Per­ils of par­ent­hood

New study finds that a baby can neg­a­tively af­fect a per­son’s life more than di­vorce, un­em­ploy­ment — or the death of a part­ner

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ARIANA EUNJUNG CHA ariana.cha@wash­ More at wash­ing­ton­ news/ to-your-health

Life has its ups and downs, but par­ent­hood is sup­posed to be among the most joy­ous. At least that’s what the movies and Tar­get ads tell us.

But it turns out that hav­ing a child can have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on a per­son’s hap­pi­ness, ac­cord­ing to a new study pub­lished in the jour­nal De­mog­ra­phy. On av­er­age, peo­ple in the study found sur­viv­ing a baby’s first year to be dev­as­tat­ing — worse than di­vorce, un­em­ploy­ment and the death of a part­ner.

Re­searchers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä fol­lowed 2,016 Ger­mans who were child­less at the time the study be­gan un­til at least two years af­ter the birth of their first child. Re­spon­dents were asked 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?”

“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 study’s goal was to try to gain in­sights into a long-stand­ing con­tra­dic­tion in many de­vel­oped coun­tries in­volv­ing how many chil­dren peo­ple say they want vs. how many they have. In Ger­many, most cou­ples say in sur­veys that they want two chil­dren. Yet the birth rate in that coun­try for the past 40 years has re­mained be­low that: 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, found that most cou­ples in the study were pretty happy when they set out to have their first child. In the year prior to the birth, their life sat­is­fac­tion ticked up more, per­haps be­cause of the preg­nancy and an­tic­i­pa­tion of the baby.

It was only af­ter birth that the par­ents’ ex­pe­ri­ences di­verged.

About 30 per­cent re­mained at about the same state of hap­pi­ness or be­came hap­pier once they had the baby, ac­cord­ing to self-re­ported mea­sures of well­be­ing. The rest said their hap­pi­ness de­creased dur­ing the first and sec­ond year af­ter the birth.

Among the new moth­ers and fathers whose hap­pi­ness de­creased, 37 per­cent (742) re­ported a one-unit drop, 19 per­cent (383) a two-unit drop, and 17 per­cent (341) a three-unit drop.

On av­er­age, new par­ent­hood led to a 1.4-unit drop in hap­pi­ness. That’s con­sid­ered se­vere.

To add per­spec­tive, pre­vi­ous stud­ies have quan­ti­fied the im­pact of other ma­jor life events on the same hap­pi­ness scale in this way: di­vorce, the equiv­a­lent of a 0.6 “hap­pi­ness unit” drop; un­em­ploy­ment, one unit; and the death of a part­ner, one unit.

The con­se­quence was that many of the par­ents had no chil­dren af­ter their first.

The data showed the larger the loss in well-be­ing, the lower the like­li­hood of a sec­ond baby. The ef­fect was es­pe­cially strong in moth­ers and fathers older than 30 and with higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Sur­pris­ingly, gen­der was not a fac­tor.

“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.

Margolis and Myrskylä wrote that three fac­tors af­fected par­ents’ de­ci­sions about whether to have another child. Two in­volved health and med­i­cal is­sues: Moth­ers re­ported that phys­i­cal pain and nau­sea con­flicted with their de­sire to work, while fathers ex­pressed con­cern about the med­i­cal prob­lems of their part­ner. Also, com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing the birth ap­peared to shape de­ci­sions to not “go through it again.”

The third cat­e­gory was the most sig­nif­i­cant and was about “the con­tin­u­ous and in­tense na­ture of chil­drea­r­ing,” the study said. Par­ents re­ported ex­haus­tion be­cause of trou­ble breast feed­ing, sleep de­pri­va­tion, de­pres­sion, do­mes­tic iso­la­tion and re­la­tion­ship break­down.

The find­ings are likely to be eye-open­ing for some pol­i­cy­mak­ers who are con­cerned about low fer­til­ity rates in their coun­tries and sug­gest that gov­ern­ments should con­sider giv­ing ad­di­tional sup­port to new par­ents.

How a child af­fects par­ents’ hap­pi­ness af­ter the first cou­ple years is any­body’s guess. The Ger­man sur­vey is an­nual, so we may know more soon.

Most said their hap­pi­ness de­creased dur­ing the first and sec­ond year af­ter birth.

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