Why you should care
Because two isn’t just a crowd, it’s a cause to grab some Tylenol.
Like many parents of a single child, Leah Ruppanner often heard the arguments for getting going on number two. Don’t worry, people told her, it’ll be easier now that you know what you’re doing. The older one will help take care of the younger one. Plus, kids need a sibling. “There is this real pressure around having two children,” Ruppanner says.
Unlike most moms, however, she had the ability to test those claims as a sociologist teaching at the University of Melbourne. So she paired up with other Australian professors to analyze 20,000 Australians, using data collected over 16 years from the country’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics survey. Their findings? That your second child puts an equal amount of pressure on your mental health. What’s more, while expecting parents show equal levels of stress leading up to childbirth, women report double the anxiety after the first child … which only gets worse with the second.
Second children double parents’ time pressure, further widening the gap between mothers and fathers.
That’s an exponential increase in stress, according to researchers for the study titled “Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood, Time Pressure, and Mental Health,” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in October, directly contradicting the classic argument many well-meaning friends and family bandy about the dinner table. “There are no economies of scale,” says Welch Suggs, a University of Georgia professor and father of a boy and a girl. “You can’t assume that because food, school, clothes, bedtimes, anything else worked for your first, it’s going to be the same with your second.”
The difference is huge, adds The Case for the Only Child author Susan Newman: “Two is not twice as much work – you need to square it. It’s actually four times as much.” Schedules are rarely harmonized: While one child needs daycare, the other may need to be picked up from school or shuttled off to soccer practice. “It’s not so much that it’s easier, it’s different,” says Donnie Holliday, a father of two who works at a Christian ministry. “What makes things easier is the fact that as a parent you’ve relaxed. Before the first child, you read all the books and relied on the experts, but by the second one, you trust your experience more.”
But according to the Australian study, the pressure does not alleviate as children age and become more self-sufficient or spend more time in school. That counterintuitive reality is reflective of the way parental care doesn’t ease as children age but merely changes. “When you’re raising children, you worry about them,” Newman says. The fear that your baby will fall while taking first steps quickly shifts to the concern that your teenager will drive safely. While no studies have yet explored the effects of spacing out children – Ruppanner says it’s a topic she would like to look more closely at in the future – Newman’s theory suggests that parental stress doesn’t change even as the kids get older.
The difficulty of raising a second child is exacerbated in so-called liberal welfare states, that is, governments where private industry often takes the place of guaranteed social support systems — some prominent examples being Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. When such governments do try to help parents, they typically do it through non-guaranteed means: “You get a tax break,” Ruppanner notes.
Half of families in the United Kingdom are expected to have only one child, while another study found that 70 percent of Canadian kids under 14 didn’t have siblings.
This generation of Americans, in particular, is focused on dual-income households, with more women seeking careers and family than ever. But most of the time, businesses aren’t set up to accommodate fathers exiting the workforce for brief periods of time, which means women bear the brunt of child-rearing and its accompanying stress. Rising childcare costs convince some women to stay at home rather than work just to pay the babysitter. And while they may have planned to just leave their careers momentarily, a second child can turn a few years of absences into a nearly decade-long hiatus.
Globally, other nations are responding differently. Nordic nations have generous parental leave policies, and Sweden has even made a portion of its paid-time-off allotments only available to fathers, which helps narrow the gender divide by making sure dads are taking off time too. Societally, birth rates are falling in many nations. Within the decade, half of British families are expected to have only one child, while another study found that 70 percent of Canadian kids under 14 didn’t have siblings. Birth rates have plummeted in low-birth states such as Japan and high-birth ones such as India alike. Although China ended its one-child policy in 2015, many Chinese women continue to choose to have one or no children, pursuing careers and financial health instead.
While politicians in Western nations pay lip service to encourage parenthood, millennial parents are particularly poised to just skip out entirely if laws don’t follow to support having children. “There is a lot of delaying fertility,” says Ruppanner. “That’s going to be the next thing: They’re probably not going to have two children, they’re probably going to have one … or none.”