The first thing to say is that I love my children with all my heart. Having them is without a doubt the best decision I have ever made. I was desperate to have children. I wanted a different sort of life from the one that I was living. I spent a few years surreptitiously going around the shops and looking at baby clothes. My husband at the time and I waited a few years before we started a family. Money was tight and he in particular was keen that we get ourselves in a better financial position before we added kids in to the equation. That was definitely a good plan, if somewhat frustrating at the time. So we cleared the credit cards and tried to get a little bit of money behind us to try and cover my maternity leave.
Everybody tells you how expensive having children is. They’re not wrong of course, although I’m never quite sure where they get their figures from about how much it costs to raise a child. Based on the figures you see bandied about only millionaires would be able to afford one child, never mind multiple kids. I tend to think that children cost as much as you choose to make them cost. There are certain things that you can’t avoid, but plenty that you can minimise. I think I pretty much lived in Mothercare when I was pregnant with the first one. You’re growing this baby inside you and you just want all the nicest things that are completely unnecessary. Let’s be honest, baby stuff is cute and you want the best for your unborn child. The fact of the matter is that what’s important with children is the time you spend with them, not the stuff they have.
Set Up Costs
There are certain basics that you need – pram, car seat, something for it to sleep in etc. A lot of the extra stuff is not needed, and if you decide that it’s going to make your life easier then the chances are you’re going to be able to get it either for free or very cheap. By the time I had the second one I’d figured out that most of the baby stuff isn’t used for very long, so even if you get it pre-loved it’s probably not seen all that much usage. I was lucky that in our family there are four male cousins. What that meant was that the clothes would get handed down from my nephew to my two and then on to my younger nephew. Result! Even if you’re not in this lucky position, in my experience people are always trying to get rid of their kids stuff. There’s a lot of it and it clutters up your house. People would much rather give it to someone they know can make use of it.
So as far as stuff goes, minimise what you buy, get stuff for free or second hand and remember that when your baby is first born you are inundated with presents for the wee one. People love it when a baby is born, and I found that neighbours I didn’t even know would leave gifts on the doorstep. A baby is a wonderful thing for bringing a neighbourhood together. Now although buying stuff for children can get out of hand, remember that you are in control of what comes into your house. I really don’t subscribe to the theory that you have to give your children what everybody else has. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but my kids have never come home and asked for the latest designer label. That’s probably partly due to the way I’ve raised them and also the fact that they’re just not into that sort of thing.
Prioritise Experiences Over Stuff
I’ve always made sure that my kids could do what interested them in terms of activities. I’d much rather that I was spending my money on experiences for them – whether that’s them going to things like drama club, judo, swimming lessons or trips away with the school. I’ve also been comfortable saying no to things too. They didn’t even bother asking, but I saw there was a school trip to New York that cost thousands of pounds. Er no. If I don’t spend that sort of money on a family holiday then I’m not going to pay that out for just one of them to go. That’s the thing, as a parent you’re in control. You get to say no. As a parent there are plenty of things you’re going to be saying no to over the years, so you might as well get used to it. Is it any worse to say “no you can’t watch telly, go and find something else to do” or “no you can’t juggle with knives, it’s dangerous” or “no I’m not buying that for you, it’s a waste of money. If you still want it when it’s your birthday/Christmas then add it to your list”?
Clearly everybody brings their children up differently, and I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do here, just saying what I did and how it worked. For me it was partly that I couldn’t afford to spend much on stuff, but mainly that I just didn’t think it was worthwhile. The house filled up with a tsunami of plastic crap no matter what I did, so there was certainly no need for me to add to what they had.
And don’t get me started on those Facebook posts at Christmas with the mountain of presents for the kids. Don’t, just don’t. There’s no need for it. The more you give the less impact each individual present has. You know what gift is going to bring joy to your child, not just on Christmas morning, but throughout the year. Some of the best gifts I got my kids over the years were a puppet theatre along with dressing up clothes for them to put shows on, bikes, an Xbox shared between the two of them and a shared laptop. I’ve been lucky in that my kids are only 18 months apart in age and have similar interests. This has meant that a present for one is effectively useful for both of them.
The Extortionate Cost Of Childcare
That’s us dealt with some of the costs you can control with kids. Clearly there are some extra costs that you can’t do anything about. Childcare is an absolute killer. Unless you can manage your work around your kids then you’re going to need some sort of childcare or loss of income. Maybe some people manage to run a business from the house with the kids running around their feet. Hats off to them if so, because I cannot for the life of me see how that would be feasible.
Initially I went back to work full time working a late shift starting at lunchtime. This meant that I “only” needed childcare in the afternoon. With one child this was tough financially, but just about doable. Eighteen months later I added a second child into the mix. This time I had learned my lesson from the first time around where I’d gone back to work with a three month old baby at home. No sleep, a full on job and a touch of post-natal depression made that tough.
Second time around I took a full year off and went back to work part time, working in the evenings when my now ex came home from work. I couldn’t organise part time hours in the job I’d been doing, so I had to switch departments, drop a grade and obviously deal with less money coming in because of the fewer hours I was working. My eldest didn’t sleep through the night until he was four, my youngest used to get up at 6 am and I was working till 10.00 at night. So basically I was constantly exhausted, working a soul sucking job and never seeing my husband. We used to take it in turns to sleep at the weekends. Funnily enough we ended up getting divorced!
