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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The train, the lie and the 12-month gestation

Children, it is never right to lie. Even if you think you are being kind or diplomatic, do not lie. You should always find a third option that allows you to soften the blow while telling the truth.

For example:
'Does my bum look big in this?' There are three options from which to choose.

1) No, not at all (lie)
2) Your bum looks massive no matter what you wear. It's like the Pillsbury Dough Boy is wrestling with a hippo inside those jeans. (Truth)
3) Sweetie I was so busy looking at how your eyes sparkle and that colour makes your skin glow to even notice your lovely bum. (Third way).

And again: 'Meet my new baby!'

1) Oh what a beautiful baby! (Lie)
2) Ye gods what is that wretched thing? Why have you replaced your baby with a sack of red onions? No, really, where are you hiding him? What a prankster! (Truth)
3) Oh look at those little feet! And such little hands! (Third way)

Some mother will see this photo and realise her friends put it on the 'Ugly Babies' section of Buzzfeed

Nota Bene: when opting for the third way, avoid all pronouns. Parents tend to be offended if you think their girl is a boy and vice-versa, while 'it' just means 'I have no idea what gender your ugly little sprog is'.

These third way options are always there, but it is not always easy to think off the top of your head. I suggest keeping a few memorised in the event that you will need a third-way comment, so you can be ready when next presented with Sloth Junior.

All this is preface to a situation in which I once found myself, which led to a series of ever-increasingly uncomfortable lies. Actually, there were two such situations, and both were caused by my tendency to bloat drastically when 'sitting upon the household gods'.
Yesss... it. Look at it. LOOK AT IT.

The first situation was when I was feeling painfully bloated at an investment dinner I had to attend. I was kitted out in a (thankfully) flowy dress that hid my stomach (mostly) but boy did I need to unleash the Mistral of Doom. While contemplating my route to the bathroom, an old acquaintance came bounding up to me like a joyous puppy in a park.

He was so chuffed to meet a friendly face that we ended up talking for a while. I had just gotten engaged, and my friend was super-happy at the news, so wanted details. All the while, my stomach pain was increasing.

A waiter came up to offer champagne and I refused, as I do not drink at any work functions. At the same time, my friend said 'are you not drinking?' I put my hand on my distended belly, opened my mouth to say 'well actually I am feeling so bloated', but I could only manage 'well actually'. He saw my hand, my belly and, joining the dots with my refusal of alcohol, immediately gave me a massive hug.

'Congratulations! You're not telling people yet, are you? Do not worry, I won't tell anyone. I am so happy for you!'

I was dumbstruck. All I could muster was 'please don't tell anyone' as I watched him beam an enormous smile at me. Even if I could have disenchanted this happy wretch, I had no time to do so, for another acquaintance bowled up and started a conversation.

To this day, I have not seen him or been in contact with him to tell him the truth. Hopefully he reads my blog.

You would have thought then, that once bitten by a fake pregnancy lie, the Mermaid would be twice as cautious not to let this get out of hand again.

That would have been the sensible thing to do.

But no. A year after marriage, I had put on a couple of stone, which made occasional bloating a more serious embarrassment. On three occasions in one week, people stood up for me on the train. On the third occasion, I even shoved my belly into someone’s face to make him stand up. Yes I did that. I am not proud of that. It was crowded!

OK, OK, it was not THAT crowded. But still...
Perhaps that is why the fourth occasion that week proved to be a salutary lesson in honesty.

It transpired thus.

I was on a crowded train, I was bloating badly and had terrible cramps. The bulge, and my obvious discomfort spoke for me, and a young woman stood up for me. Not wishing to embarrass her or me by saying 'it's okay, I'm just TOMming', not to mention that one does not declare these things on a train, I thanked her and sat down.

A few stops later, a very pregnant woman got on and, as I was sitting nearest to her, I offered her my seat. The young woman who had given her seat up for me shot me a glance, so I thought I would be diplomatic.

In other words, I lied. 'You need it more than I do', I said to the preggo, and smiled. Unfortunately for me, another young woman seated next to preggo heard and she stood up for me. Why did I tell a half truth? A half truth is still a whole lie... I had no choice but to smile and sit down next to preggo.

