VoxEU Column Health Economics

Kids and stress

Children can generate time-related and financial stress for their parents. This column argues that both parents are likely to experience increased levels of such stress, but new mothers are more likely to experience increases in time-related stress than new fathers. This increase is so costly to the new mother that it would require a doubling of her income in order to offset it.

Anyone who has had children can attest that the arrival of a child is the most important life change they ever experienced. Children take up parents’ time and money. The sizes of these impacts have been documented by economists and other researchers for many years and across different countries (Guryan et al. 2008). Children generate stress for their parents due to concerns about money for raising the child or for spending on non-child related goods and services, and about time spent with the child or engaged in all of the other activities the new parent wishes to be involved in.

Time-related and financial stress after birth of a child: New evidence

In a new study (Buddelmeyer et al. 2015), we examine how the birth of a child alters the father’s and mother’s perceived time-related and financial stress.1 We follow over 7,000 Australian couples each year for 12 years, and a similar number of German couples biennially for 11 years. The data – stemming from the Australian HILDA Survey and the German Socioeconomic Panel (GSOEP) – allow us to compare changes in husbands’ and wives’ financial and time-related stress following a birth with the changes experienced by similar husbands and wives who do not have a child in that year. Because couples can be followed for several years after a birth, we can also examine how rapidly, if at all, any perceived stress produced by the addition to the household dissipates.

In the HILDA Survey, respondents were asked annually, “How often do you feel rushed or pressed for time?”, with five possible answers: “almost always,” “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely”, and “never”. A similar question, also answered on a 5-point scale, was asked in the GSOEP. Participants in both surveys were also asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their financial situation on an 11-point scale, which we then converted to a 5-point scale to make it commensurate with the responses about time-related stress. The main observations from the answers to these questions are clear from the statistics summarised from the HILDA Survey in Table 1. Summary comparisons from the GSOEP look very similar.

The upper part of Table 1 shows the annual changes in time-related stress among new parents from the year before the birth to the year of the birth, and the same changes among husbands and wives who did not experience a birth. In all cases, we divide the changes into increases, no change, and decreases in perceived stress (although finer comparisons yield the same general conclusions). In each case – and for both men and women – there is a preponderance of increases in time-related stress among new parents, especially compared with husbands and wives who did not experience a birth.

  • What is especially interesting, and is our central conclusion, is that new mothers were more likely to experience increases in time-related stress than new fathers.

The bottom part of Table 1 presents analogous comparisons for perceived financial stress. Here, too, new parents were more likely to experience increases than decreases in stress, and, again, their likelihood of an increase in stress exceeded that of husbands and wives who were not new parents.

  • The differences between new parents and others are smaller for financial stress than for time-related stress, and – unlike the changes in time stress – the differences in the likelihood of an increase in financial stress compared to others without a birth are about the same for new mothers and new fathers.

Table 1 presents simple changes, but all the results are preserved even after a large number of statistical adjustments for other differences among couples with and without a birth, including the spouses’ ages, earnings, labour-force status, unearned/transfer income, and even time spent in child care. The latter increases new mothers’ and fathers’ time-related stress, but the impacts are small; the main cause of greater time stress is the birth per se. Moreover, the increase in wives’ time-related stress is about three times as large as that of husbands, but their increases in financial stress are nearly identical.

One might think that the increases in time-related stress would be especially large among first-time parents, but they are not. Similarly, there is little difference in the increases in time-related stress among new mothers who differ in the number of other children they already have, except new mothers with another child under the age of six experience greater increases in time-related stress than other new mothers.

Table 1. Year-to-year transitions of stress, with or without birth, HILDA survey, 2001-2012

Another way to view the results is by considering the time path of each partner’s time-related and financial stress. Figure 1 presents these data for the HILDA Survey (the figure for the GSOEP looks quite similar). These statistics do not compare new parents to others, but rather to themselves in the years before and after the birth. One of the two most striking features in the table is the steady increase in new mothers’ time-related stress after the birth, as compared to new fathers’ time-related stress, which appears to level off quickly. Neither parent’s level of financial stress remains elevated for very long. The other remarkable fact revealed in Figure 1 is that wives’ time-related stress and husbands’ financial stress decrease from two years to one year before the birth compared to their previous levels. Statistical analyses of the data show that, other things equal, people are more likely to have a child if the wife was feeling unusually little time-related pressure and the husband unusually little financial pressure at the time the child might have been conceived.

Figure 1. Time-related and financial stress before and after a birth, HILDA survey, 2001-2012

The lengths of the HILDA Survey and GSOEP prevent us from following new parents’ stress for more than four years after a birth, but we can examine how older parents’ time-related and financial stress react to the departure of a newly-fledged adult from the household. One might think that the parents would experience decreases in time-related and financial stress that mirror the increases in stress experienced with a birth. Tables comparing husbands and wives whose child leaves the household to those with no such departure indeed resemble Table 1 in reverse – an empty nest is a less-stressed nest. But the differences between spouses whose child departs the home and those with no change in household size are much smaller, although in the opposite direction, than the differences between new parents and couples without a birth. Taken together, the results suggest that having a child causes a lifelong increase in time-related pressure, especially for mothers.


The inclusion of financial and time-related stress in a common statistical framework allows us to make some rough calculations of the monetary equivalent of the increase in time-related stress experienced by new mothers. In general, we ask how much additional income, or how large a monetary transfer from her husband, a new mother would have to receive to reduce her financial stress by the same percentage as the birth increases her time-related stress. The answers are only suggestive, but they indicate that the increased time-related stress is extremely costly to the new mother, so that a doubling of her income would be required to offset it. Our basic findings and these calculations suggest that the burden of a new child on mothers is tremendous, and they imply that pro-natal policies need to be especially generous if they are to be successful.


Buddelmeyer, H, D Hamermesh and M Wooden (2015), “The Stress Cost of Children”, NBER Working papers No.21223, May.

Guryan, J, E Hurst and M Kearney (2008), “Parental Education and Parental Time with Children”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 22:3 (Summer), pp. 23-46.

Hamermesh, D and J Lee (2007), “Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?”, Review of Economics and Statistics, 89:2, (May), pp. 374-383.


1 This analysis takes off from Hamermesh and Lee (2007).   

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