For many parents, the decision to have a second child is made with the expectation that two can’t be more work than one and that adding another member of the family will bring more love and happiness to the group. But according to a new research, second children could actually increase time pressure and deteriorate parents’ mental health.
The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey which followed roughly 20,000 Australians for up to 16 years has made a brand new discovery. Originally, the goal of the study was to see what happens to parents’ time pressure and mental health as first children are born, age and new siblings arrive. As time progressed, they weighed two main questions that many parents ask themselves when making the decision to have a second child – Do things get better as children grow older and sleep more and gradually become a bit more independent and robust? Or does a second child add to what may already be a highly stressed and time-poor household?
The tensions between the short- and long-term impacts of children tap into what social scientists call the stress process model. In this perspective, major life events can increase stress either in the short-term, as an eventful experience, or as a chronic strain, with effects that linger over time. Health researchers now show that chronic stress is the most detrimental to health and well-being, contributing to a number of diseases like cardiovascular disease, obesity and other major diseases.
The birth of a first child usually is responsible for introducing adults to a new role as parents that comes with expectations about how to allocate time to work or family, and how to fit a child into their lives. Following the birth of the first child, many Australian mothers take a year of parental leave in order to bond with the child and establish a responsible schedule for them. During this time, most Australian fathers maintain full-time work after children are born, in part to make up for mothers’ employment break.
The second child however, does not introduce a new role into the parents’ lives, but instead increase the demands of the parent role and responsibility. Although they bring more demands, in theory, parents of second children do in fact develop parenting skills which include how to clean a bottle while rocking a baby and other tasks that would require multitasking. These parenting skills in particular may mean that second children bring less time pressure and stress than first children.
According to the study, prior to childbirth, mothers and fathers report similar levels of time pressure. Once the first child is born, time pressure increases for both parents. Yet this effect is substantially larger for mothers than fathers. Second children double parents’ time pressure, further widening the gap between mothers and fathers.
The research also discovered that as the children gained more skills or they began entering school years, the pressure from parents pressure lingered. Research also discovered that time pressure increased with first and second children for all parents, whether they were working or not, which as a result reduced work to part-time is not a solution to this time-pressure problem.
To better understand the health implications of parents’ increased time pressure, we also looked at their mental health. We found that mothers’ mental health improves with first children immediately following birth and remains steady over the next few years. But, with the second child, mothers’ mental health sharply declines and remains low.
The discovery rules that if mothers did not have such intense time pressures and stressful circumstances following second children, their mental health would actually improve with motherhood and as time progresses.