a few lessons.
When the country emerged from that massive contraction and World War II there was a sense that even if families didn’t share the same tax bracket, they were buffeted by the same economic winds, said Stephanie Coontz, head of research for the Council on Contemporary Families in Chicago.
“The parenting trend I hope will be the hot parenting trend is one where we step back from this idea of somehow we can give our kids every single competitive advantage (and are) teaching our kids all of us are in the same boat and we can pull together,” said Coontz, who also teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
Parents aren’t about to stop spending on their kids, however, because longstanding economic insecurity helped drive them to spend in an effort to bolster their children’s chances of success, said Pamela Paul, author of “Parenting Inc.”
But as the economy continues to stumble, many parents probably will spend less, and that could bring families closer. If Mom or Dad, for example, can’t afford that $200 activity table, they might make homemade play dough instead and use it with their kids, daddytypes’ Allen suggested.
And as economic anxiety mounts in the coming months, it is bound to change how dads and moms not only play with their kids, but talk to them.
“Kids are going to learn a lot more about the world of work. Someone they know is going to lose a job or at least worry about losing a job,” said Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families and Work Institute.
Galinsky believes the economic turmoil offers an opportunity to move away from a parenting model in which the child is king or queen of the family and instead is part of it and a broader community.
Not all family changes will be quite as philosophical. With money tight, parents simply will have more sex, suggested Seattle-based author Heidi Raykeil.
“In these uncertain times, I believe parents will start thinking of sex as a stress reliever again — not a stress maker!” Raykeil, author of the upcoming book “Love in the Time of Colic: The New Parents’ Guide to Getting It on Again,” wrote in an e-mail. “It’s fun — and it’s free!”
The depth of parenting changes remains to be the seen, just as the bottom and length of the recession remains unknown. But with nearly 2 million U.S. jobs lost, wages frozen and retirement savings gutted, parents are poised to learn a critical lesson, said Allen: “How to be a parent in a time of real uncertainty.”