The 'Stress Cost' Of Having A Baby Is Thousands More Than You'd Think, Economists Say (Which Will Only Stress You Out More)

Two things that aren't exactly well-kept secrets in the land of parenting? Kids can be super pricey and super stressful. But thanks to some new (and arguably very depressing) research, economist Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin have put a big 'ole, panic-inducing price tag on the cost of that stress itself. (You know, just so you can freak out a little more about how intense parenthood is going to be.) The gist? The "stress cost" of having a baby is a whopping $66,000 for new moms, according to Hamermesh's working paper, "The Stress Cost of Children." And that's an extra $66,000 a year, guys. How lovely!

Now before you go having a mini-heart attack/seriously considering a vow of celibacy like I just did, it's important to note that the research is still considered ongoing, and has not yet been peer-reviewed. Still, its findings have been enough to raise plenty of eyebrows. Andrew Flowers over on FiveThirtyEight did his best to explain them, after doing a deep dive into the study and talking to Hamermesh himself. He writes:

Parents’ self-reported feelings of financial stress increase little after having a child. But time stress — or how overwhelmed and rushed parents feel — jumps enormously, especially for mothers, and it lasts several years. Translating that time stress into dollar figures shows that having a child produces a significant burden — on top of the $245,340 in food, housing, education and other costs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it takes to raise a kid.

Okay, but where exactly is that number coming from? Is that our potential shrink bill or something? To deal with all the stress? (I NEED ANSWERS DAMMIT!) On this front, Flowers assures us (okay, mostly me) that Hamermesh wasn't just pulling numbers out of his butt in the report. To arrive at that stat, study co-authors used two massive longitudinal studies from Germany and Australia: the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. Both of these surveys, which tracked more than 7,000 heterosexual married couples from roughly 2002 to 2012, put general stress-related questions to each participant — things like, "How often do you feel rushed or pressed for time?" They were also asked about their financial situation, and whether or not that stressed them out or worried them. Researchers then compared the answers each couple gave over time, noting the differences between those who had kids, and those who didn't.

And as for why we're only talking about Mom here when we talk about parenting stress, well... according to Hamermesh's research, she's apparently the lucky recipient of more new baby stress than Dad. In the survey, mothers reported stress increases somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 22 percent over the course of their child's first two years. Dad, on the other hand, only reported an increase of about 5 to 8 percent, and it was said to actually decrease at a faster rate than the mother's.

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But back to that magic $66,000 number:

Using the Australian survey data, the researchers found that to offset a new mother’s time stress, her annual earnings would have to increase by about $66,000 (or her husband’s earnings would have to increase by $163,000). Using the German survey produces more modest estimates: A mother would need a $48,000 annual raise to offset her time stress (or she’d need to see her husband get a $55,000 raise instead). As you can see, a mother responds differently to changes in her income than to changes in her husband’s — that’s because a $1 increase in her earnings goes further in reducing her stress than a $1 increase in her husband's.

So what would all that extra cash do exactly? According to Hamermesh, it would help with child-care related costs and alleviate other household stresses a new mom tends to respond to more. But even he admits it wouldn't change a ton. It's "just having the buggers around," that brings all the stress on, said Hamermesh. (Gotta hand it to him for his honesty.)

All of this stress talk raises one interesting question though: does being stressed out necessarily mean you're not happy with your life? Over at Jezebel, writer Tracy Moore isn't so sure; and neither am I. If you've ever met a newly minted parent or been one yourself, you're well-acquainted with the whole I'm exhausted, I haven't showered in three days, I'm a wreck... and this kid is the most amazing thing ever spiel. Isn't all the good supposed to be outweighing the bad here? Moore chimes in on this whole thing with some pretty good nuggets of wisdom:

Asking someone how happy they are won’t tell you a lot per se about their stress levels. And asking someone about their stress levels won’t tell you much about their happiness. A happy life is not a stress-free life, and when it comes to kids in particular, the stress and the happiness are interrelated, not to mention inextricable from nearly every action you take.
I think, as I’ve written before, that having kids isn't a will-this-make-me-happy choice. I think it’s a will-I-rise-to-this-occasion choice, knowing I can’t possibly even know what it means to do that? This is not possible to quantify. Sure, it will make you happy on some level, but it’s so vastly different and foreign from the happiness you’ve ever had so far. It is so heavily asterisked that it is in its own category.

Truer words have never been spoken.

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Anyway, there you have it, folks. Unless you can find an extra $66,000 lying around somewhere, this is yet another bit of depressing parenting research that's best to be taken with a grain of salt. Or better yet, you know what, maybe forget you ever read this. For your sanity's sake.

(Seriously, what are you still doing here? Go!)

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