If there is a parent out there who didn’t know what they were in for by having kids, that says more about them than anything else
Every six months or so, when Mars is rising Sagittarius or whatever makes these things happen, a forum opens on the popular – and lucrative – website Mumsnet; asking whether parenting is worth the candle
A few tired Mums and Dads step forward to say it’s all been a terrible letdown, nobody warned them how awful it was going to be etc etc.
And then a few more Mumsnet users pop-up to praise them. How brave they’ve been to describe parenting as it really is, as if they’d just broken the mafia’s code of omerta or outed themselves as recreational cat-kickers.
If there is a parent out there who really didn’t know what they were in-for by having kids, well, that says more about them than anything else. Wake up and smell the nappy.
Having children is what it’s always been. An act of unconditional giving. Giving life to the future, but also hope to those who are disappearing into the past. Most notably, grandparents.
In the West, more people than ever cannot, or will not, make this sacrifice. The birth rate in Britain is nosediving fast and is so low we have no chance of funding the NHS in decades to come without importing millions of workers from countries which face their own demographic crises.
The most common family unit in the UK is now the only-child. Actually, that’s not quite true. The most rapidly growing family unit in the UK is the non-child family; formerly known as a couple.
Often this involves personal tragedy. IVF is a miracle, but it doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve talked to my older daughters about this. About how student debt and the prospect of lost career momentum pushes back the fertility window until, sometimes, it can’t be jimmied open anymore.
What to do about it? Most countries shrug their shoulders. They tell themselves having children is a private matter. Indeed, a growing number of people see not having kids as an act of civic good. It’ll help the environment.
They conveniently choose to ignore the fashion for solitary living – eight million Britons now live alone, and they all need homes. The greens who deplore family expansion should be blaming family dissolution. But they won’t. It’s easier to blame the unborn than it is a divorced friend.
But shoulders aren’t being shrugged everywhere. In countries like Singapore, extraordinary perks are on offer to parents. In Hungary, a country which gets many things wrong, they have – in my view – got support for future taxpayers, workers and consumers – exactly right. IVF there is nationalized and free. A Hungarian mother of four pays how much income tax? Nothing.
Because, in countries like Hungary and Singapore, the penny has dropped. They understand what those naïve parents on Mumsnet somehow didn’t divine until it was too late. That parenting is bloody hard work. Tough yakka. Frequently miserable. As a father of six, I know this to be true.
But it’s the also, in times of peace, the most heroic thing many of us will ever do. It provides moments of utter transcendence and the kind of joy that only self-sacrifice can bring. But what it doesn’t do – is what it once did. No longer, as an economist friend of mine says, can parents capture the economic rents of child-rearing. We don’t send them out into the fields to bring the harvest in anymore. The financial traffic is now all one-way. We pay for them, as if they were a lifestyle choice. Which for many of us – is exactly what they’ve become.
Countries which, increasingly, offer incentives to parents – the process in the jargon is known as ‘pro-natalism’ – have cottoned onto this. They’ve realized that, for many of us, parenting requires a bribe.
I hope it works. There are early signs that, in Hungary, it is. But I also wish we could see kids as more than numbers on a nation’s balance sheet. More, even, than instruments of a childless adult’s personal development. I wish we could see the good children do to other children. There’s lots of talk about the cost of living crisis right now.
There is no talk, in a country which, I repeat – now has more only-children, than any other type of family unit, about a different kind of deprivation. The children who are denied, out of choice or circumstance, a brother or a sister.
I have a name for it. ‘Sibling Poverty’.