Friday, December 1, 2017

How Does The Baby Affect Stress?

Posted by theboat On December 01, 2017 34 comments
Having a baby changes your life. Everyone knows this. What I haven't really seen though is a really accurate picture of how it affects your stress level. I probably can't provide that picture either for many reasons, but here is my attempt at capturing some obvious and some non-obvious ways that a baby affects our stress levels.

They make almost everything you do harder

It's really hard to capture how a child adds stress. When I previously thought of stress, it's like when you're going into a job interview and you have an overwhelming amount of it and then it resolves, like when you work a job you hate and deal with angry customers that you don't care about but then you go home, etc. The best way I can describe how a child differs is that it makes everything you do harder. It's a constant stress that's added to everything and never goes away.

A good example is my morning routine. Previously, it was:
  • get up
  • shower if it's a shower day
  • eat a banana
  • brush teeth
  • go to work
My current routine is:
  • get up
  • shower if it's a shower day
  • wake up my son
  • calm him down (he's really cranky when I wake him up)
  • figure out what he'll eat that day (this often means prepare 3 or 4 different breakfasts for him)
  • play with him while he eats so he doesn't get fussy and refuse to eat
  • eat my banana
  • brush teeth
  • change his diaper and get him dressed
  • gather his items for daycare
  • convince him to go to daycare and put on his shoes
  • load him into the car
  • take him to daycare
  • go to work
None of those extra steps are awful. Most are actually really fun. It makes that routine significantly longer though. It's typically over an hour each morning now. Extrapolate this to everything you do (grocery shopping, going to restaurants, etc.), and it really adds up.

They make it much harder to find a place to live

I wrote about this previously. It's still ongoing. There's just so much to balance. You have to find somewhere with ok schools. You have to find somewhere with a short commute since you have less time (see above). You have to find somewhere that you can stay for a long time since you don't want to move constantly with a kid. You need more space. 

This could fit into the previous point, but I felt like it was important enough to call out as separate.

They make the future much more frightening

I wrote about something related to this previously. It's gotten stronger since then so I'll expand...

I lean slightly pessimistic about many things. Specifically related to this, I have little confidence that society will be able to sustain itself in its current form for the entirety of my life. I run another site focused on global warming that deals a lot with the impacts of it. The science is very clear and readily available. I have seen nothing that makes me optimistic about that and have recently moved into the 'this will likely destroy society' camp. I'm not in the 'this will make humans extinct' camp. I'm more in the 'this will likely be significantly worse than WWII and more like a global plague level of destruction' camp.

This is all fine. I've accepted all of this. My son has not though. He can't yet...he's only two. I want something else for his future, but I am powerless to stop it. I can't even get my immediate family to care about his future (see the next point in this post). It took me a really long time to convince myself it was okay to have a child, and I still question if I was just selfish when I went ahead with it.

How do I even explain this to him? Do I lie to try to make him feel better about the world until he discovers on his own? Do we try to move somewhere that will fare better than most of the world? If so, how much should I give up in salary to do that? I struggle a lot with this one...

They create fights you weren't expecting

There's the obvious ones between exhausted parents. That's not what I'm referring to. The ones I'm talking about are less obvious, and an example I'll provide is one related to politics.

My parents and I have very different political views. They are against environmental protection, for an evangelical theocracy, etc. Supporting politicians who share their views directly hurts my child.
Before having a kid, I just considered those awful views and moved on. Now I can't help but see those as direct attacks on my child's (and their grandchild's) future and defend him.

This creates a stressful situation that I haven't figured out how to resolve. My approach so far has been to try to educate them on how harmful some of these are for him. Unfortunately, it turns out they know and do not care, so we're still evaluating where to go from here.

This is not the only example I have, but it is a clear one of a fight I didn't expect to be having. I am certain I will have a lot more like this once he starts school.

They are expensive

This one is  probably the one that everyone thinks about. People cost money to keep alive. They cost more money if you want to improve their quality of life. Estimates vary. I'll put up a post soon about the cost of his first two years, but I'm estimating right now that we've effectively spent >$40,000 on him in two years. We have to pay for college someday also.

