Priced out of parenthood: no wonder the birthrate is plummeting | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Deciding to have a child should fill you with joy, not crippling anxiety. The UK is making things so hard for its young people

Skint people have been having babies for thousands of years. Were the continuation of the human race reliant on parents being in a position of economic security before deciding to have children, we would have died out by now.

This, on one level, we know. We are ultimately mammals. It’s what we do. On another, most parents hope to be in a position of relative stability when they have children, for the health and wellbeing of both parents and child. When the parents are not, much of the media tells us that they are feckless and irresponsible, and that they should be ashamed. The British government has brought in a two-child limit for tax credits, an implicit deterrent. Unless the mother has been raped – sorry, subject to “non-consensual sex” – and barring a few other exceptions, you cannot claim assistance for a third child. Having too many children and too little money is frowned upon.

These are quite some mixed messages. The Office for National Statistics reports that the birthrate has reached a 12-year low as couples have fewer children or defer having them until later. It has been falling since 2012, while the average number of children expected to be born to each woman (called the fertility rate) has fallen to 1.76. This, the Times reports, “coincides with a long squeeze on wages and weak pay growth after the 2008 financial crisis, and is likely to reflect sustained pressure on household incomes”.

I have written extensively about the young adults who feel they have been “priced out” of parenthood, interviewing would-be parents from up and down the country (this is not, as detractors so often argue, a London-specific problem). Of course economics are a factor. Housing costs keep increasing while wages do not. There’s less spare cash to put aside for all the things a baby needs, not to mention childcare, which costs an astronomical amount.

The rise of freelancing and the gig economy are also likely to play a part. Freelancers and zero-hours workers are only entitled to maternity allowance, currently set at a maximum of £145.18. As a child-free freelancer myself, it’s not exactly encouraging.

The EU is seeking to rectify this and bring in maternity leave for those in the “irregular” labour market. Unfortunately we are Brexiting, so if you are older and voted for that pathetic shambles, you have no business asking your relatives when some grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be coming along (it’s rude to ask anyone about children anyway – for all you know they may have suffered repeat miscarriages, or just had an abortion, or have a genetic condition they don’t want to pass on, or think it’s none of your business).

Brexit is only likely to decrease workers’ rights. There is so much focus on emulating and trading with the US, but doing so is hardly likely to improve our birthrate. It’s one of the worst countries in the world for maternity law.

Smaller and more expensive houses, a rise in food prices and stagnant wages likely all play a part in any couple’s decision whether or not to have children. My parents’ generation faced challenges as well, just not all at once. I was born into a shared, rented house. My friends had parents in tiny bedsits, who were still studying, or working three jobs, or who moved back in with relatives. It is understood that new parents make sacrifices. No young prospective parent in 2018 is saying that they want everything to be absolutely perfect before they embark on parenthood. They are weighing up the options carefully and sensibly, with many deferring if it doesn’t seem practical, or deciding not to altogether.

Many, of course, go ahead and do it anyway despite conditions being far from ideal. Why sit around and wait for life to happen? Older women tell me that the timing is never perfect, no matter when you do it, and that if you feel that hormonal imperative you should go ahead and throw caution to the wind. Perhaps they are right, but I worry about the mental health implications for young parents.

Older people had support networks, more affordable childcare, Sure Start centres. Whatever happened to workplace creches? Now, young mothers are more isolated. Paternity leave take-up remains low, and men are generally paid more, so are less likely to take time out. There are still groups and activities around for young parents but lots are privately run and can be expensive. NHS cuts affecting both prenatal and postnatal care and mental health services make it even more challenging for those who are finding it difficult.

It’s a depressing picture, and I’m sorry. I wish I could be more positive. Deciding to have a child should be a happy decision made with optimism, not a struggle fraught with anxiety. It’s important to bear in mind the sacrifices that our parents made, and be grateful and understanding. At the same time, we should recognise that in terms of supporting and encouraging would-be parents and new parents, the UK remains well behind other European nations. It is by following their models that we will see families thrive. No one I know regrets having their baby – quite the opposite – but it could have been made a lot easier for so many of them.

• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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