And Ms Preggo was a talker. She wanted to know everything about my 'early stage' pregnancy. She threw me a bunch of acronyms such as DPO and WPC; thankfully I subscribe to MumsNet for work purposes and knew what these meant. She asked me about symptoms. I had to blag. By which, I mean lie. A small lie turned into a series of bigger and bigger ones. “Large fleas have small fleas upon their backs to bite them. And small fleas have smaller yet, and so ad infinitum”. And that’s what was biting me, except the smallest lie had bigger ones ad infinitum trying to take a chunk out of my soul.

It was awkward as, and I reverted to pounding her with questions about her DB and DD. All went well until just before we pulled into my station. In the slowness and quiet fullness of the commuting carriage, she asked me 'so, when is your due date?'

I had not expected this. It was December so I said August. Which would have been fine if I had only just conceived that very morning, and a cytoblast or plastoblast or photonblaster or whatever it is called, was zigging its zygotey way across my fallopes and burrowing into my uterus.

Except I had already 'said' I was pregnant, which would mean I was at least a month, maybe two months, gone. So the due date would have been June. Add to this the swollen bloat of my belly which suggested at least three months, and well, we were looking at a total gestation period of maybe 12 months.

My mind was trying to extricate me from the situation more quickly than my mouth could work, and I managed to fumble my way around a conversation, hoping that lovely Ms Preggo had what my mummy friends call ‘pregnancy brain’ and I would not see her on the train again.

I haven't, but I still get nervous when I see similar-looking women on the train. If I should see her, the truth must be told, but while a man might think this was hilarious, I have learned that the MumsNet Brigade is not so forgiving. Mothers do not forgive so easily some woman scamming a seat pretending to be pregnant.

Since then I have lost a little weight and thankfully nobody stands up for me even when the household gods are beneath me. But one day when I am sporting a 'Baby on Board' badge and need to cadge a seat, be sure my sins will catch up with me.

Children, do not lie.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The cost of children... before you have children

Some random child found on the internet. It is legal. Apparently. Ask Google Images if you have a problem.
Disclaimer: This is not a discourse on the fecundity or infecundity (if there is such a word) of the Old Mermedonian household. Any questions to that effect will be ignored, as will the person asking.

It has become clear from a raft of press releases and conversations with mothers and expectant friends that the cost of children begins long before the patter of tiny feet is heard.

Suppose a couple is starting to try for the first time. There is a host of expenses to pay long before there is any positive news to tell the family. This includes:

  1. Folic acid (the government insists that all women trying to conceive should take this supplement daily)
  2. Ovulation sticks (to check which days of the month are prime baby-making time) - these can cost £30 for the digital ones and even Boots' own (by which many women swear) cost £18
  3. Male and Female dietary supplements 
  4. Pregnancy test kits - some of these are more than £20
  5. Books on ‘how to’ (if you want to avoid those ghastly internet forums, which either ratchet up your hopes so tremendously you think every tiny muscle twinge is a batch of triplets, or which spin such tales of doom and disaster you are sure you will never have a child).
  6. Different foodstuff if your diet had not been healthy or enriched enough.
  7. Alcohol to get your significant other in the mood. Not too much, because that becomes illegal pretty quickly. I know, it is a difficult line to tread.

Then supposing a couple is not successful and, after myriad tests, they are within the 30% ‘unexplained infertility’ group in the UK, then IVF is usually the next step on the road to parenthood.

I was talking with a mother yesterday whose first child was conceived through IVF. While most people will be able to get one round of IVF on the NHS, it does cost £5,000 a pop (unfortunate phrase, sorry). This is accompanied often by prescription tablets (for which most people have to pay at least £8.50, the standard cost of prescriptions) and a spate of hospital visits and days off work.

However, if one round of IVF does not do it, the next round will cost a couple £5,000 out of their income/savings. A series of articles on IVF by The Telegraph and The Daily Mail last year told sad tales of many women paying £10,000, £17,000 or more because of repeat, unsuccessful IVF treatment. Many of these women got into serious debt because of this. It is heartbreaking.

If the IVF is successful, there are many other things to consider:

Home refurbishment – kitting out a nursery for the first time can cost £1050, a survey from online forum Made For Mums calculated last year. This includes decoration, furniture, light-blocking curtains and carpeting, as well as toys and storage.

Clothes for the baby (even assuming some hand-me-downs from friends or family) – an article from Investopedia, a great site for people wanting to learn about finance, claimed the average cost for baby clothes is about $60 (£32) a month for the first year.

Toiletries. Also according to Investopedia, the average child will use more than 2,700 nappies in the first year alone, which can add up to more than $550 (£230), not to mention baby wipes, baby oil, cotton wool, baby lotion, special shampoos, etc.