There is a cost that many people might not factor in though, and that's how they affect your income. I know for a fact that I could work a job with slightly longer hours and make significantly more money. (e.g., >$30k/year more). I choose not to because I want to be around for him. This seems like a good choice as he is significantly happier when we are around him, and he really loves attention from us. What is the cutoff though? I obviously can't quit my job to be with him. Could I take something working 30 hours a week to get even more time with him?

They are always there

If you always have roommates and always do stuff with people, this may not apply to you. I prefer being alone in a quiet place. I'm much better at my job when I telecommute and I spend most of my free time making a science website. I don't generally want to be bothered.

My son does not care. He wants to sit next to me all the time. He likes to stand outside the bathroom and let my wife know when I'm pooping. It's really funny because he'll just scream 'Daddy eh eh' or 'Daddy poop' to let her know in case she is confused about what was happening. He wants to do puzzles together and tell me what picture is on each piece.

When I play guitar, I have to stop every couple of minutes to let him touch the strings and giggle. I haven't attempted to record any music since he was born because it seems nearly impossible.

I asked a coworker to describe the stress of having children, and his description was that he's 'always on' in that there's never a time when he's not having to be responsible for something.

They cause you to sleep less

This is another one that everyone probably thinks about. When they're babies especially, you have to feed them all the time so there's no way around this.

What's maybe not obvious is that this doesn't go away. You have the 'things are harder' one that I mentioned that cuts into your free time. You also have all of these points combining to make it harder to sleep well (assuming you sleep poorly when stressed).

There's another one that might not be obvious in that his schedule is your schedule (at least one parent's). When the child wakes up at 7 AM saying 'Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!' over and over, sleep is over for at least one of you. If you want to nap and he wants to play, you're going to play.

The net effect of all of these is less sleep.

They expose your weaknesses

Kids are not independent, especially early on. You have to keep them alive and make them productive members of society. They also pick up on what you do. This is a recipe for them exposing your weaknesses.

As an example, I will sometimes get extremely anxious about a specific thing and have trouble moving forward. It's great for optimization problems at work and really helped as a physics student, but it's awful for almost everything else. When my son was approximately one, I did this about buying a house. We live in Austin which is an extremely competitive and overpriced housing market but we could afford one (at that time) so we were strongly considering it. 

During one particularly stressful period of this, I went into my anxious mode of only sleeping 2-3 hours a night for a stretch and talking only about this topic. He was really uncomfortable with me being that way and was freaked out also while it was going on and I was not there to console him. I still feel bad about that period, and I know I will do this again because it's just my nature.

This is minor but it is an example of what I'm talking about. 

They cause you to stop being you

I can't think of a better way to phrase this. It's sort of like marriage in that now it's not just me pursuing what's best for me, but us pursuing what's best for us. 

The me that existed when I was in college is effectively dead. I'm a completely different person now with different priorities. I would not think twice about donating a kidney to them.

I tell dad jokes now. I have some random kids' songs that I enjoy on youtube. When we plan trips, he's just as much a factor in what we'll do for fun as anyone else. I've actually considered what type of work would make him proud of me and have strongly considered changing jobs because of it.


This obviously doesn't capture all of the ways that a child can introduce stress, but hopefully it gives some perspective to anyone wanting a blunt assessment of it.

It is important to note that as a whole, the positives of having a child outweigh the negatives so far. Many of these create joy along with stress (not the money one, but most of the others). It would just be irresponsible to not make it clear that having a child means signing up for all of this in case anyone is on the fence and needs to know this.

As a final note, the relative weight of these stresses will vary from person to person. I am extremely privileged. I am a white, male, US citizen. My family received some government assistance when I was younger. I received scholarships to a public school and my parents paid many expenses so I did not graduate with debt. My wife and I have high-paying jobs. She graduated with very little student debt that we paid off immediately. We have no significant disabilities. We did nothing to earn most of that. I would assume the time and money stresses are higher for someone less privileged.


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