Being skint and being sociable… struggling to find the balance

May 2, 2019 | Mental Health, Money, Parenting

When I was pregnant, I was told that when the baby arrived, I’d save loads of money by “not going out drinking”. I don’t know how much people thought I used to drink, but I can assure you, exactly the opposite happened with my financial situation.

I’m not here to give financial advice and this blog is purely based on my own experience. Speak to a professional if you need help with your finances, and do it asap: don’t wait until you’re in a difficult situation. 

My son is kitted out in almost entirely second-hand clothes, and we generate some income by selling his old clothes and toys – I’ll write a blog on how we manage this soon!

I have no doubt that pregnancy, and the then extra person to cater for you in your home, can be planned for better than I managed to in my 10ish weeks of knowing about my arrival, but there’s a lot of expenditure – and lack of income – to factor in. Now I’m not pleading poverty here, and I know that many, many people find themselves in a really devastating financial situation post-natally, for many reasons. It is, for most, an upheaval, and one I have struggled with, so I’m sharing my thoughts and experiences on it here.

I’m self-employed, and had been for about 18 months by the time I discovered my pregnancy. This ruled me out of usual maternity pay benefits, and instead meant that I had to apply for maternity allowance. Without an HR department or any specialist policies in place, I found myself faced with a 40-page form to submit for a meagre sum that was about a third of what I’d usually earn in a week; and a whole heap of ‘evidence’ to submit to boot. It took days for me to navigate and complete. It was a complete pain in the arse for me at a time of my life when I desperately needed some head space; despite English being my first language, and me having filled out such forms before (albeit for other people, not myself). This was my first ever experience with the British benefits system and it was terrifying. Anyone who thinks that people apply for benefits for fun? They’re fucking deluded. Ain’t no teenage mums out here popping kids out for the cash… because there’s shit all cash to be had!

Aside from my having to sign my life away for fuck-all-money to keep myself going once I’d given birth, there were two other factors to consider: all the shit we needed to buy before the baby arrived, and the sudden lack of income our household would have once he arrived and the money ran out. I didn’t have any savings or rich relatives to kill off, so my options looked limited. 

Pregnancy websites are full of lists of ‘must-buys’ before your little’un makes their appearance, and we hastily compiled some of these, running them past some mates we knew with kids already to check we weren’t including or missing anything important. This resulted in a spreadsheet of items that we needed to buy… and exactly no money to buy it with. We walked into Mothercare a couple of days after we had our first scan and left in the space of minutes, feeling absolutely fucking mortified by the high price tag of everything and the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ we didn’t know we needed. Thankfully, our parents swiftly swept in to help with some of the bigger buys, and my sister quickly arranged a Baby Shower to take care of some clothing and toy gifts. Without these interventions, we’d have been totally lost, and I’m forever grateful for people’s rapid intervention at a time where I wasn’t in the right mental state to plan things as thoroughly as I might have usually

If you’re expecting and need help with items for your baby’s arrival, get in touch with a Baby Bank near you. You may need a referral, but they’ll let you know and advise how you can go about that if you do.

Of course, then I gave birth prematurely – too early to have finished work for my clients. This resulted in me losing all but one of my existing clients, effectively grinding my business to a halt and leaving me in a really tricky position to pick up work later on.

That said, in the haze of having a newborn, it wasn’t until a few months into having a baby around that the lack of income really began to bite. My income had more than halved, but the household bills were on the up with constant wash loads and extra electricity used. Even switching direct debits into my boyfriend’s name (he was still working), I was in the red, and quickly found my allowances swallowed up by household expenses, nappies, clothes and a seemingly endless requirement for baby wipes. We cut back on everything and changed our lifestyles completely. 

As with most new parents, my social life became free-to-attend baby groups, on days I could face attending them. And whilst many of the people there were lovely, in a lot of cases, all we had in common was the fact we had reproduced. I made new friends, sure, but they didn’t replace those I already had.

This left me in a difficult position I hadn’t been in before, let alone considered; and one now I wish I’d understood about my mates with kids before I had one. I desperately wanted to leave the house, get out and about, and meet my friends again – and doing so felt luxurious; as though I wasn’t just ‘Mum’ and nothing else. After all, my mates are the people I choose to be in my life, and I don’t want them to feel like I’m no longer there for them! Let’s be frank: a hastily-written text message doesn’t always cut it.

But leaving the house involved buying coffees, paying admission to attractions and purchasing bus tickets… and I had no money. My partner’s income was covering all of the household bills, and I bought the miscellaneous ‘baby bits’ with the weekly Child Benefit – all £20.70 of it. As we switched to formula, half of that was immediately consumed with food, and once we weaned, even more so. That left me with… nothing.

It’s the dilemma with spending money and getting out that I really want to address here, because I’ve found it really hard. It often feels as though new mums constantly moan that they want to leave the house, and get pissed off when they’re not invited to stuff they used to be pre-baby – but equally, they can’t afford to do much and are stressed the second their offspring begins to make a noise in public. I was that person who asked for a table in the restaurant away from children, so I totally understand when others don’t want to share their out-of-home space with them; but now I understand the frustration of craving to leave the house and do something grown-up. For now, nights out, meals with mates, new outfits, painted nails, trips to the pub and socialising without an infant present are all on hold. And shit, who doesn’t love a good girly night out eating uncomfortable shoes and drinking cheap wine?! It’s not just ‘grown-up’ stuff that requires cash either – plenty of developmental activities, play sessions and kid’s attractions aren’t free, and as local Children’s Centres close, more and more baby-friendly things to do are starting to charge.

