Culture

New Study Finds That Having Your First Child Makes You Miserable

Parenting the first baby is worse than getting divorced, being fired from your job, or losing your spouse.

For most of recent history, babies have had a pretty good run, PR-wise. Not only have they been successfully branded as “bundles of joy,” they’ve also been widely recognized as the reason, collectively at least, that we're here (what with reproduction being so crucial to existence).

But in recent decades, scientific studies of parental happiness — or the lack thereof — tell a very different story. And one recent survey goes even further, finding that the “drop in life satisfaction during the year following the first birth [of a child] is even larger than that caused by unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.”

A collaborative effort by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and the University of Western Ontario, the study collected surveys from 2,016 German couples “from three years before a first birth through at least two years after the first birth.” As the Washington Post notes, while anticipatory happiness levels rose in the year preceding birth of a first child, in both the first and second years following, 70 percent of new parents reported a drop in their happiness levels. And these drops, measured on a happiness scale from 1-10, were pretty huge:

Of those new mothers and fathers whose happiness went down, 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 very severe.

The article goes on to note that such a big drop in happiness is greater than that following divorce (0.6 “happiness unit” drop), unemployment (1 unit drop) or the death of a spouse or partner (also a 1 unit drop). In other words, these parents — who no doubt love their firstborns more than life itself — also felt that parenthood is kind of the pits.

The study offers insight into why, among Germans, there’s such rampant incongruity between most couples’ purported desire for two children, and the country’s actual birthrate, since 1983, of just 1.5 children per couple. (In fact, Germany recently took home the title of Country With the World’s Lowest Birth Rate.) Researchers found that the unhappiness experienced by many couples led them not to have a second child. The decision not to deliver another bundle of joy was particularly true of couples who had babies at or past the age of 30 and were more well-educated. Gender had no impact on the respondents' answers.

The reasons — though the study didn’t drill down very deep for those — seem to align with what you might expect. “Generally, new parents complain about a lack of sleep, relationship stress and a feeling of loss of freedom and control over their lives,” said researcher and new MPIDR director Mikko Myrskylä. She suggests that “[p]oliticians concerned about low birthrates should pay attention to the well-being of new parents around and after the birth of their first child.”

Researchers did note that subjects were questioned about their overall well-being because to ask specifically about the experience of being a parent might have yielded untrue answers due to social pressure. “[A]lthough 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.”

It should also be noted that for parents who plunged ahead, having multiple children, the news was positive. “On the whole, and in the long run, despite the unhappiness after the first birth of a baby, having up to two children rather increases overall happiness in life,” Myrskylä stated.

Read the study in its entirety.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.