The stress of an empty nest

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

“The Stress Cost of Chil­dren.”

It’s all in the head­line — or, in the case of aca­demic pa­pers, the ti­tle — and this pa­per, re­leased re­cently by the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search, some­how was more al­lur­ing than its com­peti­tors com­ing to my at­ten­tion: “Does Ex­port­ing Im­prove Match­ing? Ev­i­dence from French Em­ployer-Em­ployee Data.” Or, “Dif­fer­ent Types of Cen­tral Bank In­sol­vency and the Cen­tral Role of Seignor­age.”

In this sea­son of high school grad­u­a­tions, in­clud­ing one in my own house­hold, the “stress cost” pa­per turned out to be par­tic­u­larly apt. It ex­am­ined the im­pact not only of adding chil­dren to a fam­ily but also of sub­tract­ing them— the Empty Nest, quan­ti­fied with lon­gi­tu­di­nal data and an­a­lyzed with ref­er­ence to La­grangean mul­ti­pli­ers and the Ashen­fel­ter dip.

But you don’t have to be adept in mul­ti­vari­able cal­cu­lus to un­der­stand — in­deed, to pre­dict — the re­sults. Hielke Bud­delmeyer and Mark Wooden of the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne and Daniel S. Hamer­mesh of Royal Holloway, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, ex­am­ined sur­veys filled out over a decade by cou­ples in Australia and Ger­many, ask­ing re­spon­dents how of­ten they felt pressed for time and how much they wor­ried about fi­nances.

The au­thors found what any par­ent — cer­tainly any mom — could have told you.

“[ W]e show that births in­crease time stress, es­pe­cially among moth­ers, and that the ef­fects last at least sev­eral years,” they write. “Births gen­er­ally also raise fi­nan­cial stress slightly.” But over­all, it was the lack of time, not the lack of re­sources, that was so drain­ing.

“There is no rea­son­able trans­fer of earn­ings from hus­band to wife that can com­pen­sate for the in­creased time stress that she ex­pe­ri­ences with the new child,” the au­thors re­port. In one of their sim­u­la­tions, the re­quired one-time trans­fer to off­set the stress would amount to twice the hus­band’s an­nual salary.

Eco­nom­i­cally speak­ing, the de­ci­sion to have chil­dren is not util­ity-max­i­miz­ing. And yet, most of us — in­ten­tion­ally, pas­sion­ately, joy­fully — make this least ra­tio­nal of choices. More than once.

But here’s the more in­trigu­ing part of the study: The ef­fect of emp­ty­ing the nest is much less than that of fill­ing it. “While the de­par­ture of a child from the home re­duces par­ents’ time stress, its neg­a­tive im­pacts on the tight­ness of the time con­straints are much smaller than the pos­i­tive im­pacts of a birth.”

Trans­la­tion: Chil­dren may leave your home, but they never leave your heart. To have chil­dren is to per­ma­nently de­vote a seg­ment of your brain to track­ing their where­abouts and wor­ry­ing about their well-be­ing.

I sus­pect this is why the death of Beau Bi­den at age 46 felt so gut-wrench­ing, even to strangers. As par­ents of young chil­dren, we are re­spon­si­ble for their well-be­ing and their safety. We can never pro­tect them en­tirely, as the car ac­ci­dent that took the life of Joe Bi­den’s first wife and in­fant daugh­ter cru­elly demon­strated. Yet at the out­set we have, or imag­ine we have, some de­gree of con­trol: the sleep­ing on the side (or is it the stom­ach?); the well-for­ti­fied car seat; the preser­va­tive-free mashed peas.

The arc of par­ent­ing is the process of in­creas­ingly ac­cept­ing the fu­til­ity of man­ag­ing risk. You have to let them out into the world — into a car driven by some­one else, onto a play­ground where an­other child might be cruel, into a class­room where they might stum­ble. Beau Bi­den sur­vived the ac­ci­dent; he made it safely through de­ploy­ment in Iraq; he seemed to have beaten the brain can­cer. And then it got him.

Eter­nal vig­i­lance is the price of par­ent­hood, but it is in­suf­fi­cient. As I write this col­umn, my fam­ily is asleep up­stairs, await­ing our younger daugh­ter’s high school grad­u­a­tion later in the day. I am exquisitely mind­ful of how in­creas­ingly elu­sive those to­gether mo­ments will be. Our older daugh­ter is work­ing in New York this sum­mer and study­ing in Lon­don next se­mes­ter. The younger will be off to col­lege in Au­gust, a 2-hour, 40-minute plane ride away.

So I look at the shoes strewn across my front hall­way and the pile of dirty dishes in her room and try to leaven my ex­as­per­a­tion with wist­ful­ness. Soon enough, I will mourn the ab­sence of mess. (Okay, not re­ally. But I will miss the life force that ac­com­pa­nies the mess.)

Bud­delmeyer, Wooden and Hamer­mesh ad­vise that my “time con­straints” will di­min­ish, although not quite to an ex­tent that is sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant. “Births tighten the con­straints much more than de­par­tures loosen them,” they write.

In­deed. We de­ride he­li­copter par­ent­ing; we vow to avoid it. Yet our hearts can­not help but hover.

BRIAN SNY­DER/REUTERS

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