About two months before my maternity allowance was due to expire, I decided to go back to work. I had foolishly assumed that since I worked from home, I could do so while continuing as the primary carer for my baby. Uh… no. Every time I picked up the phone, he screamed. Every time I opened my laptop, he shit himself. I lost jobs before I’d even been awarded them and couldn’t get on introductory calls to build up my client base until he was down for the night… and who knew what time that would be?! I had been a complete dick in assuming working with a kid around was easy. It was the exact opposite. Everyone I’d blindly believed were business owners from their social media profiles? They were mainly plugging MLMs and selling Avon. I had entirely misjudged people’s situations.

What’s more, I pay myself a month in arrears. This meant we quickly hit a two-month period of me bringing in nothing at all. I couldn’t buy a pint of milk if we ran out and when we ran out of the weekly shop before the next one was delivered, I went without eating. I turned down my mate’s invites out, couldn’t do any activity with my son that required transport or a fee, and had to cut myself off from people for a few weeks. I felt awful about my son missing out of developmental activities and play dates, but I had no choice. At one point, someone demanded some money from me for a gift they bought me and had changed their mind on. I paid them, and it froze my bank account, right as I needed to buy more baby food. I was completely panicked. I found myself having to ask my boyfriend for three pounds for the bus or eight pounds for formula; and having never been reliant on anyone before that way in my adult life, it made me feel shit. It was a huge dent in my pride and my self-confidence. Now, I’m well aware that this is an infinitely better position than many find themselves in (after all, I knew I’d have some cash coming in eventually), but it was way out of my comfort zone and I found it really difficult to take mentally. 

Eventually, I found my groove, and as my son eased into a routine, I was able to pick up work in the evenings and during regular nap-times. Now, although I’m still nowhere near at optimum capacity (mainly because he can crawl now and it’s GAME OVER) with my freelancing, I can at least cover a couple of bills and a couple of mornings of childcare a week (which in itself is a conundrum. You can’t pay for childcare without working and you can’t work with childcare!). I’m building my business from scratch again, and it’s tough, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. My son still doesn’t go to any classes or activities that cost me anything, wears second-hand, gifted or budget-brand clothes, and I buy all of our baby food from a budget supermarket (unless I can make it using discounted fruit and veg)… and I don’t know if I’d change those purchase decisions now, even if our money situation was different.

Now, however, the mum guilt kicks in when spending money on anything, and YES, that’s a real thing. Every penny I spend (and lets be honest, it’s rarely my money, it’s my baby-daddy’s), I worry over and question whether I should be spending on my son instead. A large of glass of wine in a bar is the same cost as a tub of a formula. A takeaway is the equivalent of whole week’s Child Benefit. An hour away from my baby could be an hour’s less developmental stimulation for him, yet without any time away, I’m often too tired to do proper developmental play anyway.

Add to this that taking a child with you to a social event so often ends up with the mother walking off to the side of everyone jiggling/entertaining the baby that you miss out on the social contact you so craved and feel shit and left out anyway. The anxiety is real.

(Incidentally, I had a mate invite me to afternoon tea and I had to turn it down because a) that shit’s expensive, and b) who wants a baby screaming during their nice tea?! Instead, she bought some sandwiches, cake and prosecco from a supermarket and brought them round to me… so we had a good gossip and munch even with the little man asleep/in his highchair/playing on the floor. Be a mate like her and do this if your parent pals are up for it. It made my week!)

I have no doubt that it’s not just new parents that get frustrated by the money-and-actually-doing-shit debacle – I’m sure that I got annoyed by mates backing out on plans/not coming along to stuff that seemed to cost next-to-nothing/not jumping at every opportunity to hang out with me/cancelling plans last minute. But now, I understand it, and I get the catch-22. You don’t have any money for you, but you’re spending loads on the baby. You want to go out and do stuff with your kid, but it can be really fucking stressful to do so. You plan to buy yourself something, anything, just as a treat, but as soon as you go to with your stashed couple of quid, you run out of nappies, or wipes, or the baby needs nose drops. It can seem never-ending.

My plea here? Please be patient with new parents when they talk about money or change/turn down plans because of it. 

Consider taking a new approach with your mates who have a baby. Invite them out during the day, try and find activities that are cheap (or ideally free!) and don’t get annoyed if they turn you down time and time again – keep trying! It’s so often a no-win situation… some days we can’t leave the house, and others we’re dying to. Whatever we do needs to be child friendly to a degree but we’d also love to be able to have a drink and a wee on our own without wielding a child or a toy in one arm and maintain an adult conversation; so if we can (and want to) find someone to babysit, we will. The balance is really fucking difficult to find, and it often feels impossible… so be kind. We’ll get there eventually. Honest.