Thanks to legislation, the must-haves also now include baby seat and child seats for the car, in addition to prams, carriers and whatever those back-packy things are called into which dads stick babies so their arms and legs dangle out like a bug on a pin. The latter look really cool by the way, and whoever invented those was a genius.

Already the costs of simply preparing for a child have ballooned.

What happens when the child is born? I am assuming that most companies in the UK offer good maternity cover, but I know of so few that would allow the primary care giver (usually the mother but not necessarily so) to continue contributing to a pension. So there are several months – perhaps even up to a year – where one person is not contributing or receiving employer contributions into a pension. Any spare cash is going on food for the baby, clothes for the baby, nappies for the baby. How are parents expected to save for when their darling has flown the nest?

And when people do return to work – the Office for National Statistic’s 2011 census showed that more couples were both returning to work post-Crisis than before, simply to meet the costs of mortgage, travel, utility and food bills – the cost of childcare is becoming prohibitive.

One mother of two young girls told me her child care a month was £900, and that was not full-time child care, thanks to the help of parents. Another woman I spoke to pays more than £1000 a month full time for two children, and that’s not even in central London.

All this, of course, is before Nursery and School costs – trips, food, uniform, after-hours activities, etc etc. No wonder providers have been pushing child savings schemes such as the Junior Isa or children’s bonds to help parents meet the future cost of raising children.

With the Conservative government biting at people’s personal tax credits and benefits, it will not be long before more couples decide that having children is a financial decision they just cannot afford to make – a crying shame and an indictment on this so-called ‘family friendly’, ‘British Values’ government.

Even Tory-leaning think-tank the Institute for Economic Affairs has called the rising cost of childcare a disgrace.

Recently, Mark Littlewood, the director-general of the IEA, said: “Heavy-handed government regulation is making childcare more and more expensive in the UK.
“Politicians need to wake up to the root cause behind the high cost of childcare. Rather than channelling more money into the industry, the government should do-away with some existing regulations and stop trying to formalise all childcare.

“Onerous red tape in the form of qualifications and staff-to-children ratios, combined with an increasing emphasis on nursery becoming a form of pre-primary education have drastically pushed up the cost of caring for a child”.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I seldom agree with Mr Littlewood, but on this occasion I raise to him an invisible glass of invisible double scotch, and said ‘hear, hear’.

I admire the many families that manage to live within their means. Usually this is because the adults go without things they want or need in order to give the best start in life to their children. I also sympathise with those families who have gone into debt – whether to pay for IVF or healthcare for their small children. The lack of resources given by this government to the NHS is appalling. Parents and would-be parents do not have the readies to throw into what is, by now, a well-researched, well-practiced medicinal procedure. It should not cost £5,000 a pop for IVF. The NHS should not be forced by central government into making cost decisions based on a woman’s age or social circumstance. It is appalling.

So what is the answer? Apart from lobbying government and pushing to save and support the NHS more, individuals can start to save more, well in advance of any familial decision. It could be wise to set up small investments as soon as you get married or start to cohabit, in expectation of expecting.

Even a few hundred pounds in a low-returning, readily accessible Cash Isa could be a huge boon to families struggling to meet the costs of starting a family. After the birth, it could be best to ask family and friends to help you with a Junior Isa or contributions to an investment fund established to help meet the plethora of interim costs between 0 and 18, rather than buy another set of babygrows. All these could be some partial solutions to this problem.

On a lighter note, perhaps the following from Scottish Friendly could suggest a solution: some basic child labour? Apparently, there is a growth of entrepreneurial children in the UK, with one in four under-18s earning £38 a month on average by working for people outside their immediate family. It's not quite illegal, so it seems.

According to the provider, this equates to about £1.8bn a year, garnered from doing chores such as gardening, helping older people with their technology problems, participating in online surveys, helping to create apps (clever clogs), washing cars and pet-sitting. Of course, you can’t send them down the mines or up chimneys now, as I have discovered recently, such a thing is frowned upon these days. However, perhaps you could help your young ones to help you help them… Just a thought?

Otherwise, I suggest a lower-cost option:

He has his father's eyes. And fur.
QUESTION: What money-saving ideas have you used/recommended to couples starting out en route to parenthood? It would be great to hear your hints and tips - please do use the comment section below and I'll follow this post up with them later on in the year.