Decisions

How Much Time Would Another Baby Cost?

“But how much time does parenthood cost exactly? And how much extra does a second child require?” An excerpt from Second Thoughts by Lynn Berger

by Lynn Berger

When my son was four months old, he went to daycare for the first time. The same staff member who had enveloped my daughter in her arms two years earlier was there to welcome him. And although I could imagine no warmer destination, that day I cursed my job, the dual-income model, and my far-too-short maternity leave. I felt as though I was robbing him of my time—as if our time together was being taken from us.

I recognized the feeling: when I took his sister there for the first time, I also had the feeling that this initiation had come too soon, that something wasn’t right about the system that “we” had “all” apparently agreed to.

But at least in her case I’d been able to give her all my time and attention in the four months leading up to that moment. My time with her little brother had been interrupted more often, and he’d had to share it with her. That made it feel all the more harsh, the second time.

While expecting my son, I assumed that my second child would cost me as much time as my first. I suppose I also suspected I would have less time to spend on each child once I was a mother of two.

But how much time does parenthood cost exactly? And how much extra does a second child require?

For decades now, sociologists and economists have taken it upon themselves to measure, categorize, and compare the demands children make on their parents’ time. They do this by asking representative samples of parents how much time they have spent caring for their offspring in the past week. Or they get them to keep a diary for 24 hours, in which they note what they’re doing every ten to fifteen minutes, and who is keeping them company.

A sociologist has given me a reading list with titles of academic books and articles on the time children cost, and one rainy day I go and look them up, in a dimly lit library with dark red walls, where some compassionate soul has placed a packet of biscuits by the kettle.

Caring for children, two sociologists note, is not only an activity but also a “state of mind,” one that can’t simply be captured in time diaries.

There I learn that, in the neatly classifiable world of researchers, there’s a distinction between primary care (feeding, changing, dressing, that kind of work), interactive care (reading aloud, playing, talking), and passive supervision (keeping an eye on your children while they play by themselves). In rebellious reality, these forms of care of course overlap.

There is also the category of “indirect care”: all the extra time that children require of their parents due to longer shopping lists, more washing, more mess to tidy up, and more logistics.

Then there’s the time when your children are elsewhere and you’re engaged in other activities, but you’re still “available,” on call. Caring for children, two sociologists note, is not only an activity but also a “state of mind,'” one that can’t simply be captured in time diaries.

Indeed. While I read about these time allocations in the library twilight, I think constantly of my children. They were both tearful when I dropped them off at school and daycare that morning, and I’m still wondering how they’re doing. I’m the one responsible for interrupting myself like this, but it feels like it’s them doing it.

Despite the different definitions and the sometimes artificial distinctions between the various types of care, most studies reveal comparable results. In almost all countries where researchers have looked into how much and what kind of time parents “invest” in their children, mothers spend more time on primary care than fathers. In the Netherlands, where I live, mothers even spend more than twice as long on the physical care of children, such as washing and feeding, than fathers do – and my country is no exception. Yet almost everywhere, parents derive more pleasure from those other, less routine and less urgent forms of care, the interactive care, than from primary care.

Moreover, the total quantity of time parents spend on their children has changed in recent decades: how much time children cost turns out to be quite time-sensitive. And perhaps the same goes for how we value time.

It’s not often that I feel comforted by statistics. Here, in this library, while my son is at daycare, I do.

In 2000, the US sociologist Suzanne M. Bianchi published a study that upended the idea of working time as coming at a heavy cost to time for children. Based on time diaries from the United States, she showed that working mothers may spend slightly less time with their children than mothers who do no paid work outside the home, but also that the difference was a great deal smaller than you might expect. The impact on the children’s well-being also turned out to be almost nonexistent.

Bianchi offered a number of explanations for the limited impact mothers’ participation in the labor market had on time with, and well-being of, children. For one, it seems we may have overestimated how much time mothers previously spent with their children. Moreover, the shrinking of families means that more time can be spent per child.

