While most people think that having a child is a beautiful life event filled with joy and laughter, a new study published in the journal Demography says that giving birth can have a negative impact on a person’s happiness.
Ariana Eunjung Cha of The Washington Post writes that the effect of a new baby on a person’s life in the first year is more devastating than divorce, unemployment, and even the death of a partner.
Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study of 2,016 Germans who had no children at the beginning of the study and were followed until at least two years after the birth of their first child, from 1984 to 2010. Participants were asked to rate their levels of happiness from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) in response to, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”
“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,” they wrote.
The goal was to gain insights into a historic contradiction in fertility in many developed countries between how many children people say they want versus how many they actually have. In Germany, most couples say they would like to have two children, but the birthrate in the country has remained for forty years at a low 1.5 children per woman.
Margolis, a sociology researcher at the University of Western Ontario, and Myrskylä, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, discovered that most of the participants in the study were fairly happy when they began to want their first child. In the year before their child was born, their satisfaction of life rose, possibly because of the pregnancy and their anticipation of their new child.
But things changed once the baby was born. Almost 30% said they were at the same level of happiness or better after the baby was born, while 70% said their happiness levels went down during the first and second year after the birth. Of this group, 37% dropped by one-unit of measured happiness, 19% a two-unit drop, and 17% a three-unit drop. The average drop was a 1.4-unit drop, which the researchers said was severe.
To compare, earlier studies have found that the impact of divorce is equal to a 0.6 happiness unit drop; unemployment, a one-unit drop; and the death of a partner a one-unit drop. Consequently, many parents stopped having children after they had their first child.
The three challenges that impacted parents’ decisions were nausea and physical pain that kept mothers them from working, and fathers cited a worry about health problems of their partner, complications during birth, and “the continuous and intense nature of child rearing.”
“Fertility is a choice for most people in the developed world … [I]f the transition to parenthood is very difficult or more difficult than expected, then people may choose to remain at parity,” the researchers wrote.
Respondents who had a second child and were reporting higher life satisfaction with the new baby were more likely to have had their first child at a younger age, were partnered when their first child was conceived, or to have been immigrants, writes CBS News. Jason Kashdan of CBS News quotes biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who was not involved in the study:
“We used to live in large communities, and our allegiance was to God and to community and larger family. Now it’s to one person, and with one that system begins to break down with the exhaustion, etc., then you’re losing almost everything,” she said.
Daphne Sashin, reporting for CNN, points out that Robert Hughes Jr., a professor of Family Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes that if countries want more highly educated parents to have more than one child, those countries should begin to develop ways in which these families can be supported.
“I think people are making really rational choices,” he said. “We’re going to have to reduce the burden of balancing work and family life, and most of that is probably going to be on the side of altering work schedules and providing new parents in particular with extra supports during that transitional period.”