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Happiness drops significantly after first child, study finds

The “joy of parenting” myth received another blow last week with the publication in the journal Demography of a new study out of Germany.

The study's authors found that having a child causes a significant drop in happiness among many new mothers and fathers.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Last year, British researchers reported that childless couples tend to have happier marriages than those with children.

A few years earlier, a Norwegian study found that being childless doesn’t mean people are unhappier in old age.

In fact, plenty of research has suggested that parenthood is not the continuous font of happiness that it often purported to be in the media — and by people with children.

That’s not to say that parents do not love their children and experience moments of great joy while raising them. But the relationship between parenthood and happiness is, well, much more complex than we as parents — or as a society — have perhaps been willing to acknowledge.

A new study

The “joy of parenting” myth received another blow last week with the publication in the journal Demography of a new study out of Germany. The authors found that having a child causes a significant drop in happiness among many new mothers and fathers — a drop that is greater than that triggered by a divorce, unemployment or even the death of a partner. 

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The study also found that these drops in happiness levels help predict whether a family will eventually become larger.

Indeed, that was the study’s main goal: to try to figure out why couples in Germany and many other developed countries are having fewer children then they initially say they want. In Germany, for example, the birthrate has remained at 1.5 children per couple since 1983, even though most Germany couples say in surveys that they want two children. (The U.S. birth rate is 1.8 children per couple.)

Study details

For the study, sociologist Rachel Margolis of the University of Western Ontario and Mikko Myrskla of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, followed a cohort of 2,016 childless Germans as they moved through the first two years or so of parenthood.

The participants were asked at various times to rate their happiness from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) in response to the question, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”

As Margolis and Myrskla explain in their study, “although this measure does not capture respondents’ overall experience of having a child, it is preferable to direct questions about childbearing because it is considered taboo for new parents to say negative things about a new child.”

After the birth of their first child, the study’s participants reported an average loss of well-being of 1.4 units on the scale — mostly during the first year of parenthood. More specifically, 37 percent reported a one-unit drop in happiness, 19 percent reported a two-unit drop and 17 percent reported a three-unit drop. 

Those are significant declines. For as Margolis and Myrskla point out in their paper, divorce tends to result, on average, in a drop of slightly more than half-a-unit on the same scale, while both unemployment and the death of a partner result in an average drop of about one unit.

Not all the new parents in the study experienced a decline in happiness, however. About 30 percent reported that their well-being had not changed — or had even improved after the birth of their child.

Among the couples who did not report a decline in well-being, 66 out of 100 went on to have another baby within 10 years — 14 percent more than the couples who experienced a drop in well-being of three units or more.

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The drop in happiness after having a child tended to be greatest among people who had less than 12 years of education and who were younger than age 30 when they became a parent. Interestingly, however, the drop appeared to be a greater deterrence to having a second child among the parents who were more educated or older they became parents.

Gender, surprisingly, was not a factor.

Possible explanations for findings

The study did not examine what was making parents unhappy, but Margolis and Myrskyla point to a long list of possible reasons, including health issues (particularly for new mothers, who may not want to “go through that again” after a difficult pregnancy or complicated labor), physical exhaustion, lack of sleep, relationship stress, and difficulty balancing work and family life.

Societies — and their governments — need to do more to support the well-being of parents, the two researchers suggest.

Here in the United States, perhaps we could start by mandating longer paid parental leave.

You can download and read the study at the journal Demography’s website.