‘It’s money’: the Britons who want children but feel they can’t

Elizabeth, 29, a sales executive from Surrey, would very much like to have children, but feels she is unable to do so for the time being.

“Simply – it’s money,” Elizabeth says. “I’ve been with my husband for 10 years, and we would have children already but for the cost of living.”

Elizabeth is one of hundreds of people in the UK, mostly millennials, who told the Guardian that they wanted to have children, but had so far felt unable or unmotivated to do so. The fertility rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1939.

The most cited reason holding people back was affordability, with hundreds saying they could simply not afford family life – such as maternity leave, family-sized secure housing and childcare.

Would-be parents like Elizabeth fear that they won’t be able to provide for children adequately and well beneath their own childhood living standards.

Her parents, Elizabeth says, were a teacher and a management accountant, earning roughly what she and her partner earn now, around £84,000 combined.

“My sister and I both went to various clubs, had all the kit, and regular social outings. My sister had braces. We didn’t live in a house we owned all of that time, but we did eventually.”

“I have serious concerns about my ability to provide these experiences for my kids once essentials are taken care of,” Elizabeth says.

Daisy, a researcher from Oxfordshire, also believes that she and her partner simply lack the funds to start a family, despite working full-time on decent wages. Though she says, the urge to have kids is growing, she and her partner are tied to a region with a high cost of living because of their work.

“Our rent is around 50% of our take-home pay, neither of us can afford contributions into our workplace pensions. Even if, instead of childcare, one parent stays at home, can you actually cover all living expenses on just one wage? It seems like both options are completely unaffordable now.”

Many respondents to an online callout said that, even if the cost of living, their earnings or maternity pay improved, their financial precarity would not, as their jobs were not secure. Scores of respondents – most of them graduates – saying they were either gig workers, freelancers or on temporary or fixed-term contracts.

For 32-year-old Rachel, from Devon, who works for a charity, it has been insecure employment more than anything else that has been putting children out of reach so far.

“We would love to have children and are currently thinking we’ll start trying by the end of next year,‘when we are more stable’, but we say that every year, it constantly moves back” she says.

Rachel and her partner are currently employed, but have always been on temporary contracts and her partner, a lecturer in academia, is about to lose his job. “The constant job insecurities have made it impossible to plan for the future,” she says.

The couple is still renting because their precarious jobs, alongside substantially higher mortgage interest rates, make homeownership impossible. They feel nervous about starting a family as long as they are beset by housing insecurity. Most of their savings have been depleted, Rachel says, because she recently had to spend £16,000 on essential private knee surgery because of NHS waiting lists.

“The longer we wait the more concerned I become about infertility and problems in pregnancy,” Rachel says. “The thought of not having children terrifies me, but equally the thought of having children and not being able to provide for them terrifies me.”

Dozens of women said that they had been ready to have children for some time but had experienced fertility issues, with most suspecting they had waited too long to try to conceive.

Various of them said they had waited until their 30s because of their male partners, who had either not felt ready financially or emotionally to start a family, among them Natalie, 31, a fundraiser from Bedford.

“I’ve known since I was 17 that I have polycystic ovary syndrome, and had wanted to have children earlier because I knew it was going to be difficult to conceive. We’ve been together for eight years, but my husband wanted to wait until we were financially stable, by which he meant owning our home,” she says.

“I would have been OK renting for a few more years – my parents didn’t own their own home – but my husband had this idea that he should be the provider. We finally started trying two and a half years ago, but it hasn’t worked so far.”

Natalie was one of many women who highlighted long waiting times for NHS fertility treatment, and said they regretted not trying to get pregnant earlier.

“The wait time for our first fertility appointment was 10 months, and that’s just for a consultation, not treatment,” she said. “I will begin treatment hopefully in July this year, 17 months after I first asked for help. For many of my friends it has been the same – they were ready sooner than their husbands.”

Hugh, 37, a charity director from Northampton, said he had been undecided regarding having children for some time, but now felt ready, around six years after the first serious conversation about the topic with his wife.

“It took until our mid-30s to feel financially secure and professionally accomplished,” he said. “That moment coincided with the pandemic, which felt like it robbed us of two years of being able to enjoy a nice lifestyle and regular holidays before settling down. We’ve been trying for a few months now, and are aware that we’ve left it late to start.”