Bianchi also noticed that working mothers tend to “protect” the time they have available for their children by cutting back on other activities. And, finally, fathers have begun to spend more time with their children—so that children on balance can still count on a good deal of “parental time.”

It might sound contradictory, writes Bianchi, but in the course of the twentieth century, the total amount of time that children spend in the company of their parents, whether on a dual income or not, has in fact increased.

It’s not often that I feel comforted by statistics. Here, in this library, while my son is at daycare, I do.

Researchers in other countries have come to the same conclusion. A study of the amount of time parents in Canada, the United States, and a whole range of European countries spent on direct care for their children reveals that parenthood, in terms of time, became considerably more expensive between 1965 and 2012.10 In the past half century, this study showed, parents have come to spend not less but more time with their children. From on average 54 minutes per day for mothers in 1965 to 104 minutes in 2012. And from 16 minutes for men in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012.

The increase turns out to be higher in highly educated parents (123 minutes for mothers and 74 for fathers) than for those with a lower level of education (94 minutes for mothers, 50 for fathers). That could be, the researchers write, because helicopter parenting is practiced mainly by wealthier socioeconomic classes.

Where do we find the time children cost? What do parents trade in to be able to pay for it?

Also, highly educated parents often have more time to put into the care of their children, simply because they can afford it. They have the freedom to take a Wednesday afternoon off, or to come home earlier if their children demand it.

(Of course, no major pandemics took place during the five decades in this study. I wonder how the data would skew had the time frame been lengthened by another decade, incorporating that strange period in the spring of 2020, when parents and children in many parts of the world were suddenly forced to spend a lot more time at home, keeping each other company at all hours. In some ways, this period would feel like a throwback to a time when staying home was what mothers did as a matter of course. In other ways, it would be like peeking into a distant, science-fiction-like future, in which traditional divisions between men and women, between public and private, between “life” and “work,” became upended, scrambled, and for some, almost nonexistent. These changes would, for the most part, be temporary, and often frustrating, and not to the advantage of women, but perhaps they might also show some of us that the way we did things wasn’t set in stone; that we could allocate our time differently if we had to, and might keep on doing so once it was no longer required of us.)

Where do we find the time children cost? What do parents trade in to be able to pay for it? The first, simple answer is sleep. Leisure suffers as well: all those hours in cafés, city walks without a specific destination in mind, sleeping in until midmorning, and Sundays spent loafing around—they in part form the price you pay for parenthood.

All that was predictable enough, of course — and yet to me, as to many other parents, it came as a shock, this specific loss. “My privileged relationship with time has changed,” writes Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work. Caring for a baby forms “a sort of serfdom, a slavery, in that I am not free to go.”

Free time—the freedom to allocate and experience your time as you please.

Besides sleep and leisure, parents trade in their paid work, as Bianchi also observed. We protect the time with our children, at least temporarily, by adjusting our working hours or working less—or by stopping completely for a while.

And it’s here that the most pronounced differences between fathers and mothers arise. Because, most of the time, it’s women who cut down on work when children come along.

My question as to how much time a child costs, and how much time a second child adds on top of that, can almost always be answered with a counter-question: whose time?

My question as to how much time a child costs, and how much time a second child adds on top of that, can almost always be answered with a counter-question: whose time?

Because if there’s something sociologists, economists, and a great many parents constantly see confirmed, it’s that mothers and fathers do not “pay” for parenthood in equal measure.

This was true before the pandemic: in the United States, for example, mothers devoted around 14 hours to childcare a week, compared to 8 hours for fathers, according to time-use data gathered by Pew Research. During the pandemic, these differences became more profound for many.

In any case: if time is a currency, then the exchange rate isn’t the same for everyone, men and women don’t pay with the same coinage, and not every child is equally expensive.

