Is it possible to balance finances, mental health and raising a family?

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Now I’m no agony aunt, but every now and again I get a question from a reader which I think is really pertinent, so I’ve decided to expand these into blog posts every so often.

Don’t expect a solution, but I hope that my thoughts about these topics will set you off on your own thinking and praying.

Many thanks to Emily for giving me permission to share her question with you all:
“My husband and I are planning on starting the adoption process this year. We don’t have any kids yet and had always planned to adopt from before we were married. My question is about finances. Is it possible to earn enough money for a family alongside making time for your kids, without killing your mental health at work trying to support them all? If so, how?”

I think this is such an interesting question!

Emily isn’t asking whether one parent should stay at home or not. Her question goes beyond that. She’s talking about whether it’s possible to get the balance right, so that you earn enough to support everyone, while also having enough time to invest in your kids, and retaining good mental health.

My simple answer is ‘yes’. We manage to do this, and so do a whole host of other families – so I know it can be done.

But of course it’s never as simple as that, is it? Our family – and maybe yours too – goes through periods where we wobble financially, or where we feel like we’re not giving our kids enough time, or where we feel like our mental health is on the brink. (Actually, this last one is ‘I’ – my husband is one of the most mentally robust people I’ve ever met, and would hate to be implicated in that sentence!)

It’s a complex question, so would you allow me to break it into three parts?

  • Is it possible to make enough money to support your family while also seeing enough of your kids?
  • Is it possible to make enough money to support your family while also maintaining good mental health?
  • What are the challenges of maintaining good mental health once kids arrive?

Let’s look at each part in turn.

Is it possible to make enough money to support your family while also seeing enough of your kids?

A friend of mine was once giving advice to another friend about living on a low income. At the time, this friend was married with no children. She worked part-time as a PA, and her husband worked unpaid for a charity, so she knew a thing or two about living frugally.

Her advice has always stayed with me: “If you’re ever envious of your friends on bigger incomes, just remember: you’ve made this choice for a reason. You could be earning more, but you’ve made a decision not to do so.”

She wasn’t being ungracious – she was simply empathising with a statement of fact. Her point was that actually there were good reasons why they were doing the low-paid or unpaid jobs that they were doing. First and foremost, they loved their work! They felt God had called them into these roles to use their gifts – not forever, but for now.

They didn’t want to exchange this satisfaction for a higher income.

I remember that advice every time I worry that I don’t have a pension, or that we don’t own a home. Instead of fretting, I remind myself I could have kept earning if I’d wanted to, but my husband and I made the choice for me to stay at home with our kids, and that – by and large – I’ve loved it. We’ve spent lots of time together as a family, it’s certainly prevented stress levels from running too high in our household, and it’s opened up new opportunities for me too.

I also remember my friend’s advice every time I’m tempted to envy the ‘quieter’ life of my friends with one or two children. I remind myself that it was our choice to have four kids, and I remind myself of all the things we love about having a larger family.

For decades, we parents have been sold the lie that we can ‘have it all’. We can’t. But do you know why it’s good that we can’t? Because it makes us really stand by our choices. We look at the decisions we’ve made in our lives, we see the pros and cons – and yet we’re still able to have the confident peace of knowing we’ve made the right decision for our situation.

If we really could have it all, there’d be no brain work involved – and God has given us brains to use in working out how we’re going to raise the children He’s given us.

All of us – whether we’ve chosen to stay at home, work part-time or full-time – need to content ourselves with the things that aren’t ideal about our situations, rather than striving for the imaginary ideal of ‘having it all’. If we’re not able to do this, then that’s the point to ask ourselves whether we’ve made the best decision.

I’ve really loved being a stay-at-home mum – but no part of me thinks that I’ve ‘had it all’. I’ve had to learn to content myself with the things that aren’t great about this lifestyle choice. I’ve mentioned the lack of pension and home ownership – but there are more subtle ones, like the daydreams about whether I’m making the best use of my skills and education or – now that I’m starting to work – the struggles of re-orientating family life to accommodate two working parents.

When children come along – by choice or happy accident – they have to become your priority. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay at home to care for them, but it does mean that your decisions about work start to be made in the light of their needs.

Just yesterday I met a mum of two small children who has recently moved here from London so that she and her husband can eliminate their long work commutes. Both of them work full-time in high-powered jobs, so their decision is not whether to stay home or not, but how to make sure that their jobs don’t eat in to family life. Now they can make sure they’re home for their children’s dinner and bedtime, and it will also take away much of their fatigue, making a positive impact on their mental health.

Yes, it is possible to make enough money whilst having enough time for your family, but this will probably involve sacrifice – and these sacrifices will look different for different people. They could mean declining or accepting a promotion, moving or not moving jobs, moving to a cheaper area, switching breadwinner/caregiver roles, and so on.

Parenting is a job which changes frequently, as children grow up and move into different phases, so it’s good to keep thinking about our work-family balance to check it’s working for all.

Is it possible to make enough money to support your family while also maintaining good mental health?

While none of us would say that money is more important than our children or our mental health, the lack of it does have implications for both.

When we have children, it’s natural to want to provide for them in the way that we were provided for as children. Or maybe we weren’t provided for, and we want to protect our children from the upbringing we had.