For me then I didn’t have any childcare costs second time around, but of course I was earning a lot less as a result. My pension got capped during this time as well, so what I’ll get in retirement is based on what I was earning during that time. A nice financial hangover of the child rearing years. Once the kids were at school I switched my hours to the daytime, but still worked part time so I could collect them from school. They went to the breakfast club in the morning as that was much better value than the after school club.
Luckily my parents have always had the kids to stay in the school holidays. That has been an absolute lifesaver. It’s meant the kids have a brilliant relationship with their grandparents, my folks have loved it and it has saved me a massive amount in childcare over the years. I honestly don’t know how I would have managed without them. Even now my dad’s been on hand to take them off to university interview days etc when I’ve been working.
So from a cost point of view we’ve got the set up costs of having a baby, which as we’ve seen can most definitely be minimised. You’ve got childcare, which is hard to avoid. You either have to pay out for childcare or you have to organise your work life in such a way that you can look after your kids yourself. I went down the route of wanting to be there for them myself and earning less. In all honesty it probably would have suited me better to have worked during the day when they were younger. Being with them all day and then going out to work all evening was just too much. I think I might have appreciated them a bit more too if I’d had a bit more time away from them. A bit of time for myself. Linked to the childcare is the loss of income. You might choose to work less and not earn as much, change the type of work you do to fit in with your kid’s needs and earn less and you might be less invested in your career because of prioritising your children and so miss out on opportunities and so earn less. There seems to be a bit of a common theme going on here!
Maybe that’s not always the way it goes. It could be that having children motivates people to do well in their career and so be able to provide for their children. That’s not the way it worked for me, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. There are plenty of people in higher grades than me at work that are parents, so maybe I’m just using that as a bit of an excuse. Certainly for me the kids were my priority, and anything else came secondary to that.
I’m definitely more risk averse since I became a mum. I very much feel that I have to be in a position to provide for the kids and make sure that we’re all OK. I used to be much more inclined to move from job to job and feel that if it didn’t work out then it wasn’t the end of the world. Now one of my first concerns is that my working arrangements fit around family life. They’re old enough now that this isn’t really something I need to worry about, and yet still I do. In order to move on within the area that I work in just now it’s likely that I would have to work much more often in the evenings. This has always stopped me going for other roles, as I feel I want to be there for my boys when they need me.
It doesn’t seem very positive so far does it? Kids are expensive in terms of getting set up for them. You have loss of income from maternity/paternity leave. You either need childcare or a change in working hours to look after them, which in all likelihood will mean you have less money coming in. You’re likely to be less flexible in taking advantage of advancement opportunities at work. And of course you can’t work away from home, which many roles might require. So you have less money, a less good career potentially and you’re constantly juggling schedules to make sure that your kids are looked after and are healthy and happy.
Babies Are Torture Machines
Oh, and did I mention that the first five years are brutal. Total and utter torture. Yes, babies are cute and your heart fills with joy when you see them. Yes, you know that you would die to protect them and would do anything within your power to keep them safe. That doesn’t take away from the fact that they don’t sleep, they cry a lot and they completely and utterly take over your life. I could not go back to the baby stage no matter what you paid me. I know this is not everybody’s experience. People love babies, they want to be needed and they just love how dependent their kids are on them. Not me. I was always trying to get my children to the next stage, to get them to need me less.
I am willing to admit that I might not have been doing my parenting in quite ideal circumstances. A child that doesn’t sleep until he’s 4 is not necessarily the norm. My working arrangements, whist ideal from a financial point of view where not great from a life stand point. And when you throw a divorce into the mix when the kids are just 2 and 3 then it’s never going to be easy. I felt like I lost myself for quite a long time. I don’t feel like that any more, but I think it’s important to acknowledge how I felt at the time. Too often we see the idealised parts of family life on social media. I can’t be the only one who felt like this when my children were young.
Prepare To Be Exhausted
The children took absolutely everything that I had in terms of my energy levels. I was exhausted for such a long time. It’s hard being a parent, especially if you want to do it well. Maybe I could have given them more screen time to give myself a break, but that wasn’t how I wanted to play it. I have been far from a perfect parent. I have made lots of mistakes. I’ve been grumpy with my children, when I wanted to exude patience. I’ve craved time to myself rather than wanting to spend every waking minute with them. I am confident though that I have done the very best I could have done. Parenting is something I’ve taken incredibly seriously. I wanted to do my absolute best. I’ve fallen short on many, many occasions, but I know that I’ve given it my all.
Reading this it sounds as though I regret having my children. This could not be further from the truth. Being a mum is the most important thing in my life. My kids are my top priority. I get the greatest joy from time with my family. Even when they were younger and it was much harder I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. It was hard though, really hard, and I think we need to talk about that more. I desperately wanted children, I waited a number of years before I started my family to make sure we were ready, and yet still it was incredibly difficult. The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life by far. The most rewarding too mind you. If it’s something you really want to do, then go for it. Be aware though that it’s going to be tough. It’s also going to be the ride of your life.