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Artillery Row

In defence of family life

Some things are more important than the line going up

Every so often, a publication called something like Bosses Quarterly or Money Patrol will report a new study investigating the financial costs of having children. “Average child now costs £200,000”, they breathlessly inform us, or perhaps “Women Who Become Mothers Lose £400,000 In Earnings Over Their Lifetime”.

I have no idea how they generate these figures. Presumably they have at least some basis in proper empirical research. It doesn’t seem inherently implausible that middle-class parents in Britain spend well into six figures on their children one way and another, when you factor in childcare, holidays, clothes, food, transportation, birthday parties and university attendance. Raising children is undoubtedly costly, from a financial perspective, even if you are frugal. If my wife and I did not have children, our lifestyle would be considerably more affluent than it is at present. The “motherhood penalty” in lifetime wages does seem to be a real phenomenon – although it is one that many women are willing to accept.

But the accuracy or otherwise of the calculations is beside the point. There is something profoundly wrong-headed about the whole endeavour of trying to evaluate the good of family life in economic terms, or to treat the raising of children as simply one option among many in the great lifestyle marketplace. And yet many people persist with doing so. Sam Freedman, the policy analyst and writer, claimed on Twitter earlier this week, in defence of expanding subsidies for nurseries, that “it’s a lot cheaper for one person to look after several children than each parent to look after their own and not work”. This person noted “the long term impact on (nearly always) women’s career prospects which has a big effect on GDP”. He also argued against replacing subsidies to nurseries with direct payments to parents, noting that “giving money direct to parents would encourage people to leave the workforce when we need the opposite to happen.”

Even on its own terms, this is dubious. Low birth rates are a significant drag on economic growth, and making it harder for women to spend more time at home with their children is hardly conducive to increasing the birth rate. Besides which, there are big socio-economic problems connected to the modern norm of two parents working more or less full-time — house-price inflation for example, or the decline of communal organisations and lack of time for family caring responsibilities.

More fundamentally, some things in life are, and should be, set apart from the realm of price and economic calculation. I am not among those social conservatives who are completely disdainful of the need for growth and prosperity, but it is bordering on immoral to insist that a parent’s responsibility to an abstraction like GDP supersedes their natural and healthy desire — and responsibility — to be closely involved in the raising of their own children. It is, after all, a well-established finding in social science that most women would like to spend more time with their children in the early years.

This is an entirely reasonable and wise wish. The family is at the heart of our civilisation. As the site of the raising of the next generation, it is crucial to our ongoing survival and flourishing. It precedes all our political and economic arrangements and it will, hopefully, outlast them. At its best it is a place of unconditional love and rootedness. This is what we mean when we talk about Home. It is where we learn the arts of humanity: compromise, forgiveness, tolerance, humour. It is where we find consolation and rest among those whose bonds with us go deeper than choice or shared interests. The value of this way of life is literally immeasurable. 

The weakening of the family does have consequences

The weakening of the family does have consequences. Consider how contemporary culture, especially those parts of it entangled with social media, is increasingly febrile and antagonistic. A special status attaches to “safety”, understood not in the traditional sense of physical protection from harm, but as the right to be insulated from strong challenges to personal opinions or conceptions of the world. Commentators often speculate about how this has come about. No doubt the demand for a “safe space” is often made cynically, to intimidate opponents. But equally it seems that many people do genuinely experience questioning of their worldview as an attack on themselves. 

It seems plausible that this idolisation of mental comfort stems from a lack of the emotional security that stable families are so good at providing. Someone who cannot regularly step away from the clamour and the crowd, from the constant self-exposure enabled and demanded by social media, into a private realm of acceptance and affection, is bound to have low reserves of inner strength and a brittle self-image. 

With this in mind, even if we insist on the economic perspective, the family is part of the infrastructure of a free and prosperous country. Freedom is not simply the absence of coercion, but the ability and the opportunity for people to live as thinking, reasoning, balanced individuals, not enslaved to impulse and desire, and not easily swayed by emotion and rhetoric. The most cherished institutions of freedom, such as a free press, a fair legal system, academic inquiry, a non-political civil service and so on, cannot survive unless they are inhabited by such persons.  

A society that wishes to remain open and wealthy must pay attention to the preconditions of liberty. Robust families which take care of their own as far as possible, minimising reliance on the state, are one of those preconditions. Rushing parents back into the workplace, to leave their small children with strangers for eight hours a day, and leaving them little time for informal caring responsibilities or community involvement, is almost certainly a false economy.

There remain, finally, the human truths about the relative importance of work and family. There is nothing to compare with watching your children take their first steps or perform in their first play, or finally master reading. These things have no conceivable monetary value. It’s not your colleagues who will look after you in your old age. Your headstone is unlikely to feature glowing personal tributes to your professional life. I think often of a simple inscription I saw above a grave many years ago: “To a devoted father, a loving husband & loyal friend.” Which of us, when our time comes, could really hope for more than that?  

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