The Washington Post Sunday

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

- BY ARIANA EUNJUNG CHA ariana.cha@washpost.com More at washington­post.com/ 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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