Work-Life-Child Balance in 2017: 5 Myths Busted

It is 9:25pm and The Husband and I can sit down for dinner. Finally. After I spent two and a half hours bathing and feeding three under 6 year olds. The eldest two fell asleep at 8pm, which is a miracle as they usually tend to hop around until after 9. But the little one, despite his only eleven months, struggled to calm down. It took another one and a half hours of me limbo dancing with him in a baby sling until he eventually dozed off. And in between back rubs and sandwich folding, I checked on various urgent work email trails. (I usually take care to answer only the most important ones, because, under the circumstances, I may end up sounding less composed than I actually am.)

During the same time, The Husband was trekking through Rodman’s and Aldi chasing some vital ingredients to reconstruct a German Christmas in America. (Let me take a sip before I continue. I have just been handed a Cabernet with a blue cheese and fig jam tartine on the side. Hm. Senses slowly coming back.)

How do people do this? I mean, spending quality time with your kids while earning the means to do so and still getting enough sleep to ward off premature dementia? How are you supposed to do it? – The question keeps occupying researchers and I am not sure it is solved yet. Still, my recent dive into the research rewarded me with busting a few myths:

Myth #1: You need to spend a maximum of time with your kids

No. In fact, the quantity of time is irrelevant for children age 3 to 11 as long as it does not drop below the minimum of about 6 hours per week, according to this new large-scale study. Frankly, 6 hours is nothing, like just getting dressed and one meal together six days a week. Or, one weekend afternoon and nothing else. Kids that have this much of parent time, or the double of it, fare just the same in terms of achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

So there. What have we been stressing about? Mothers in 2016 spend on average 14 hours with their children per week, while mostly, half of it would do. The only group of children for whom more time makes a difference are those that are about to grow out of childhood: for adolescents, 12 years+, more parental time makes a difference in terms of better behavior.

The quality always matters though. The time you spend together should be interactive. If you spend it doing nothing or watching TV, it will be detrimental.  – On the other hand, unstructured alone time is good for children; it has been shown to build executive skills. 

Myth #2: It doesn’t matter if parents sleep less when they have kids

Oh, it does. If parents are stressed and sleep-deprived, parent time will be harmful for children, Milkie’s study found out. As a parent, you should see to your own sleep at least as much as to your children’s sleep. Let’s be realistic, this is unfeasible without enlisting outside help from time to time, as well as taking turns with your spouse in getting up at night and a flexible employer who understands that on some days, your full brain at work at 10:30am is better than half of it at 8:30am.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but I understand it a bit like the oxygen mask in planes: you must put on your own mask first, if you want to have a decent chance at helping your child.

Myth #3: It is a good idea for a mother to give up her job to have more time for children

Better not. Two things that do more than parental time for the future success of a child, according to the above study and others, is family income and a mother’s educational level. Higher income and higher maternal education are always good. Milkie also finds that mothers’ work hours don’t matter much at all.

So, both spouses working is a good thing. I can imagine some non-linear reasoning here though, with the impact of dual earning being particularly strong at lower income levels and less so above a certain level. Further studies should look into this.

Myth #4: Only your kids’ fun matters, your own doesn’t

Actually, your own fun is vital. A study on 6500 children and their fathers published in the British Medical Journal found that the amount of fun fathers had while parenting was much more important than the time they were involved. Fun fathers were 28% less likely to have children with behavior problems.

“The researchers discovered that how secure the fathers felt about their role and their partner, and how emotionally connected they were with their children, were more important in reducing the likelihood of behavioural problems than the time they put in to childcare.”

Myth #5: We want to keep our kids supervised because of the risks they are exposed to.

Nope. We supervise them closely because we find it immoral to do otherwise. It has nothing to do with the actual risks the kids face. As Ashley Thomas and her team carefully researched with an experiment, our brain muddles up the two, morals and risk perception. The less morally acceptable we find the reason why a child is left alone, the more at risk we believe the child is.

This is not to say that there are no risks out there. I am not in the camp of ‘let the kids be in the street alone all day, like it used to be’. Yes, it used to be the case, and I had collected two concussions by age 6, while my 6 year old today has never had one. But we do need to take a step back and realize our risk perceptions are out of whack. Kids need enough unsupervised freedom to develop their own life skills.

