The birth of a child increases parents’ stress in terms of having both less time and less money, but the impact is far larger on mothers, according to a new paper by Hielke Buddelmeyer, Daniel S. Hamermesh, and Mark Wooden. The amount of extra money that would be needed to reduce mothers’ financial stress to make up for the extra stress they feel over their lost time would have to be enormous.
Children come with clear financial costs. The average American middle-class family can expect to spend more than $300,000 over their child’s lifetime on things housing, food, clothing, and education. They also come with time costs. American fathers today spend nearly triple the amount of time on childcare than they did in the 1960s, while mothers spend four more hours per week.
But the new paper seeks to quantify the less direct costs to parents in increased stress. The researchers were able to take long-term survey data from married couples in Australia and Germany that asked adults about their stress levels. They found that in both countries, stress over time increased for both parents after a child was born. But wives reported being significantly more stressed for time than their husbands. In Australia, the birth of a child had an impact on wives’ time stress that was three times greater than that of their husbands. The same dynamic was true when it came to stress about finances.
The German data are slightly different, showing that a mother feels more stress over her time, but that she isn’t more stressed about finances and her husband’s stress levels aren’t much impacted after the birth of their child.
The increased stress levels also persist after the child’s birth, indicating that it’s the fact of having a child, a not just adjusting to a new one, that causes the stress. Again, however, there are gender differences. While an Australian wife’s financial stress remains constant each year after her child is born, her stress about time keeps steadily rising. Her husband’s stress over both issues, however, eases over time, although it stays higher than before he had a kid. The same pattern holds true in Germany.
The researchers wanted to quantify the toll this stress takes on women, asking how much money it would take — either by transferring some of a husband’s earnings to his wife, by increasing a wife’s earnings, or increasing her husband’s earnings — to reduce a mother’s financial stress enough to compensate her for the increased stress about time. In Australia, a husband’s average annual earnings would have to double, or he would have to transfer more than 20 percent of what he makes to his wife. “Clearly, there is no reasonable transfer of earnings from husband to wife that can compensate for the increased time stress that she experiences with the new child,” the researchers write.
“These simulations suggest that the psychological cost of a new child is huge in comparison to the monetary cost and, even more so, to the value of time that the new mother and father expend on the addition to the family,” they conclude.
The researchers don’t look at data on American parents. But American parents rate child care duties as far more exhausting than paid work, with mothers much more likely to report that it makes them very tired. Meanwhile, American women report that they’re more stressed out at home than they are at work.
One interesting note that the researchers find in terms of how to lessen the stress placed on new mothers is that providing childcare might not do it. Even if mothers aren’t spending more time on caring for their children, they still feel “substantial additional time stress.” But neither country does all that well at providing childcare as it is. In Germany, mothers spend twice as much time on care than men and the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development has said it needs to increase childcare capacity to improve work/life balance. It’s also the only developed country where its social safety net makes it easier financially for one parent to stay home from work than to have both working. In Australia, just 14 percent of preschoolers are in formal daycare.
The story is similar in the United States. Here, 29 percent of 4 year olds are enrolled in public preschool programs, although the numbers are smaller for younger children and nearly 40 percent of American families have no regular care arrangement for children under 5.
The benefits for women of accessible and affordable childcare, on the other hand, are clear. The developed countries that have increased how much they spend on it over the past two decades are outpacing the United States in how many women are in the labor force. On the other hand, the one time that the country had universal childcare, American mothers saw an increase in their employment and work hours.