International study shows ‘less happy’ new parents end up having smaller families

A new study by Western University and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) shows couples who feel ‘less happy’ in the year following the birth of their first child, have a lower probability of having another. The trend is especially strong for mothers and fathers who are well educated and older.

The study examines to what extent parental well-being around the transition to parenthood can help to explain why so many couples end up having only one child, when the modal number of desired children is two. At the population level, families ending up with only one child are a very important factor in determining the overall level of fertility.

Lack of sleep, relationship stress and work-family conflict are thought to be major factors in perceived lower levels of happiness during the crucial time before, during and after the arrival of a newborn.

This new study, which examined couples from Germany, is the first to use quantitative data to show that parents’ well-being is “empirically large and important for further fertility.”

“We now know that the drop in happiness is important, if not imperative, for determining whether couples go on to have another child,” explains Rachel Margolis, an Assistant Professor in Western’s Department of Sociology. “The happiness drop that occurs during the transition to parenthood is quantitatively important and holds far more weight than other major changes in the relationship, work, and health of a couple when determining the choice to have more children.”

Because it is taboo for new parents to admit feelings of unhappiness about childbearing, Margolis and MPIDR’s Mikko Myrskyla used a survey with questions about general happiness, asked separately from questions about other life events.

For the study, Margolis and Myrskylä explored self-reported life satisfaction responses of both mothers and fathers from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP). Every year, more than 20,000 participants assess their ‘contentedness’ with life on a scale from zero to 10 (10 representing maximum well-being). The question is not about the participant’s children at all, but the answers can be analyzed in conjunction with other questions asked by the SOEP every year, such as childbirth, relationship information and work.

From just before to just after a first child is born, mothers and fathers reported a loss of well-being that averaged up to 1.4 units on the happiness scale that ranges from 0-10. This decline was perceived during the first year of parenthood compared to the two years before the birth. Only just under 30 percent of the participants did not feel any decline in well-being. And more than one third experienced a decline of two or more units of happiness.

This is notable compared to what international studies find for unemployment or the death of the partner (both with an average loss of one happiness-unit) or for divorce (minus 0.6 units) on the same scale.

New calculations made by Margolis and Myrskylä show how strongly experiences related to the first child affect chances for a second. Only 58 per cent of couples that reported a drop in well-being of three units or more had a second child within 10 years. But among parents who did not feel a reduction in happiness, 66 per cent of couples had another baby. The number of families with at least four members was almost 14 per cent larger if happiness did not decline. These results are independent of income, place of birth, or marital status of the couples.

Mothers and fathers over 30 years old and those who have been educated for more than 12 years were especially influenced by their state of well-being when it came to deciding about having more children.

“It could be that older and better educated parents are more likely to stop at one child because they are better to implement their new lower fertility preferences based on their recent experience,” explains Myrskylä, who serves as executive director of MPIDR. “It could also be that it is harder for these parents to combine work and family, given that they are likely to be in more competitive professional environments.”

The study also suggests that politicians and policy-makers in the developed world concerned about low fertility rates and completed family size should pay attention to factors that influence the well-being of new parents. Earlier qualitative research has highlighted difficulty conceiving, pregnancy, and birth experiences leading to people saying that they did not want to have another. This study points to the importance of capturing the factors behind new parents’ loss of happiness and including these in future surveys.

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