War, pandemic, climate change… it’s a bittersweet time to think about having a child, says Emma Clifton.
If you were to look at the prospect of having a baby from a rational perspective, surely you’d never do it. Take all your money, sleep, time and in exchange you get something less emotionally reliable than your average Labrador. I’m a millennial (sorry), so the idea of birthing another dependent in a world where I will rent until I die has always seemed… risky; like I might as well take my money and throw it into the nearest pond.
And that was before COVID-19! When the pandemic first really became A Thing, and we all went into lockdown, a lot of older (richer) people clucked knowingly that there would be another baby boom on the way. Whereas all of my generation (the worst) and the younger generation (the cursed), just looked around at each other and thought… are you kidding me? Does annnnny of *this* seem like it would be easier with a child?
Put me in a room with a baby, and I will make smoochie faces at it. I am the first to hold a cosy little squish at a brunch with Proper Adults. The other day, I picked up a miniature grandpa jumper that had been knitted for a baby/toddler/child and it was so cute one of my eyes watered a bit. In this brave new world, where so much of our lives: our jobs, our trips, our wardrobes, our spending, now seems either impossible, or pointless, or both, there is a push to do things that matter. For me, I think motherhood would be something that matters. (Giant disclaimer here: this is my personal feeling for my personal life! It really cannot be stressed enough that there are a billion life choices that are also meaningful and important).
But when you look at the whole deal on offer that comes with motherhood… it doesn’t feel like a particularly great one. Not to mention the Child-Bearing Maths you have to do along the way, where the best time to have a baby was inevitably, fertility wise, 10 years ago (impossible) or financial-stability wise, 20 years in the future (impossible). Also, I have no idea what I’m dealing with here *gestures at womb*. All of this could be a hypothetical as it is.
One of the sentences my mum most repeats about the early days of having children is this: “Nobody tells you how hard it is.” And that was no doubt true, in the mid-eighties, when working mothers like her were a “concept” rather than a reality. But I gotta say… these days, nobody tells you anything BUT how hard it is.
And who could blame them? Motherhood absolutely needs better PR. But more than that, motherhood also needs better HR. This is an entire system that still seems to be stuck in the 1800s. It is insane to me that right now – potentially dusty ovaries aside – I could just… have a baby. It took me a three-tiered, multi-year approach to drive a car; including learning an entire book and doing two practical tests with professionals. And yes, I’ve written off three cars! But that’s not the point!
Where is the understanding from society about what being a mother does to you, what it asks of you? More than that, where is the help? From what I’ve heard from more breeding-advanced friends, you get a couple of pre-natal classes (but don’t mention pain relief, unless you already hate your child) and then it’s basically: good luck and don’t forget, you have to nail EVERY aspect on the first attempt. Apart from that, you’re just left to rely on advice from other people. I mean, that’s a mixed bag in any circumstance, let alone trying to keep a brand-new human alive while on zero sleep.
Earlier this year, I had a long chat with a good friend who is a new mother. She told me that, by and large, all of the best advice she received came from friends who weren’t parents. They could see the wood for the trees, she said. And they offered advice from a place of common sense, rather than “I did it, so it works.” No guilt, no judgement, no “back in my day, we didn’t even have [insert basic item here.]”
In my friend group, I am very lucky that all the mothers I know are the most wonderful blend of honest and besotted. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m realising that they are probably the reason I still want kids despite **global horror** because I am surrounded by really lovely parents and really, really lovely children. Goddamn it. This would have been simpler if just one of my friends had an arsehole kid!!!
But not everybody gets to have this. Years ago, I interviewed a high-profile television presenter who told me that she had loved giving birth to her child and, when she told her friends this, had been warned not to say it again. “Nobody wants to hear you had a good birth,” she was told. “You’ll make other women feel bad.” She was encouraged to lie, to cover it up. At that same job, I watched one of my colleagues, pregnant with her first child, sit there as the older women gleefully told her all the pain, embarrassment and horror that was awaiting her during childbirth. Nearly all of my pregnant friends have had random strangers tell them the same thing. That’s like the emotional equivalent of, when hearing bad news about a friend’s diagnosis, rattling off all the people you know who have died. It adds nothing.
It is not an easy thing to weigh up having a child in any climate, let alone a climate that wants to see us dead within 100 years because of how badly we have treated it. It used to be talked about as the ‘selfish’ option, to decide not to have children. In July 2020, staring down the barrel of the rest of this year, it kind of feels like the opposite. Selfish to add another child to the mix here, to a bloated and angry planet that’s already started to melt around the edges. 2020 is a shit show – what will 2050 be? But having a child is also an act of hope. Maybe it’s the biggest test of whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist – whether or not you think things are ultimately going to get better. If not for us, then for them. I’ve never been sure which side of the glass full/empty debate I sit on. What a way to find out.