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.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…

 

Time and Babies

Dear Economist,

my husband and I are planning to have a baby. Of course we already hear more advice than we want to. But what do you think: will a baby change our relationship? How? Will it make us happier?

Thank you, Veronica

Dear Veronica,

Let’s compare the pre-baby and post-baby worlds from an economist’s perspective. One basic economic choice to make is how much to work vs how much leisure to enjoy. More work means more money and more things you can consume; and it also means less leisure. In the pre-baby world, you and hubby have already made this choice. You chose a job, and with it a certain salary and a certain amount of work hours. If you and hubby care a lot about each other and about the same things, you likely arranged your work in a way that allows you to enjoy leisure together. This usually entails some sharing of chores, for example. (Compare this Daily Comment.)

As you already made this choice when entering post-baby world, your leisure hours are pretty fixed. Now, with a baby, a large chunk of one person’s leisure hours will be committed to baby care. There are different ways you can go about this, and some will likely make you happier than others. If you are not very interested in baby care, and assume the load alone, it will feel like a proportional reduction in your leisure time. Leisure gone and nothing in return – and you will likely be less happy than before. If you like baby care (as I assume you do, because you want a baby), then you will enjoy the hours of baby care, like nothing you ever experienced before. If your husband is of the same view, joint caring will be like leisure spent jointly and much fun. And it will strengthen your relationship.

One caveat, even for the sunny scenario. Baby care, like any fun activity, has diminishing returns. A further hour spent on it is less fun than the first hour. What is more, in this particular case, the returns are very non-linear. I.e. after pretty much a plateau of reasonably high returns, they diminish markedly and care can become very tiring. It is a good idea to find out (and be honest about) this inflection point for yourself and husband. Make sure to involve help for the hours beyond this point, from a baby sitter, grandparents or others. You, hubby and also your kids will be the happier for it..

Your Economist

 

Job and Children

Today’s post picks up a comment spotted in the WSJ in March this year

Dear Economist

when is the best time to have a child if you’re considering a career in academia/law/medicine– professions with prominent career milestones (tenure, partner, etc)? Grad school (lots of time, but little money)? Before tenure/partner (more money, less time, but tenure clock is ticking)? After tenure/making partner (biological clock is ticking…)? Is your answer the same for men and women?

My dear,

I am glad you are planning ahead for this. Yours truly found out about the advantages of different professions in this regard when she was already well into her career as a political economist and pregnant.

Economists have researched your question from the gender wage gap perspective. The gender wage gap is the gap (well, shortfall) of women’s wages with respect to men’s after controlling for all measurable factors that typically influence the wage. The gap is the difference in the net wage of a man and a woman that work in the same sector, have the same education and work experience and other measurable skills…A part of this wage gap is likely due to baby breaks. And the residual we cannot explain…is possibly discrimination.

Anyway, back to the topic. Claudia Goldin researched what different professions did to women’s wages and wellbeing, and it turns out that among educated women, the doctors had it best. Yep. The earnings penalty for taking maternity leave was found to be smallest for physicians and other medical professionals, smaller than for those with a JD or PhD. And the largest penalty hit women with an MBA. Ouch. And food for thought.

A few other things you may or not, want to know: male earnings rise with number of kids, female earnings diminish, but only because of hours worked. Full-time earning women also see their salaries rise with the number of kids. By the way, MDs also have the highest number of kids, on average, from the professional groups above. No wonder.

Your Economist

Who tells the truth, husbands or wives?

Scientists who collect survey data talk to a lot of people and ask them a lot of questions. That includes a lot of husbands and wives. Sometimes they ask the same question to both, but in separate meetings. For example about what the couple own, how they spend their time, how many kids they have and how many more they want.

What is reassuring is that husbands and wives give mostly the same answers. For nearly any question, 100% of husbands and wives agree on what is going on (says some recent research on this).