But the thing is: children don’t cost much – and they actually don’t want much. The vast majority of things we buy them are to fulfil our role as parents, to feel like we’ve done a good job, that our children don’t want for anything.

If you don’t believe me, try Googling ‘How many toys do children need?’, or check out this study which suggests the average child plays with only 5% of what they own. Or look around your home, and see if you can remember the last time each of the toys was played with.

I think, deep down, we believe this to be true – but we have a hard time acting on it! When others are splurging on their children at Christmas, or whisking them off on expensive days out or holidays, it can be very hard to withstand that pressure.

And yet learning not to bow to the culture around us, however hard that may be, will give our children the confidence to grow up and withstand cultural pressure too. I would suggest that standing up to the expectations of 21st century Western life is not just a happy ideal, but a necessity, if we want to raise adults who are happy, healthy and able to make their own decisions, not being swayed by those who don’t have their best interests at heart.

Having a stable mental health is more important than finances. I’m not talking here about chronic mental illnesses which require medication and professional support. That’s a totally different matter. I’m talking about the everyday work of keeping our minds as alert, fit and stress-free as possible, so that we can not only be there for our children, but we can apply ourselves to whichever paid or voluntary work God has provided for us.

Essentially: maybe we need less money than we think we do. And maybe we’ll be happier if we drop those hours, move to a lower-paid position with less responsibility, or go freelance.

For our family, one factor which has massively kept our feet on the ground with finances is knowing a large number of people who live on far less than we do. We’ve never felt like we lead tough or uncomfortable lives, despite living off one income – yet I know that if we’d surrounded ourselves with higher-earning families, we might have felt a little more pressure to keep up with their standards.

Our family doesn’t have Netflix, our phone contracts are less than £15/month each, we run one car, we live off a strict weekly budget, and we save monthly. We don’t often eat out, we cook from scratch, and we holiday cheaply in the UK. (Actually, this one’s about to change…but it’s been true for the last decade!)

In a sense, this list is negated because there are plenty of areas where we do splurge and other families save. But the point I’m making is that we each make our choices. It would be nice to have a little more income maybe – but actually, by and large, I don’t miss it. We have a happy family life, and that’s good enough for me.

So yes, it’s possible to not kill your mental health while earning to support a family. But, again, it needs thinking through, and regular reassessment. It will involve sacrifice. It will involve a thorough heart-search of your priorities.

The good news for Christians is that we trust the One who has promised to look after our needs – as we commit our families to Him, He will provide the solutions we need. Maybe they won’t look like we’ve imagined. Maybe they won’t show up as quickly as we’d like them to. But we can trust in our God’s faithfulness and provision.

What are the challenges of maintaining good mental health once kids arrive?

I’ve touched on the importance of looking after your mental health throughout the last couple of questions, but it’s worth preparing people – especially those who, like Emily, aren’t parents yet – for the challenges which parenthood brings.

The first and most obvious challenge is sleep. This usually gets better over time, but broken nights are a shock to the system. People always tell you to ‘nap when they nap’ or go to bed early, but not all of us find that easy!

I think it’s helpful to remember that in order to put your child first, you need to put yourself first. Failing to look after yourself will impact on your children – and remembering this sometimes provides helpful motivation to those who are constantly putting their child first.

So, if you can’t sleep, be kind to yourself! Rest – in front of a box set, with friends in a cafe, with a good book.

Then there’s the challenge of time – and this one doesn’t get much easier. As a parent, your time is just not your own in the same way as it was before. Whether your time is being spent feeding your baby, entertaining your toddler, making a World Book Day costume for your older child, or supporting your teenager with coursework, it’s not as easy to look at a block of time within a day and assume you can do as you like with it.

Therefore it’s vital, in my experience, to book out slots where you can concentrate on you. If you don’t plan them in advance, they probably won’t happen! For me, this includes regular evenings out with friends, the odd child-free daytime trip (like a recent Writers’ Group meeting), and a weekly ‘date night’ with my husband (where we don’t usually go out, but set aside time to relax together without work or other jobs interfering).

Again, I offer the disclaimer that I’m not talking about serious mental health concerns which require medical intervention, but the day-to-day self-care which is so important.

At the end of the day, you know your own coping threshold, what fuels you and what drains you. And if you don’t – these are good things to think about prior to having kids. I’ve worked my own capacities out over time, and nowadays I don’t feel guilty when I take time for me, knowing that I’m a better parent for it.

A final point to touch on under this heading – particularly as Emily and her husband are planning to adopt – is compassion fatigue. Looking after children who’ve had a rough start to life can be even more draining than looking after children who haven’t. Dealing with anxiety, fear, control, shame and guilt – or, rather, the exciting array of behaviours manifested by these emotions – can take its toll on an individual’s capacity to love and keep loving (kids or spouse).

It’s even more important, as parents of adopted or fostered kids, to make sure you regularly get out of the house child-free. Plan in some times to see friends, go shopping, or have a walk by yourself. We all need a break, and it’s OK to say that.

Sorry this has been so long, but I hope it offers a few thoughts in answer to Emily’s question. Yes it is possible to earn enough, have enough time for your kids, and retain good mental health – but to do so often requires sacrifice, a willingness to go against the flow of society around you, and a good awareness of your own limits.

It’s a journey I’m still on!

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