Although both he and his wife had “excuses” to put family planning off, Hugh said, it was he who primarily harboured existential concerns about having children – which was echoed by various other men who shared their thoughts.

“For a long time I worried about bringing a child into a world where they would inevitably be faced with a climate emergency and the toxic influence of social media eroding the idea of truth and facts, and wondered whether that was ethical,” he said. “I guess I’ve just always wanted to do it ‘right’, that’s a major reason why we’ve waited.”

Witnessing friends become fathers who “did a good job of it”, Hugh said, changed his mindset and restored his faith in the idea that his children could, perhaps, “be part of the solution”.

Alongside concerns about becoming parents in times of intensifying international conflict, various people also said fears about isolation had convinced them to forgo having children, despite wanting them.

“We can’t afford to live in the places we grew up, which means no local grandparents or long-term friends for support and childcare,” said NHS worker Kay, 30, from Leeds. “We’ve been priced out of our proverbial village.”

She also worried, Kay says, about the implications of the housing crisis for both her own later years and the adulthood of potential future children. Many of her friends, who are in their 30s and 40s, are still living in their parents’ homes which she says hurts their self-esteem and strains relationships between the generations.

“I also see their parents’ finances and marriages suffering. They expected to be downsized empty-nesters 20 years ago, with equity released into their retirement funds. Instead, they’re still in the family home, still feeling responsible for their children’s daily wellbeing.

“I would have liked to be a mother, but I don’t want that for us.”

Hundreds of people also said fears about the UK’s crumbling public services held them back.

Rowan, 30, a receptionist from Bristol, was among scores of women and men who said they no longer trusted maternity care in the UK.

“The NHS isn’t in a good state, including midwifery,” she said. “I feel trepidation about having children after reading so many reports about people having long term problems after births, and hearing about Shrewsbury and Telford [hospitals NHS trust], where hundreds of babies died. These stories don’t leave me feeling safe.”

Many people in their 20s voiced anxiety about not being able to access healthcare and other services for themselves and future children, one of them 26-year-old Sarah, from Manchester.

“How are you supposed to have regular dentist visits for your child when there are hardly any dentists taking on NHS patients in the whole of greater Manchester?,” she asks. “I would currently need to take out private health insurance, on top of everything else.”

Her partner’s job as a teacher, Sarah said, had hammered home how dire things were in schools, too. “The quality of education is lower now than it was and I’m concerned things will only continue to get worse.”

Looking at the whole system, Sarah said, had left her and her partner unsure whether they would have children.

“Society generally has changed so much: the only reason my parents were able to work was that my grandparents retired in their mid-50s and helped out. My own parents will still be working when I may have kids. I always wanted to have at least two, but we may have none, it’s really sad.”

It was, however, not only political mismanagement respondents blamed for their perceived inability to have children.

Scores of women said they had not found a suitable partner to start a family with, with many blaming modern dating culture.

“The thing that has held me back has been not finding the right partner,” said Rose, 34, who works in PR and lives in London. “Dating app culture has made people feel there are endless options.”

Though she had been on a lot of dates in her 20s and early 30s, she had not yet found anyone who was ready for a committed relationship. “I have considered becoming a solo parent in the future, she says, “but the system is stacked against single women who would like to become homeowners and mothers.”

Many women also said they had major concerns about ending up as the primary carer of any children, and their partners not equally sharing childcare responsibilities, household chores, and the so-called “mental load” of being a parent.

While most of them said they were currently in an equal, mutually supportive relationship, many feared that motherhood would make their relationships very unequal.

“I’m particularly concerned about the lack of support for fathers taking an equal role in childcare,” Sarah, 28, a public sector worker from York, says.

“All of my colleagues who have children are permanently exhausted, and never feel they are doing enough at work or at home. This is particularly true for the working mothers, though I know working fathers feel the strain too.

“Couples who had very equal relationships before children find that, once babies arrive, they slip into more stereotypical gender roles, which is amplified by the stark differences in statutory parental leave offered to mothers and fathers.”

Antonia, 31, from Manchester, said she currently tended towards not having children, after previously always assuming she would have them one day.

“The more I see of ‘society’, the more doubtful I become,” she said. “I have seen, firsthand and through social media, so many cases of women taking on so much extra labour after children.

“Women will be working and still doing the household chores and mental labour, which sounds like a horrid deal. This is without considering the cost to your career.

“People say we will regret not having children. I do worry about running out of time, about changing my mind.”

The Guardian