I’m sitting opposite a baby on the train. It’s teeny tiny, swathed in what looks like ten white cotton blankets. All I can see is a squishy, round face. Two bright, searching eyes and a button nose and a gummy grin. I’m smiling – I didn’t even mean to, it’s just a kneejerk reaction to a happy baby. Then I’m smiling at others, and they’re smiling back at me. We’re all smiling at each other. All this, just because there’s a baby on a train. But then something happens. That smile crumples into grimace and then, a staccato cry, which soon gives way to a jarring scream. The eyes disappear into the folds of a face now red with frustration. This continues for the rest of my journey. No one is smiling anymore.
This pretty much sums up how I feel about children: a nice idea in theory, but much less fun and far more unpredictable in real life. For the nice moments, it seems like an awful lot of hard graft. I don’t doubt that these moments are worth it, but as Amy Poehler once said, “Great for you, not for me.”
And it seems millennials might agree with me on this one. In 2017, it was reported that the UK birth rate was in decline, and last year the US rate also hit an all-time low. Millennials were once again in the firing line for ‘ruining’ something that baby boomers probably didn’t really want to do in the first place.
Here’s why children were so important to the baby boomer generation (and the clue is in the name): Boomers came into being in the years after the Second World War, which saw a huge surge in the number of babies being born as a way to make up for the perils of war. It was a chance to explore a new, more fruitful way of life that they had waited so long for. The uncertainty of war bred families that craved stability. The nuclear family was one that stayed together, that had a strong family unit, that marvelled at the power of a microwave, that ate dinner together every night like clockwork. In a world that was keen to move on from the horrors of WWII, these values were important.
As millennials, we don’t have the same concerns. In fact, we have a whole different set of problems, and we are in a fortunate position that means we can choose not to put children through that if we so choose. Right now, the economy is on the brink of a financial crisis. Climate change is set to have a detrimental effect on the earth that would have serious repercussions on future generations. Plus, the environmental toll of having just one child is devastating. Besides this, the priorities of women are different these days. Some have careers of their own that they don’t want to have to give up. (Some simply delay having children, leading to an influx in ‘geriatric mothers’.)
That’s not to chastise women who do have children – being a mother is both a right and a privilege. For me, it’s a culmination of the above, plus a few other factors. Someone once told me that you never really take the idea of having children seriously until you’re in your late 20s. At 23, I insisted I would always be a firm NO on the children front. But now, at 28, I do think slightly differently. I think it will always be a no, but whereas I felt 100% sure before, I’m sitting at a around 85% these days. My reasons for that 15% err on the more selfish side, I guess: What if I wake up at 45 and realise I’ve missed the boat? What if I feel unfulfilled? What if I end up growing old alone? What if I’m forgotten? What if there’s no one there who cares about me when I die? I don’t want to be that person on the news that they find dead in flat because of the smell rather than having people that are worried about me peering through my letterbox.
But then I imagine the other side: being able to afford nice holidays forever, going out for dinner with my partner whenever we like, having a nice house with a big garden. When I think about growing old this way, it makes me feel happy and content. But there’s a famous quote from the film When Harry Met Sally that always sticks in my mind. Sally is telling Harry about not wanting to get married to her partner Joe, and she says: “[We] used to talk about it, and we'd say we were so lucky we have this wonderful relationship – we can have sex on the kitchen floor and not worry about the kids walking in. We can fly off to Rome on a moment's notice. And then one day I was taking Alice's little girl for the afternoon… and we were in the cab playing I Spy… and she looked out the window and she saw this man and this woman with these two little kids. And the man had one of the little kids on his shoulders, and she said, 'I spy a family.' And I started to cry. And I went home, and I said, 'The thing is, Joe, we never do fly off to Rome on a moment's notice'."
I guess it’s important to recognise that the grass is always greener. I also like to remember that kids are hard work – the amount of effort it takes just to keep a toddler alive is astounding. Last year I spent a weekend camping with my partner’s university friends, who all have children. There was a moment where, sat in a circle on camping chairs with a couple of beers, the group were reminiscing about their uni days. It had been literally a minute, maybe two, but one of the children had briefly separated from the older children and plonked herself down behind a bush close to where we were sat. Soon, she was crying this raucous, scary cry. Piercing. Her dad got up so fast that the chair, with his beer propped inside the netted holder in the arm, fell backwards as he sprinted towards the cry. Beer spread across the seat and his coat that was perched on the back. The kid had just got a bit nervous because she couldn’t see her mum, but that run was from a man who is always on edge. Children are a 24/7 job, and while I commend parents everywhere for doing the job and doing it well, it’s not one that is calling my name right now.
Plus, does anyone realise how much it costs to raise a kid? According to the CPAG, the cost of raising a child – excluding housing, childcare and council tax – is £75,233 from birth to 18. Are you kidding me? I’m a writer – sometimes even buying a Crunchie seems a bit extravagant.
I would never say never to having a child – you can’t say no one time and expect it to stick for eternity, life just isn’t made that way. But right now, I’m of the mindset that if something doesn’t feel wrong, then don’t try and fix it. If I don’t feel like having children right now, why pursue it any further? Perhaps one day I’ll have a house filled with snotty little kids and be happy, or maybe I’ll find that same contentment in two cats and a yearly holiday somewhere fancy. Either way, I’m lucky that we live in a time and a place where I don’t have to feel that pressure that others did, and still do. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.