So they can make their own blue cheese and fig jam tartines and get themselves to bed. For example. Eventually. Bottom line, parents need to let themselves off the hook a bit more, take license to live, and breathe and have fun, and stress a bit less in 2017.

(Second) Spring, Fertility and Happiness

Despite the ever changing weather, I hear birds chirping outside. Beams of sunlight come and go, as do bees that are kept at the local elementary. The daffodils have not given in to the rain and the mosquitoes have not arrived yet. Perfect spring. New green life is piercing through frosty soil, and a somehow larger family of Easter bunnies gathers on our lawn. A good moment to think about how human families form and grow and pursue happiness. I have witnessed this lifecycle building best in my immediate friends, such as Beth (not her real name).

Beth has been married for over ten years now. She confided to me that her wellbeing had changed markedly since she first partnered with Jack. Getting married and moving in together nudged up her happiness. Trying for a child and getting pregnant brought an even deeper contentment and feeling of security, also for Jack. The actual birth of the first baby was life changing and laborious. But at the same time deeply rewarding and instilling pride. Beth and Jack felt like family. Both of them older than 36, they also saw a long held wish materialize, and at a time where their biological clock could have decided otherwise. In spite of the hard work that followed and would eat up part of their leisure for good, they were happy.

Mikko Myrskylä und Rachel Margolis mined the extensive data from British and German household panels and found that the birth of a child normally increases the parents’ happiness. This is strongest for the first child and a bit milder for the second (and non-positive for the third). The effect is temporarily very strong. As they write, “happiness is, on average, 0.3-0.5 units higher (on 0-10 scale) when a child is born compared to the baseline 4-5 years earlier. This magnitude is comparable to the effect of divorce (-0.49) or going to from employed to unemployed (-0.47).”

Happiness gets a boost around the birth of a child, with 2-3 years anticipation before the birth and lasting 1-2 years thereafter. The happiness increasing period before birth may reflect partnering, marriage and getting pregnant; and the post birth decline possibly a realization of the permanent loss of spare time.

And, wait for it. You better have your kids at a mature age. Older parents, above 35, as well as the highly educated have a stronger happiness surge, and even when happiness drops around 2 years after the birth, it still stays above the long term average. So for these groups, parenthood increases their happiness sustainably. Younger parents (below 25) can see their happiness decline long term. This may reflect that younger parents typically have fewer resources available, and also that they still have a – now unfulfilled – need to enjoy life and leisure on their own. Older parents likely have had their partying years and can let them go.

Looking at all this it is understandable that more and more people decide to have their children later, and to limit their number. Parenthood in the second springtime of life lets the new happiness last.

Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

De-clutter Your Life So The Right Person Can Step In

Jim is a successful, financially independent guy with manly charisma. He is good at unwinding after busy work-days or –weeks, and fills his leisure with a host of interesting activities; he volunteers in the leadership of several NGOs, spends time with his nieces and nephews and aging parents, and likes to hike and travel the world. No surprise, he has had the girls line up for him. – But somehow things never quite fell into place. He didn’t manage to warm up to any lady in the line. The few times he did decide to date someone things didn’t last long. Always something missing. And those he really loved didn’t love him back.

A puzzle. Until one sees him interact with his family. One brother is a bit of a problem-case; and Jim is left to take care of him. A cousin criticizes him constantly and gives him catch-22 orders (=contradictory in themselves). The rest of the family are sweet and good-natured but don’t stand up for themselves. Jim does all the running. Always. It has been like this forever.

What Jim doesn’t realize is that every relationship is a trade. It is a giving and taking. Ideally, between fairly equal people. Also ideally, of people who care about each other as they care about themselves. But in any case, it is a mutual thing, an exchange of goods. And the exchange is worthwhile because it makes both parties better off. It cannot be taking only (what he experiences by his family) or giving only (what he is doing). If it’s not an exchange, there is no relationship.

Jim needs to do less and get more. He needs to let go a little in the dating world. And in order to be able to do that, he needs to let go a little at home. Let his critical cousin sort out the problem-brother. They might both benefit. He can also leave the good-natured ones to their devices.

He also needs to let go of perfectionism. People like the critical cousin seem to teach us that things should always be better, that everything is improvable. While this may be true, the other side of the coin is that nothing is perfect. Ever.

Once Jim has de-cluttered his life of unhealthy obligations, bonds, criticism and perfectionism there is space for the right woman to step in. And stay.