Do Children Really Bring Parents Happiness?

This is a commentary on the Washington Post article  “It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner”. You can read the full article at:

Do Children Really Bring Parents Happiness?
by Patti. F. Boyle

I fell in love.  I became engaged.  And I remember glimpsing into my future: a fire burning in the
hearth, the warm glow of the room glancing off the darkened window, the feeling of comfort
and oh-so-much happiness, and knowing that being there, just being in that room, beside the
fire, in that moment, with my husband and our children…Wait. What?  Children?  Did I imagine
children? Children I’d given birth to?  Well, yes, I had.  Although I had never given serious
thought to the idea, I had imagined children in my future as if I was preprogrammed to
associate love and romance with having kids.  

Like me, most women grow up internalizing the idea that their destiny includes having
children, and the outcome of my very unscientific poll shows that men do too. It appears  
finding the love of one’s life and, then, creating a family is part A and part B of living an
emotionally fulfilling life, and the plan is quietly bolstered by the onslaught of media, from
glossy weekly newsprint ads featuring baby tools, toys and décor, to Facebook photo posts of
our kids.  Even in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book focused on encouraging women’s
professional development, a good portion is dedicated to advising women about how to
balance work and family because it is assumed that women, even the most professionally
ambitious, will have children.

Generally speaking, it seems commitment to love leads us to at
least consider expanding our little love-nut to include children, and most of us presume those
children will nudge the life satisfaction gauge in our favor. Yet, according to the outcomes of a
recent study, bringing baby home will not create the warm hearth and home of my imagination, 
nor will it move the satisfaction gauge in our favor.  

In August of 2014, researchers Rachel Margolis and Mikko Myrskylä, published their findings of
an ongoing research project following 2,016 Germans who were childless when the study
began, had children during the study’s duration, and were interviewed about their experiences
until at least 2 years after the birth of the first child. The study respondents were asked to rate
their happiness on a scale of 0 to 10 (“0” being completely unsatisfied and “10” completely
satisfied) by responding to the question "How satisfied are you with your life, all things

As it turned out, about 70 percent of the respondents reported a pretty negative
impact on their feelings of well-being within one to two years after the birth of their first child.  
In fact, having a child was rated more devastating than divorce, unemployment, and even the
death of a partner.  (Isn’t that a little overkill? ) 

 According to Margolis and Myrskylä ’s study, respondents reported having and bringing home
their little bundle of joy was seriously challenging, and these challenges were placed into three
primary categories.  The first category included the mothers’ feelings of illness and physical
pain, which created a conflict regarding her desire to go to work; fathers also noted the
mother’s pain as a major concern.

Secondly, the birthing experience, including complications, also shaped parents’ perceptions as both partners expressed not wanting to “go through it again”.  The most significant category was the third, which included "the continuous and intense nature of childrearing".  New parents reported feeling exhausted, sleep deprived, depressed, isolated from others, problems related to breast-feeding, and the breakdown of their relationship. 

The results of the study do not bode well for family-making, but keep in mind that it is
normative for new parents to experience a drop in life and relationship satisfaction after a child
is born. Most research indicates childrearing has less of a negative impact as the infant begins
to sleep longer and parents adapt to the abrupt changes that bringing a baby home creates.  
Furthermore, other research indicates people who have children rate their lives as happier as
their children move through adolescents and into young adulthood, and people with grown
children rate their lives happier than childless couples.  As mentioned, Margolis’ and Myrskylä’s
study is ongoing, and respondents will be reporting about their levels of life satisfaction as their
child, or children, grow.  Between then and now, I sincerely hope the German parents’ get
some sleep.
When I was young, I romanticized the idea of having children and a happy family. As a
counselor, I hear versions of the same kind of romanticized dreams, and how these became
unmet expectations and sources of frustration.  Perhaps the "the continuous and intense
nature of childrearing" should be talked about more—between couples, parents, and in the
media—and the myth of the deliriously happy parent revised to reflect normalcy.  I don’t think
we need a study to confirm the challenges of rearing a child, but I do think the romance we
need is in understanding and supporting our partners.  

Patti plans on writing more about relationships and parenting. If you have comments, 
questions, suggestions, or stories you would like to tell, please feel free to share them here.