When I settled in to read Jessica Valenti’s book Why have kids? I though it would be a discussion of the titular question. It wasn’t! It was about other stuff.
I’m the first of my close group of school and uni friends to have kids, which is in itself a fascinating demographic feature of the under-35 set. When it comes to having a baby, 34 is the new 26. None of those friends are planning to have kids in the immediate future. More than half of them don’t want kids or are ambivalent.
To the ambivalent ones, I say don’t do this unless you’re sure!
I’m glad to be friends with the ones who don’t want kids, I can bitch and moan without worrying that I’m scaring them off, and it means that there’ll always be people available for child-free socialising.
The ones who do want kids, just “not yet”, well, I don’t want to say anything to either send them running to the hills or sell them on the idea.
Why the hell would anyone want to sign up for this? I’m not sure. It’s a tough question. Yes, I love the little dude. Yes, it is so brilliant when he does cool things. Yes, it’s amazing watching him grow and learn and flourish. Yes, it’s such a warm fuzzy when he climbs into my lap with a story or when he walks up to me and hugs my legs. I love him all up. Some moments are sublime. Some moments are a drop of distilled joy.
Some are gruelling. The work is relentless. In an awkward analogy, I’m reminded of something I heard a psychiatrist say about living with mental illness: the hardest thing is coming to terms with the fact that the old life never comes comes back, this is the reality now and it’s here to stay, the question is how to adjust.
As I said, heaps of my friends don’t want kids. Among the demographic of “highly educated millennial women” (ugh), this is completely unsurprising. Not just because we have options that previous generations could only dream of, but because our whole life has geared us towards making conscious, examined choices, questioning social expectations, and doing things our own way. For myself, the inclination to become a mother was so strong and so uncomplicated that I never really gave much thought to the question of whether to have children, or to the reality of being a mother. I didn’t weigh up pros and cons. The desire to have a baby was too complete – what would have been the point of considering it rationally? All the rational arguments in the world wouldn’t have made a speck of difference. I felt this love, waiting in the wings, primed and ready for a baby. My husband and I wanted to take our coupleship and turn it into a the start of a new little family. On our honeymoon we talked about how maybe we’d come back to these places in ten years and we’d have children by then, and we’d retrace our steps. These little people, a bit of him and a bit of me, these people who felt almost like they existed even though they were years away from being conceived, weighing in on our future fancies. Being unable to have children would have felt like a bereavement, a loss of my rightful path in life.
Now I sometimes think, we would have had an awesome life without children but we possibly wouldn’t have realised it…
One feature of the impulse to have children is that you value connections with loved ones above all (notably, above your independence), so you want to create some new connections. But the little ones take up so much of the available emotional energy that there is less time for the connections that you already had. It’s logistically difficult to maintain friendships, especially with people who don’t have kids. Time to socialise is scarce, and my life is so different from their lives (being back at work definitely helps create common ground, thankfully). For my husband and I, it was also the case that we saw having children as an extension of our joy in each others company. Now we have no time for ourselves as a couple.
I’m not sure where that gets me. Maybe it gets me prognosticating? I reckon the birthrate will get quite a bit lower before it bottoms out (it’s below replacement already). It’s pretty simple logic: lots of women don’t want to have children, and those who do have children are having one or two, maybe three, very occasionally four. Life without kids has such a lot to offer, and the more kids you have the more the other stuff is squeezed out. It’s great that each of us now has the option to determine how many children to have. Women who want kids and women who don’t want kids – all of us benefit from reproductive autonomy; I’d rather have a lifetime of celibacy than 15 kids… And the planet can’t really sustain 7 billion people, so a population decline is not a bad thing.
Yet – and I think I’ve said something like this before on this blog – someone has to have the babies. A birthrate of one baby per woman within the next 20 or 30 years would be a bit of a problem, yes? But it’s not so far-fetched. That means half don’t have kids, and those who do average 2 kids each. It’s a potentially realistic prospect. I detect a general ambivalence about this issue in the public discourse. There is a common sentiment that having children is either a peculiar hobby, a strange and eccentric indulgence, the imposition of a liability upon the taxpayer, the unwelcome introduction of another taker of resources in an already overpopulated world, or a beautiful gift and a wonderful and enriching experience for the parents. Rarely do we see it discussed as necessary for some people to do – an essential contribution that enables human society to continue. If it’s a decision that has consequences beyond the nuclear family, those consequences are almost always discussed in the negative.
Why is this?
It’s true, children are a beautiful gift and a wonderful and enriching experience, they’re worth the world to their mums and dads. Those of us with cherished children, oh we love them so, and the thought of infertility stops us in our tracks whenever we raise a peep about the cost of childcare. Because they’re our little darlings (y’know, in between the times where you’re trying to wrangle them into a carseat or put a nappy on when they’re rolling away or doing the fifth load of washing for the weekend or mopping up pumpkin from the floor and the walls or rocking them to sleep at three in the morning).
But liability for the taxpayer? Please, who’s going to be paying taxes in thirty years? Today’s babies, that’s who. Taker of resources? Yes, but also potential creators.
Here’s another conundrum: the socially sanctioned approach towards having children is to wait until you are financially stable and can afford to provide for them, but having children introduces significant new costs and constrains your ability to work as many hours as you used to. Instead of talking about how the taxes of childless people provide subsidies for families with children, in a society where the birthrate is below replacement, it might be fairer to ask why parents should be worse off financially than their childless friends. It’s a fundamental re-think really. Flipping the question round like this would suggest a lot of new public spending. For starters, it would necessitate a seamless transition from paid parental leave to funded early childcare, rather than the current 32 month gap. It would mean the normalisation of a shorter working week. It would mean more holiday leave. It would mean funding tertiary education to a much higher level. These things go well beyond the vague concept of “more support for parents”.
I wasn’t sure how to end this post. And then I was interrupted by a cry from the other room. Forty-five minutes later, after panadol and a new nappy and then a lullaby and some rocking, he is back asleep. Confounded teething! Poor little lamb. Ah, life.