The University Record, December 4, 2000

‘The next one changes everything’: Study examines effects of second child

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Having a second child may have an even greater impact than the first baby on the carefully balanced lives of dual-career, middle-class couples, according to a U-M study.

The study suggests that for modern parents two children are not easier than one.

“Women’s full-time participation in the labor market drops off dramatically with the second child,” says Research Fellow Rebecca L. Upton at the Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life.

“While most paid professional women return to the work force full-time after the birth of their first child, more than 50 percent change to part-time work or take a leave of absence after the birth of the second.

“A second child also profoundly affects a couple’s relationship to each other, with even the most equalitarian men and women assuming more traditional gender roles,” says Upton, who presented a paper titled “The Next One Changes Everything: Having a Second Child in the American Middle-Class Family” at the American Anthropological Association’s meeting in November.

For the study, Upton is conducting in-depth fieldwork among a group that has, until recently, been of little interest to anthropologists—middle-class Midwestern families. After conducting preliminary interviews with approximately 40 couples who recently had their second child, or are planning to have one, Upton now is immersed in the “ethnographic” portion of her study, designed to reveal the complexities of their everyday lives.

She accompanies the couples as they go about their daily lives, observing and participating as they go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office and the playground. She also listens as they talk to partners, friends and co-workers about the pressures and the pleasures a second child adds to their lives.

She has even started to provide child care to some of the families she’s studying. “Hearing them talk about how difficult life is, and how desperately they needed time to work, go to the gym or go to the movies, I felt that watching their kids was a way I could give something back to them in exchange for the help they were giving me,” says Upton, who is single and so far has no children of her own.

She has been surprised by the extent to which modern couples, most in their 30s and with good educations, subscribe to the traditional notion of the

“ideal” family as a unit composed of two parents and two children. “The idea that in order to complete a family couples must have two children has persisted in the United States throughout generations,” she notes. “Both the men and the women I’ve interviewed frequently cite the belief that children should have a sibling, or that having two children, a boy and a girl, will provide some balance—there will be one for me and one for you.

“What takes them by surprise,” she says, “is that two children are decidedly not easier than one. The pressures on both working moms and dads come into sharpest relief with the birth of the second child.”

Some of the families she is studying initially felt ambivalent about having a second child. But most said that they felt escalating pressures from family, friends, even total strangers, starting when their first child reached the age of, you guessed it, two, that it was time to “pump out another one” and become a “real” family.

Upton is investigating not only what constitutes an “ideal” family, but also how men and women envision the “ideal” self. “For many contemporary middle-class women, this means a healthy, fit self,” she notes. “In the United States today, the ideas of being a good mother, a fit parent, and an attractive and successful professional woman are conflated. The message women get is that they must be able to ‘do it all.’ Yet with a second child, they find they have little time or other resources to do so.

“While the women that I talk to recognize how damaging and negative these images are to women, most still say there is always pressure to live up to the ‘ideal’ at home, at work and as a woman.”

The birth of the second child also marks a major transition for men, she notes. Many report that they feel more part of the family than they did after the birth of the first child. “We were a family with one child,” said one father Upton interviewed. “But it really took the two to make me a father.”