Having children: A guide for (couple) survival

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Parenting is hard. Having children changes the dynamic of the parents’ romantic relationship and affects the balance between housework and a person’s career. In most cases, mothers make greater sacrifices in terms of their time and ability to work, whereas father’s rarely have access to as much parental leave. Using data from the UK, this column shows the arrival of a first child has a negative effect on the parents’ relationship quality. This is largely driven by the wider effect of the mother having to forego professional work in place of household tasks.


Parenthood transforms relationships in unexpected ways. While initial considerations may not prioritise task distribution, when children enter the picture, logistics take centre stage, and fatigue can place a strain on even the most relationships. But how much does parenthood affect couples? We explore this question using real-life data from the United Kingdom.

The decision to start a romantic relationship with someone isn’t typically based on their nappy-changing skills or their bedtime story mastery. We tend to seek partners who bring joy, companionship and happiness into our lives. But lives can change, and things that were once out of the picture during the early years of a couple can suddenly become a central concern.

When children come, the ‘spark’ and the ‘flame’ of a relationship become secondary characters and logistics take the centre of the stage. Research shows that mothers decrease how much they work in the labour market and increase greatly the amount of time they spend doing housework. Childcare starts taking a large share of both partners’ time (Kleven et al., 2019; Goldin, 2021). Inevitably, fatigue and stress from coping with the endless list of tasks can strain relationships and cohabitation. Children may be the future, but they have a serious effect on the present.

But this is only part of the story. Looking only at differences in how time is used we will not be able to paint the entire picture of how having a child can influence couples.

 

How large is the toll that having children takes on couples?

In a recent study, we use data from Understanding Society about couples in the United Kingdom to answer this question. Individuals living with their partners answer a set of questions related to how they spend time together, for example how many hobbies they share or how often they kiss, and to their evaluation of their own relationship, like how happy they are with their partners or how often they think about splitting up.

We gather all this information into a single measure, which we call ‘relationship quality’. This measure is highly predictive of the probability of separating and both members of the couple tend to report similar levels of relationship quality. We then carry out a rigorous difference-in-differences analysis to study how having a child affects relationship quality. In other words, we look at how relationship quality evolves a few years after people have their first child, comparing it to the period before the child was born.

 

What does evidence from our research tell us?

The results are displayed below (Figure 1). We set the year when an individual’s first child is born to zero, so the years before birth are the negative values and the years after are the positive and could be interpreted as the age of the child.

Figure 1: Dynamic effect of birth of first child on relationship quality

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from Understanding Society

In short, having a child strongly and persistently decreases couples’ relationship quality. Every year since the child is born until they become four, couples’ relationship quality decreases relative to the level before they had the child. Quantitatively, individuals who were in the top quartile of the distribution of relationship quality become average by the time their child turns four. Not only that, the level of relationship quality remains at this low point until the child is seven –  after the child is eligible for full-time childcare.

The strong association between divorce and low relationship quality makes this result particularly relevant. The impact of other shocks on relationship quality, like one of the partners becoming unemployed, is negligible relative to the impact of having a child. On a more positive note, we find that, in contrast to relationship quality, having a child has a positive impact on happiness, although this is only temporary.

We test the reliability of our results in several ways. All the questions in the questionnaire experience a decrease, and not only those related to how they spend time in couple, which could be mechanically decreasing after having a child. The effect is very similar for couples that only have one child and for those who have more than one. It is the burden of parenthood itself that causes the change, not simply the hours required to fulfil the act of parenting, it seems.

 

What could be driving this relation?

Before having a child, couples differ in how work and home care responsibilities are shared among partners. While in some households gender-based specialisation prevails (where women take a predominant role at home and men take larger work responsibilities), in other couples both partners distribute their time equally between work and housework.

After having a child, couples become more alike in how they share responsibilities. The number of things that must be done in the house increase substantially with parenthood and couples have to make decisions about the distribution of these new tasks. In most cases, this newly acquired burden falls disproportionately on mothers than on fathers, and it is mothers who make greater professional sacrifices to handle the new home-based responsibilities.

As a consequence, and regardless of how a couple was distributing their time before birth, when their first child is born mothers ‘specialise’ in the household work and fathers in the traditional labour market (i.e., paid) work. What does vary across couples is the size of the necessary changes in time use to reach this new status quo, which could be influencing the decrease in relationship quality.

We find that couples that undergo larger readjustments in how they use their time also suffer larger decreases in relationship quality. This could be interpreted as reality not meeting expectations and this then taking a toll on couples. The more the mother (in most cases) must sacrifice, the greater the overall hit to the quality of the couple’s romantic relationship.

 

What do we make of this?

These findings highlight the benefits of policies promoting equitable distribution of tasks after childbirth. Policies like increased paternity leave, shared parental leave, or childcare provisions can enhance female labour market outcomes, potentially by redistributing household responsibilities more equitably among couple members. Our findings suggest that such policies may mitigate the negative effects of children on relationship quality, ultimately influencing couple dissolution and decisions regarding investments in children.

Understanding the impact of parenthood on relationship dynamics is crucial for designing policies encouraging healthier and more balanced relationships among parents. By advocating for policies that support equitable distribution of responsibilities post-childbirth, we can enhance relationship quality and societal well-being for generations to come. Having children will always involve making some sacrifices, but with the right evidence in place policy-makers can help make things a little easier (even if they can’t help with the sleepless nights).

 

Authors: Belén Rodríguez Moro and Olatz Román Blanco