What are babies for?

(Forgive me. For the purposes of this blog, I’m assuming you know where babies come from. If you’re not sure, please find a grown-up to explain).

So. Babies.There’s a lot of talk about babies at the minute. And children. And families, too. Not a lot of it good, I have to say.

What are babies for, anyway? Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that they’re a cunning biological timebomb, little leeches designed to suck not just milk but wealth. On a domestic level, that’s probably true (that old chestnut about the new parents arranging to have their salary paid directly to Mothercare has a painful base in reality), but the general consensus seems to be that it applies on a national level too.

Babies are lifestyle choices, you see. Just as you wouldn’t expect the HardWorkingTaxPayer© to pay for your conservatory or your cruise, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to contribute to the upkeep of little Chloe or Conor. You can’t afford children, don’t have them! The government, generally, agrees. Iain Duncan Smith is pressing ahead with plans to limit Child Benefit for all families to the first two children (though will not be applying it retrospectively, so don’t expect a sudden glut of infants with two or more older siblings on eBay. Not yet, anyway).

Apparently 80% of people support this proposal. Unsurprisingly, since it’s hard to open a newspaper, listen to a radio or TV debate or browse through Facebook without being confronted by one of these bloated (in all senses of the word) families, living it up on money scrounged from the HardWorkingTaxPayer (henceforth HWTP). They’re everywhere. Except, surprisingly, in the statistics. Doubtless they exist, but in such huge numbers that they’re bringing the country to its knees? You know, I just can’t accept that.

I count myself lucky beyond measure in my children, but three is absolutely my limit. I have finances and family on my side, but it would take considerably more than £13.40 a week to reconcile me to an unexpected addition – and I think that I’m probably the norm. Most of us have the family we can manage, financially and otherwise, based on our circumstances when we have them and how we reasonably foresee them to be in the future. Yes, some women probably do go on to have lots and lots of babies when it doesn’t seem like the best idea in the world, but although I’m no expert, I’d be willing to hazard a guess that chaotic lives, and the status and attention which come with pregnancy and a newborn baby have a lot more to do with it than a craving for cash.

Babies are messy, literally and metaphorically. They don’t fit in. They turn their parents’ lives upside down and they create a little force field of disruption around themselves in public. They take and take and take for years on end, with no payment except in love. They need to be fed, and clothed, and housed, and educated, and doctored, and they don’t offer a penny in return. No wonder HWTPs can’t stand them. Why should anyone else share the burden? Taxpayers are what they want. It’s such a shame that they can’t just spring, fully-formed, from the Chancellor’s red box, with a PAYE code in one hand and a job offer in the other.

I’ll be honest: in choosing to have babies, I wanted to raise a family with the man I love, rather than conscientiously doing my bit for the common weal. My dewy-eyed pregnancy fantasies didn’t include the day they’d get their National Insurance number through the post. Procreating is an essentially selfish act, but not in the same way as, say, having an extension built. The fact remains that although people make babies, babies do – eventually – make people .At the end of all that taking, they (hopefully) give; after all, every HWTP wore nappies once…

My problem with the 2 child limit, is that it is setting an official stamp of approval on this idea that children are somehow a luxury, an indulgence. “Child Benefit” was never intended as a payment to the needy, it’s the latest incarnation of an idea which had its origins in acknowledging the financial and other constraints which families with young children might experience. If the proposal was to stringently means-test the benefit, I would have concerns about the implications for those affected, but a limit on the number of children? In these leaner, meaner times, any “handout” has to be seen to be conspicuously deserved – and by saying that any family with more than two children is undeserving, what kind of a message does that send in general? It’s a dangerous precedent too – which other benefits or entitlements would supernumerary offspring no longer warrant?

I’m sure that those in authority would love to preside over a nation of conscientiously contracepting couples, who make a couple of dates in their (married) lives to dutifully doff the johnnies with a murmured “lie back, darling, and think of the Exchequer”. But life, and sex, and babies, don’t work that way. Children can’t only be acceptable when slotted into a life plan between the starter home and the pension plan. No method of birth control is 100% certain, and not every woman has that degree of choice over her pregnancies. Multiple births, bereavements, adoptions, redundancies: no matter how carefully life is planned, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.The idea of leaving children in desperate poverty for ideological reasons – well, call me naive, and I know that it’s happening already in other ways, but it is abhorrent.

That we have a welfare system, and, increasingly, a society, which treats a family in need as it would someone who had taken out an irresponsible loan to buy an expensive car – it strikes me that our priorities are wrong. Yes, I’m sure that some people will always take the proverbial and abuse a system meant as a safety net. But I would much rather live in a society where babies were generally welcomed, than one where they were tolerated on very limited terms indeed. Babies are, cliche as it may be, the future. That they should be bruited about as meal tickets rather than people says much more about those who believe so than those who bear and raise them.

What do you think?

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