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When we had two children, two years apart, we thought we were doing something totally commonplace. But families and households are changing.
** This blog is part of a series called The Chaos Train, a record of daily life when you have a career and pre-school children **
When my husband and I had two children, two years apart, we thought we were doing something totally commonplace. Quite dull, frankly. After all, that’s what our parents did – they had more than one child and they had them pretty close together.
I’m not sure why, in this area of my life, I decided to base “normal” on what my parents did. After all, my mum refuses to follow recipes and my dad doesn’t trust tap-water outside of Birmingham. They have a clock in every room of their house and none of them tell the correct time.
And, as it turned out, my husband and I were somewhat in the minority amongst our friends when our son was born in London in 2021, exactly two years after my daughter in 2019. Amongst my university friends, there were still a lot of singletons and new couples as we entered our mid-to-late-30s. Even amongst the “mum friends” I’d made during my first maternity leave, I was the first to have a second child (although others followed). A lot of couples stopped at one child.
There have been many recent reports about people having fewer children in the UK and several other developed countries. The average number of children per woman was 1.6 in England and Wales in 2021, down from 1.9 a decade earlier. There are similar trends across Europe, East Asia and even in China, where population figures released this week showed a drop for the first time since 1961.
In my own group of friends, I see a patchwork of reasons for this. These include people staying single, meeting partners relatively late, delaying or spacing out children due to careers, being in same-sex couples, having concerns over the climate crisis, or simply being happy just as they are (yes, this is possible!). I think a fair few of my child-free friends would have had children if they’d met the right person in their early 30s, but we’re now closing in on 40 and they’ve filled their lives with other wonderful and interesting things instead.
As a result, especially in my son’s early months, my husband and I felt a bit alone. Juggling a newborn and a toddler is intense – cleaning a toddler’s poo out of a travel potty on a rainy pavement, while simultaneously breastfeeding a baby in a sling, is not something I ever wish to repeat. Librarians, GP receptionists, strangers at bus-stops, and other mums at baby groups would swoop in to rescue me on a daily basis; I was usually the most over-burdened person in sight.
Over the past year, some campaigners have said that people are having fewer children because it’s simply too expensive – they cite high childcare costs, high housing costs, and low state maternity pay. I’ve interviewed women who waited until one child was old enough for state-subsidised childcare before trying for another baby. And I’ve met far more families with more than one child after leaving London (having a second child priced us out of the capital and even its suburbs).
But when it comes to my child-free or “one and done” friends, I realise that in many cases I don’t know how they truly feel. Whether or not someone wants to – or indeed can – have children remains taboo and this is only changing slowly.
In the months after my son was born, I confided in my mum that I feared I hadn’t been as sensible as everyone else. I felt like my friends were purposefully spacing out babies in line with a budget or a career plan, if they were having more than one at all.
“But you don’t know who’s trying,” she said simply, while ignoring a recipe.