There are many factors that go into the decision about whether — or when or how — to try for a second child. The size you want your family to be, your age, your fertility, your proximity to family, the amount of other demands in your life.
But have you considered the impact on your mental health?
I’d always felt that parenting of any kind was hard (and, look, it is), including the parenting of a single child. When my son was 4 years old, we accepted our first foster placement, a spunky 3-year-old boy. We went from parenting one preschooler one day to parenting two the next day. The first few weeks in particular were a challenging adjustment, to say the least.
But as time went by and we adjusted to life with two kids (and setting aside the unique stress and time commitment that comes along with navigating the child welfare system), I still probably would have said that parenting two wasn’t that much harder from parenting one.
But when our foster son was reunited with biological family a year later and we went back to parenting an only child, life felt TOTALLY different than it had before. Emotionally speaking, we were certainly reeling (that little guy will always have a special place in our hearts), but the day-to-day anxiety and time constraints we’d become used to had eased in a way I didn’t expect. I distinctly remember texting a friend (a mum of two kids) a few weeks after he left to say, “I never realised how easy one kid was until I had two and then went back to one.”
That could be explained by new research out of Australia’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics data, which concludes that having a second child increases not only the time pressure on both parents in the short-term but also over the long-term. And that increased time pressure negatively affects a parent’s mental health, particularly for mothers.
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 reason: second children intensify mothers’ feelings of time pressure. We showed that if mothers did not have such intense time pressures following second children, their mental health would actually improve with motherhood. Fathers get a mental health boost with their first child, but also see their mental health decline with the second child. But, unlike mothers, fathers’ mental health plateaus over time.
It’s logical to think it’s harder to go from no kids to 1 kid than it is to go from 1 to 2 (or from 2 to 3); after all, becoming a parent introduces a totally new role into a person’s life. But this analysis found that even with increased parenting skills and experience, as well as parenting well into the years when kids become older and more independent, the time pressures of the additional children don’t ease and can cause lasting strain on the parent’s mental health.
This article, written for an Australian audience, concludes what we’ve probably all felt from time to time: Parents—and, yes, often mothers in particular—need more help:
The effects of children on mothers’ time pressure is not short-lived, but rather is a chronic stress that slowly deteriorates their health. As such, maternal time pressure must become a top health priority for practitioners and policymakers.
Second, mothers need institutions to share in the care. Collectivising childcare — for example, through school buses, lunch programs and flexible work policies that allow fathers’ involvement — may help improve maternal mental health. Since poor postpartum mental health can lead to poor outcomes for children, it is in the national interest to reduce stressors so that mothers, children and families can thrive.