It has been argued that it would take an annual salary of $120,000 to recoup stay-at-home-mothers fairly for the work they do. But if you wanted to include the cost of stress added to a woman’s life directly due to childrearing, you’d need to tack on another $66,000 to compensate her. Just think! You could spend that dough on a guided hike up Mt. Everest.
Yes, everyone knows having kids is difficult to some degree or another, but that’s often thought of as part and parcel of the job description—it’s monotonous and challenging and stressful, but such is the price one pays for the deep satisfaction of being a good ancestor (plus, sometimes it’s fun). But economist Daniel Hamermesh at UT Austin has gone a step further to quantify just how stressful it is, and according to a look at FiveThirtyEight by Andrew Flowers, it’s so stressful that we not only need more income to offset it, but if we were honest with ourselves at all we’d probably not even have kids, or at least have fewer. Tell us something we don’t know!
Flowers notes that Hamermesh’s paper, “The Stress Cost of Children,” has not been peer-reviewed, but he finds the results nonetheless startling. (Whispered aside: He’s about to have a baby, so really, he still Has No Idea). He writes:
Parents’ self-reported feelings of financial stress increase little after having a child. But time stress — or how overwhelmed and rushed parents feel — jumps enormously, especially for mothers, and it lasts several years. Translating that time stress into dollar figures shows that having a child produces a significant burden — on top of the $245,340 in food, housing, education and other costs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it takes to raise a kid.
To make these calculations, Hamermesh and his co-authors used two massive longitudinal studies from Australia and Germany, each spanning more than a decade: the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey and the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP). (The researchers would have liked to study the United States, but similar longitudinal data doesn’t exist here.) Both the Australian and German surveys followed more than 7,000 heterosexual married couples for roughly a decade through 2012 and routinely asked participants questions like “How often do you feel rushed or pressed for time?” The participants were also asked to rank their satisfaction with their financial situation. The researchers looked at how stress levels changed for couples who had a child during the study period compared with those who didn’t. Despite differences in culture and child-care services between Australia and Germany, the qualitative conclusions from both studies were similar. That suggests the results “supersede any cultural or legislative differences,” Hamermesh said.
In the survey, mothers said they felt 20 to 22 percent more stressed out with a new kid, compared to fathers, who said they were 5 to 8 percent more stressed. This fades for dads, according to Flowers, but not for mothers, during those first few years.
Then there is this sentence:
“If I were a feminist, I would love this,” Hamermesh said.
Flowers looks at comparable research and finds very little. What has been studied lately with regard to childrearing is not stress, but happiness, which Hamermesh tells him, is vague research at best. “I don’t know what it means,” he told Flowers, “and it’s not clear what the heck it measures.” So Flowers asked a happiness researcher in Denmark, Peder Pedersen, who as you would expect, defends his work and reason for having a job. “It’s absolutely valid to study stress and financial costs,” he told Flowers, but it’s not a “substitute for a well-being measure.”
I think they are both right. Both are interesting, but neither tells the whole picture. Asking someone how happy they are won’t tell you a lot per se about their stress levels. And asking someone about their stress levels won’t tell you much about their happiness. A happy life is not a stress-free life, and when it comes to kids in particular, the stress and the happiness are interrelated, not to mention inextricable from nearly every action you take.
Imagine if it took all the same care and commitment and money and devotion to have a pet rock—only at the end of the day it was still a fucking pet rock? Wouldn’t make any goddamn sense, would it? But a kid is something else entirely. Having kids is high-stakes because they’re people. You don’t want to fuck them up! You have no idea if you’re fucking them up! Not really! And Christ we really hope you don’t! Also, it’s amazing.
This is why honest books about having children are titled All Joy and No Fun and also Go the F*ck to Sleep. We, as a culture, now ever accustomed to being able to design our happiness like a single custom-made pair of life-enhancing sneakers, want to know the objective price of everything, including breeding. You can’t really do that with kids, because the real price is irrelevant. What matters is the value. Someone famous said—fine, it was Oscar Wilde—that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
It is in the spirit of such a good quote that I think, as I’ve written before, that having kids isn’t a will-this-make-me-happy choice. I think it’s a will-I-rise-to-this-occasion choice, knowing I can’t possibly even know what it means to do that? This is not possible to quantify. Sure, it will make you happy on some level, but it’s so vastly different and foreign from the happiness you’ve ever had so far. It is so heavily asterisked that it is in its own category.
But we should keep trying to quantify it anyway, while trying to retain the nuance about what these quantifications mean. What is interesting about these study results is that you start to comprehend what a difference $66,000 would make in a new mother’s life, especially given that many women reduce their hours after having a baby or stop working altogether, so if anything, their income more often drops significantly. Flowers writes:
Using the Australian survey data, the researchers found that to offset a new mother’s time stress, her annual earnings would have to increase by about $66,000 (or her husband’s earnings would have to increase by $163,000). Using the German survey produces more modest estimates: A mother would need a $48,000 annual raise to offset her time stress (or she’d need to see her husband get a $55,000 raise instead). As you can see, a mother responds differently to changes in her income than to changes in her husband’s — that’s because a $1 increase in her earnings goes further in reducing her stress than a $1 increase in her husband’s.
He notes that stress may seem to jump so high after a child because, in part, it’s so low before the child is born, assuming the pregnancy is planned, and at a time when both parents feel stable and ready to embark on parenthood. (But given that half of all pregnancies are unplanned, well, let’s just say that can’t account for everyone.)
Since no one is going to give new mothers a free $66,000 to deal (I bet someone gets the new mother’s equivalent of the wife bonus! A stress bonus?), what is to be done?
Honestly? Nothing. The researchers recognize that even though getting help with childcare would minimize some of the stress, it would not be a cure-all, because part of the trouble is that the stress is innate. It’s “just having the buggers around,” Hamermesh told Flowers.
If anything, there is your PSA: Just Having the Buggers Around Is Stressful. But the joy is there. The fun shows up pretty regularly, too. But in what exact ratios? For how long? How often? Who could predict? You’ve have better luck finding a free $66k than answering that question in a reliable way for everyone.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.