That difference in time allocation is reflected in the distribution of paid work: pretty much all over the world, fathers work outside the home more than mothers. In the Netherlands the difference is around 18 hours per week. There seems to be “a kind of ‘exchange’ of paid and unpaid work within families,” is how a Dutch report puts it. (Besides spending more time on care and supervision of children, mothers also spend more time on housework.) An exchange. It sounds so businesslike, so cold, for something that in practice feels more like an unreasoned, more or less spontaneous manner of cohabitation. Yet that exchange is one of the reasons why the decision of whether to have a second child is sometimes cast as an economic choice: the more children a woman has, the greater the “gap” in her résumé and the greater the impact on her future income.

That’s why sociologists and economists speak of a “motherhood penalty”: the disadvantage that mothers experience on the labor market compared to women without children. The penalty is greater the bigger the batch of children grows. A Danish study published in 2018 points out that, compared with childless women, working mothers with two children experience a bigger reduction in their income than working mothers of just one child. Mothers of three and four experience a further drop, whereas the income of fathers is hardly even dented, however many children they have.

A penalty, or an exchange? In any case: if time is a currency, then the exchange rate isn’t the same for everyone, men and women don’t pay with the same coinage, and not every child is equally expensive.

Two children cost their parents more time than one. That makes sense if you take in the long view—when a person has a second child, that automatically adds a number of extra years of care, a couple of years longer until the last one leaves the nest. But in that hot summer in which I was pregnant with my son, I’d wondered whether the care for two children would also cost more time per day.

Not quite so much, it turns out. According to studies I’ve found on the subject, having a second child costs parents between six minutes and an hour extra per day. The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) discerns no significant difference between the time it costs to care for one child and that for two. After all, the family sociologist Anne Roeters speculates when I tell her about my surprise at this finding, most parents with two children care for them simultaneously. “You don’t take your eldest child to daycare first, then cycle home to get the youngest,” is how she explains it.

The time parents spend on their children therefore doesn’t double when a second child comes along. And that’s precisely what lies at the foundation of what economists call the “dilution” of parent-child time. Time is scarce, so the more children you have, the less time remains available per child.

That dilution doesn’t affect all children to the same extent, several studies show. For instance, research into parent-child time among British families showed that firstborns tended to receive more parental time than second- or laterborns. And economists who analyzed time diaries by more than 3,000 US families saw that secondborns on average had to make do with 3.5 hours less “quality time” per week from their mother than firstborns at the same age. Third-born children received 4.5 hours less quality time per week from their mother.

The modest increase in daily caring time when a second child comes along, leads me to suspect that the arrival of the second child has more of an influence on the nature and intensity of parent-child time, than on its quantity.

Researchers also found that parents tend to allocate their time differently when a second child comes along. In a study from the United States, for instance, I read that mothers of two or more children, compared with mothers of just one, spend more time on “passive supervision” and less on interactive care. They will, for example, watch while their children run around in the snow more often than read to them or play with them. (This was also what emerged from studies of the relationship between birth order and cognitive skills: that parents read to and taught their second child less than they had the first.)

One possible interpretation is that the children play together and so don’t need their mother as much. Another, it occurs to me after I’ve been examined in the mirror by a pale specter with bags under her eyes, is that mothers of one child have more energy left to really interact with their child.

Children cost time, lots of time. But what that means in practice depends on where you stand. Children currently cost more parental time than they used to, they cost mothers more than fathers, and the way fathers and mothers allocate their time also differs. To a certain extent, work time and time with children are communicating vessels, but parents draw on other reserves as well. And although I have the feeling that my children, now that there are two of them, take up more time than when only the first was with us, the statistics tell a different story. On paper, caring for two children barely costs more time than caring for one.

That last point, the modest increase in daily caring time when a second child comes along, leads me to suspect that the arrival of the second child has more of an influence on the nature and intensity of parent-child time, than on its quantity. The second child influences not only parental time allocation, but the way in which parents perceive time as well.