My daughter’s third birthday is looming. I assure her that yes, of course there will be chocolate cake because nobody in their right mind would ever consider a birthday without cake, and I find myself watching her in wonder.
It seems like just yesterday that she was a mewling babe in arms. Now I watch as she becomes a person in her own right. And upon the shoulders of us, her parents, falls the terrifying, humbling, exciting responsibility of nurturing and teaching this newly minted person.
Being a parent is scary as fuck. You love this tiny human with the fiery passion of a thousand suns and you want more than anything to do right by them. Unfortunately, they don’t come with instructions and you receive no training before you embark on this giant adventure. What is one to do? One looks to the example of one’s parents, and all the other parents, both good and bad, that surround one. One tries to pick the best examples and emulate them.
But there is one thing that sets us apart from everyone we know in real life. We are striving to be financially independent and to retire early. According to our plan, we will get there in a few short years. At that time Toddler BITA will be no longer be a toddler, but she will still be a child much influenced, for better or for worse, by her parents.
What impact is our financial independence and early retirement going to have on our parenting and thus eventually on our daughter? What are the advantages? What, if any, are the pitfalls that we will need to watch out for, and, with any luck avoid?
More Time = A Better Parent?
A couple of weekends ago we were in our car driving to Berkeley to spend the day there. Toddler BITA and I had a conversation that went like this:
Me: Do you like running?
Me: Do you like skipping?
Me: Do you like hopping?
(my daughter is clearly a girl of few words)
Me: Well, what do you like best of all?
TB: I like going places with you.
Financial independence and early retirement buys us time. Once we are freed from the shackles of our jobs we will have reclaimed eight to ten hours a day. A goodly portion of that time could now be spent with our child. We could explore the world together, and take our time discussing the probable secret lives of a banana slug that we stumble upon as we adventure together.
On the other hand there are plenty of stay-at-home parents out there. These are single income families where either by choice or by circumstance one parent does not go to work, but instead stays home and raises the kids. If it was as simple as more time spent parenting equals being a better parent, all children who grow up around one stay at home parent should be coming out ahead. The research doesn’t support this. We aren’t automatically going to become better parents because we’re spending more hours together.
We need to dig deeper.
Less Stress = A Better Parent?
Financial independence and early retirement doesn’t just buy us time though. It makes us financially secure, and ensures that we don’t need a paying job. This means that we will not be subject to the stresses of a job, nor are we likely to be subject to financial stresses.
If what stress does to our health isn’t bad enough, it can also transform us from Bruce Banner into the Hulk. Under stress we are less patient with each other and with our child. We tend to listen less and snap more. We are generally unpleasant to be around.
It seems self-evident that less stress means that we spend more time being our better selves, working on being our best selves. A better me makes for a better parent.
Contentment, Creativity and Happiness = A Better Parent?
I imagine that once we have achieved the holy grail of FIRE, Mr. BITA and I will be living the lives we’ve dreamed of, working on things that make us feel happy and fulfilled. I hope that creativity levels in the BITA household will rise once again to the heights we last achieved only in carefree childhood. When we bring back the unfettered curiosity and creativity of childhood, I imagine that we will ooze contentment.
Maybe the truth is that we will stream Netflix all day and slowly transform into unsightly blobs covered in pimples from all the junk food that we eat all day. Maybe we will become the embodiment of Sloth. But just for a minute here, let us instead assume the best. Let us imagine that our retirements make us more creative, content and happy than we are now.
I think Toddler BITA would benefit greatly from such an environment. She would grow up with a front row view of all the benefits of a creative life. With creativity all around her, she would probably end up being pretty creative herself. We would imbue her with a love and thirst for creation, and possibly even teach her lessons in entrepreneurship. She will definitely learn lessons in personal finance that will stand her in good stead all her life.
What of Perseverance, Grit and Duty?
This is the flip side of the stress-free, creative, life-less-ordinary that I hope will soon be a reality for my family. How will Toddler BITA learn of perseverance? What will teach her that grit is to be admired? How will she learn that though one must never be a slave to duty, that there are seasons of life where duty comes first?
I watched my parents work hard their whole lives. Mr. BITA’s parents come from similarly hardy stock. My parents both had white collar jobs. My father is a doctor. My mother was a nurse, and then a teacher. She is now retired. Both my parents were fortunate enough to have jobs that they enjoyed, and were good at. But they didn’t always enjoy these jobs. They had to wake up early, wade through paperwork, deal with bureaucracy, be transferred from place to place (my father was in the army), pack, unpack, get us admissions into new schools, placate cranky parents, demanding patients and bosses who were mean. Money was always tight (a doctor in the army in India does not make what a doctor in the U.S. makes. Not even close. Not by a long shot). My mother worked even though she had to care for two aging parents and two children and she had a temporary colostomy! I watched my parents live this life, and do it with dignity and good humour. They did what needed to be done, and without complaint. I like to think that my background has made me hardy. I feel self-conscious about all the privilege I now enjoy. I try really hard not to sweat the small stuff. To never be a complainy pants, or heaven forbid, a special snowflake. I know that if push comes to shove I can work ten hours a day to provide for my family.
I worry that Toddler BITA will, for the most part, only ever witness her financially independent parents doing what they want to do. If she never watches us struggle, how is she going to learn to shoulder burdens with grace? How will we teach her that we don’t always just get to do what is fun and rewarding? That sometimes we have to do shit jobs, and hunker down and power through them with bonus points for remembering to laugh at ourselves and our temporary perceived misery? If her life is a bed of roses, what makes her strong? Doesn’t she need fire to temper her steel?
What of all the Glass Ceilings I am Leaving Intact?
I am a person of colour, an immigrant and a woman. I work in tech, and I have been climbing the technical rungs in my career. As I ascend the ladder, the field becomes denser with men. My company has one woman in a technical position at a level higher than the one I am at. One. This is a Fortune 500 company.
So I have to ask myself: What of all the glass ceilings I am leaving intact?
Am I failing my daughter by quitting the fight? How different would her worldview and values be if she grew up with a working mother and she watched that mother play successfully at the highest levels of a male-dominated field?
Being her mother is about more than making sure she eats her vegetables and brushes her teeth every day. My job includes making her believe that she can aspire to anything irrespective of her colour, her race or her gender. I can say the words. I can give her books to read. She will, I hope, be surrounded by many excellent examples of women doing amazing things at work. Are any of these things a good enough substitute for the example of her own mother? If she had me as an example wouldn’t that ingrain deep within her somewhere the unshakeable belief that all those words and stories are true? I do understand that I am not the determining factor of her success, or lack thereof. I do want to give her the best possible leg up that I possibly can though.
If I hated my job, if my job offered me no creative outlet at all, this would be an easy decision. A happy mother is far better than the alternative. But I don’t hate my job. I work with some really smart people. Parts of my job are more painful than popping a zit, but other parts are creative and fun. I could stick it out. I just don’t want to.
And that brings me to the final questions.
Am I choosing selfishness over being the best possible parent? Can I be certain that from the perspective of what is best for my child that the benefits of a financially independent, early retired lifestyle will clearly outweigh any disadvantages?
I’d love to hear what you think.