On some questions however, husbands and wives disagree more. Some of these are on opinions, like ‘how big do you want your family to be?’ It’s quite possible that couples do not agree. Or maybe they don’t talk much about it. But others are about clear facts, as in: do you use contraception? In the cited research, men tended to paint a more socially popular picture than their wives, on questions related to family planning and sexual health.

Hm. Maybe due to context. Or maybe not.

What can be done? Well, the effect was actually more marked in areas where women had lower status relative to men. Areas with more equity between men and women showed more consistency.

Men care about (their) children

How many split families do you know where the father plays a role after divorce? How big is that role?  – If your perspective is anywhere near mine, the role probably differs for each case you know. Sometimes by choice, and sometimes, depending on where the couple resided, by law. Not all countries and federal states recognize joint custody.

Researchers recently found out that this custody law not only matters for divorce but also for marriage. Men adjust their behavior depending on the law: whether they marry at all, how many kids they have, if any, and how they behave in marriage. By all appearances, the evidence looks like men gain in bargaining power if they can have joint custody. At least the men that care about kids. On the plus side that means they are more eager to marry, have kids and have them in a marriage, and have less recourse to domestic violence. The catch is that they also divorce more easily once married and keep women at home rather than encouraging them to work.

On balance, not a bad deal for both sides.

Marriage stability & the In-laws

Here’s the weirdest divorce statistic I have come across in a while: when husbands have a good relationship with their in-laws, divorce probability sinks by 20percent. When, instead, the wife has a good relationship with her in-laws, the divorce probability rises by 20percent. – What the heck?

Contrary to the researchers I don’t believe that reporting of ‘a good In-law relationship’ by the wife also means she suffers from meddling In-laws. I doubt she would have called the relationship good then.

I rather fear that darker forces of nature are at work here. A woman can only have so many kids in a life. I have heard of cases of 14, but say 8 is more like the natural upper boundary. A man, however, can have nearly unlimited amounts of kids – as long as he involves more than one woman. So, the parents of the wife have an evolutionary interest embedded in their genes that prompts them to foster the stability and wellbeing of their daughter’s marriage. Because the kids she will have in this marriage are likely all the kids she’ll ever have; she can certainly not increase the number of kids infinitely by divorcing and re-marrying younger men. It’s the opposite for a man: in theory, he can increase his prospect of children by divorcing and re-marrying a younger woman. Somewhere his parents must also ‘know’ this in their genes and have an evolutionary urge, however little, to nudge their son along…

So, when in doubt, celebrate the next holiday at her parents’ rather than his.. 

2 good reasons to share childcare: prevent divorce and get better sex

This is a true story. Jill is a stunning woman of about 41. She has just separated from husband number two (and partner number three), a father of two of her kids. Her serial separations have been difficult of course, but to outsiders, Jill may look like a divorcee who can afford to ‘shop’, given her looks.

Let’s, however, consider another aspect of the plot. She and her ex-husband agreed joint custody in court, and the ex looks after the kids for 1.5 days on the weekend. 1.5 days during which previously, like in most marriages, Jill looked after the kids. The same history of arrangements is true for her first child, of husband number 1. In other words, Jill now receives from the fathers of her children an effort in childcare she never got (and would have never gotten) while she was married to them.

This finding is no rarity. The time use between the genders is the area that is still ‘unemancipated’ in America. On average, women have less spare time than men, whether they are housewives or breadwinners. And the main reason is childcare. Jill had to divorce to get a fair share of childcare.

Another good reason to share childcare evenly between mum and dad is the phenomenon that men produce less testosterone when they are more involved with their children. (And women, likely, produce a bit more then, given they have more time to relax and can let stress/adrenaline take a back seat.) Less testosterone in men means less demand for sex, and, huh, more patience during the act. (And more in women means, huh, the opposite.) So, sharing childcare should balance out the gap in the need for sex often bemoaned by men, and at the same time make the act more fulfilling for both.

Off you go, guys: look after the kids and give mum a day off!