Being employed is generally good for your health. That’s what a large body of research has shown over the years. But what about when you put having a family into the mix? That’s a question that Dr Anne McMunn at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has been asking in a series of studies looking at the interplay between work-family life and health in middle age. Here she outlines her findings and explains why having children early may not be good for you.
When couples think about starting a family, they may make decisions around a host of concerns. Finances, careers, childcare all spring readily to mind as things that could crop up in discussions about when it might be best to have a child. Not many people will stop and think about how and when having a child might affect their health later on in life – but maybe they should.
Research to date has shown that combining paid work with family responsibilities is usually linked with better health outcomes, although existing research has a number of shortcomings: men are often excluded, health measures have tended to be self-reported rather than objective, few studies take account of the role health plays in whether or not people work, get married and have children in the first place, and, crucially, few studies look across the lifecourse at the timings of entry into parenthood.
Combining work and family life
Using the National Child Development Study, which is following the lives of 17 thousand people born in 1958, our research has looked at how they combined their work and family lives between the ages of 16 and 42 and what that meant for their health in their mid 40s.
The thinking behind the research was that those people with more stressful work-family lives (often characterised by having children very young, being unemployed, and not marrying or forming a long-term partnership) would go on to have physical signs or indicators of poor health such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, being overweight etc.
All the men and women in the study were ascribed one of 12 lifecourse types e.g. ‘Work, Later family’, ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.
Almost all men were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment, with most (34%) entering family life later (the ‘Work, Later family’ group), with nearly as many entering family life earlier (the ‘Work, Earlier family’ group at 32%). Conversely fewer than half of women (47%) were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment. The ‘Part-time work, Earlier Family’ was the most common group (18%) for women.
Similar proportions of men and women were in the ‘Work, Cohabitation, Later Parent’ group (7% and 5%, respectively), the ‘Work, Marriage, Non-Parent’ group (8% of men, 9% of women) and the ‘Work, No Family’ group (13% of men, 10% of women). Only 4% of women were in the ‘No Paid Work, Earlier Family’ group, and few men or women were in groups characterised by marital dissolution, teen parenthood or weak ties to work or family.
Early parenthood – poorer health
As we expected, those men and women who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later on enjoyed better health. Early parenthood, especially teen parenthood was clearly linked to poorer health, regardless of whether they were in paid work or in a stable long-term marriage.
For example, the waist circumference of teen parents was four inches larger, on average, than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later (fat accumulated around the waistline is known to be particularly risky for health). Groups who entered parenthood earlier had 10-18% more fat circulating in the blood and 2-8% less of the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later.
Teen parents tended to be less well educated, which accounted for some of the link. However, even those who had stable employment and marriages, but had children early, had poorer health.
It seems that for both men and women, having children early is linked with poor health later on, possibly as a result of chronic stress from parenting in straitened circumstances with fewer financial and emotional resources.
Less human and social capital
Authors of other studies showing links between early parenthood and health problems such as depression, heart disease and long term illnesses, speculate that younger parents have accumulated less human and social capital to cope with the stresses of parenting. It is also possible that those who are older when they become parents have had time to establish healthier behaviours such as exercise and healthy eating prior to starting their families, making it easier to maintain those behaviours through the busy parenting years.
There is need for further evidence on how timing of parenthood influences health and we are currently replicating this study with participants from the 1970 birth cohort.
In the meantime, perhaps those family planning discussions around finances, careers and childcare should incorporate an extra question? If we have a child now rather than later, how might it affect our health later on? It’s a question that will be of interest not just to prospective parents, but to all those concerned with improving the long term health and well-being of our society.
Work-family life courses and metabolic markers in mid-life: evidence from the British National Child Development Study is research by Anne McMunn, Rebecca E Lacey, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough and Amanda Sacker.
Photo credit: Darren Johnson