Having a baby is a joyous event. Surely that bundle of joy keeps on dishing out happiness? Just look at the photograph above, happy parents, happy child, the ideal happy family. But, are parents really happier than childless couples? The surprising answer to that is “maybe”.
The Myth Of Happy Parents?
For many, parenthood is a milestone that needs to be met to be happy. Find a good job, fall in love, buy a house, have children and live happily ever after. It’s not a recipe that always lead to happiness, of course. Relationships fail, jobs can be lost and banks may foreclose on mortgages, but parenthood is a definite source of happiness, right?
Many western countries are experiencing a decline in birth rates. In Germany the birth rate has been steady at 1.5 births per woman for decades. Yet, survey after survey report that most German couples would prefer two kids. Last year, a study followed over 2,000 childless couples who went on to become parents and for two years afterwards. The researchers hoped to find out if parenthood really makes people happier. And if so, why do so many stop after their first child?
Each year the couples were asked a simple question : “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?” The couples had to choose a number from zero (completely dissatisfied) to ten (completely satisfied). The researchers felt that this would be a better test of happiness that specifically asking the parents about parenthood. No one feels comfortable blaming their children for any unhappiness. The results were interesting if not disheartening.
“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.” – Margolis et al
Perhaps predictably, happiness levels tended to rise in the run up to birth. After the birth things looked different for most parents. While 27 % maintained this higher level of well-being, the rest suffered a drop in happiness. Of these less happy couples, 37% experienced a one point drop in well-being. Nineteen percent suffered a two point drop and 17% dropped down three points. Happy parents seem to be in the minority!
To put this decline in perspective, international studies show that unemployment or the loss of a partner leads to a one point reduction in the scale. Divorce comes in at just over a half-point drop. Yet the average drop in well-being reported in this study was 1.4 points! Furthermore, those couples that experienced the biggest drops did not try for a second baby!
Research On Happiness And Parenting
So it’s clear that parenthood make you unhappy, right? Well, not exactly.
Another study of over 200,000 people who were asked “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, somewhat happy or not at all happy?” They found that having kids was a long-term investment as older parents of grown up kids are happier than their childless peers.
So, you may eventually end up happier than your peers when your kids move out! Even then, it depends on how well you get on with your adult children…
But all is not lost for parents as other studies show that parents are indeed happier than childless couples. So parenting leads to unhappiness and happiness. This is not really surprising. Life without children is complex. Life with kids is even more so.
Fathers tend to report that they are happier than mothers. They also tend to engage with their kids more in play activities while mothers tend to take on more of the responsibilities. So if the division of play and responsibility was more evenly divided, presumably the gender effect would disappear.
Some research suggests that older parents experience more happiness than childless couples and parents under the age of twenty-five. Older couples would presumably be more financially secure and emotionally mature. Interestingly, the study about German couples found that older couples were more likely to report a higher drop in happiness levels. As I said, it’s complex.
Parents may live longer than childless couples. According to a Danish study, parents of biological and adopted kids have lower risks of dying early. This may be due that parents have an incentive to lead healthier lives. Getting your kids to eat their vegetables means you eat more vegetables. Smoking is harder to do and there is more pressure to give up. Chasing after little ones increases your activity levels. And let’s not mention parenting with a hangover!
Happy Parents And Happy Kids
Can the research tell us anything at all? Are there ingredients for happy parenting, or is it an unending, depressing chore that lasts for two decades?
Research on parenting style shows that it can impact on the happiness levels of children well into adulthood. However studies show conflicting results on whether parenting styles lead to happy parents. Some studies find that a child intensive approach, where the child’s needs are put first, leads to happier parents. Other studies find the opposite.
Of course, here are factors that are common to happy parenthood. Unfortunately, not all of them are under our control. The trick seems to be in managing the extra pressure. Happy parents have the same stresses as everyone else. Presumably they manage to deal with them better.
The children themselves matter of course. Every kid is an individual and will present his and her own challenges and rewards. Children who are strong-willed, overly fearful or fearless can increase their parents’ stress levels, and in turn decrease their happiness. House work and sleep deprivation take their toll too! Worries about kids’ physical (or mental) health do no favours to parents’ physical and mental health.
Parenting is a stressful job. The last thing you need is more stress from other areas. So being financially secure, in a stable relationship and having a good support structure can be of vital importance. Employment can provide security but it can also bring work-life balance pressures of its own. Sharing of the parenting responsibilities can make parenthood more rewarding for both parents. Single and separated parents tend to be less happy than those in stable relationships. Birth parents tend to be happier than parents who adopt or become step-parents.
Unfortunately, few of us live in such an ideal world. We may have to cheat a little. One thing that all the research tells us is that nothing is for certain. Parenthood will not make you happier or sadder for certain, you have a lot of say in which you experience. Learning how to manage stress levels is an important first step. Exercise and mindfulness may help here. Bring the family on trips into nature to boost your moods. Learn to accept a higher level of messiness, it will get better as the kids get older. Or, at least it can be confined to their bedrooms!
Try to build up a support network of friends and family. Even other parents at daycare centres and schools can be a great help. Take some time out for yourself too. Your happiness will impact on your kids happiness. So aim to be in the 27% of happy parents. Let go of the small bad stuff and focus on the small good stuff. Even if you’re exhausted, your fingers smell of someone else’s poo and the clothes you put on five minutes ago are already covered in food stains, one unasked-for sticky-fingered hug can make it all worthwhile.
Ask any parent.
Are you a happy parent? Or are you waiting to cash in on the happiness when your kids grow up?
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