Having a child costs more than money: So why bother?

Heard how much it costs to raise a child in Australia these days? Some researchers claim it's approaching the $1 million mark. It's a scary thought no matter what age or how financially secure you are.

But financial expenses are not the only costs of having children we're constantly hearing about. There's the cost to your career, ambition and your sanity. Being able to afford the "having it all" ideal is an option reserved for a privileged few, it seems: those lucky enough to have been born superwomen.

Perhaps we wouldn't be discussing the "having it all" ideal if Anne-Marie Slaughter hadn't penned such a brilliant and honest essay on the personal difficulties she encountered juggling a successful, high-profile career with raising children. And perhaps it wouldn't have come up again this week if deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop had not declared in an interview that women must make choices, declaring "no you can't have it all".

We all have our opinions and personal experiences and it'd be sad to think we have to silence those – or pretend we feel otherwise – for the sake of protecting younger women.

Still, it'd be nice to hear from more high-profile women on the joys they've experienced raising children – despite the associated hard work, and the financial and career burdens.

Thankfully, Slaughter's latest piece in The Atlantic has done just that.

Slaughter writes that she's concerned by recent evidence suggesting young graduates are being turned off parenthood as they start to view career and family as mutually exclusive. She reflects on a study of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania which found those in the university's Wharton program were significantly more likely to say they didn't expect to have children than a class of graduates surveyed 20 years ago.

Back in 1992, the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project found that 79% of men and 78% of women expected to have children. In 2012, that figure dropped to just 42% for both genders. It's not an interest in children that appears to be the problem, but rather the consequences such children have on a career. The study concluded: "Women are more likely to see the demands of family life interfering with achieving career success, and this gender gap has grown over the past two decades."

Slaughter also recounted women's concerns about the financial cost of raising a child. They're stories I could relate to, having heard them from my own circle of friends and colleagues.

One recently told me she and her husband had calculated that having a second child would be simply impossible, financially. With a mortgage to pay, further childcare fees to consider and a loss of income as she takes more time out of work, the couple decided they couldn't make it work – at least not while retaining their current lifestyle and giving everything they thought their first child deserved.

I had a similar conversation with a 25-year-old woman. Single, ambitious and in the first two years of her career at a professional services firm, she too had already crunched the numbers on having children. She'd determined how long she'd need to take off work (and how such a period would affect her career), and how much it would cost to raise a child (and its effects on the property portfolio she was building). Nope, not worth it. The career, investments and financial stability were more important.

And recently, we published an article asking if it's worth it to keep on working after having a second child. It was well read and sparked considerable debate on social media. It seems these are the issues plenty of Australian women are considering, especially in expensive capital cities where the cost of living could see your own child living like you did in your university days.

When did we start applying such calculations to having children? And is this something you ever would have done in your early 20s?

Slaughter says she would not have been able to make such calculations at 22, or even 30. But at 35 she felt different. And it wasn't that the biological clock was ticking. "As we age, our assessment of the relative value of material success and career advancement versus the simpler joys of human connection often shifts," she wrote. Nor can a financial assessment of what a child actually costs ever compare with the benefits of being a parent.

So although Slaughter has been giving at least two speeches a weeks to women of all ages since publishing her "have it all" piece – women who have expressed concern about how they'll manage career and family – she wouldn't trade her decision to have children for anything.

"It's hard – harder than either our government or our employers are willing to recognise and accommodate. That's why we need change," Slaughter wrote. "But make no mistake: having children is the best thing I've ever done, by a mile."

The answer? Slaughter believes it could lie in rethinking our obsession with using work as a measure of success and happiness. There's too much emphasis on "material success" and "career advancement" over the simpler pleasures of positive human relationships.

This makes sense to me, and is something I've written about previously. To measure self-worth and success by the work we're paid for is to rely on somebody else's definition of what success actually means.

Measuring the cost of having a child might be possible, but measuring the rewards something else altogether.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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