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< Work and family | Main | Healthy food in health care? >

New study says having kids doesn't make people happier

Posted at 3:13 PM on December 17, 2007 by Nanci Olesen (8 Comments)

A new study says having kids doesn’t make people happier.

The study from the Institute for Social and Economic Research in England says becoming a father doesn’t increase “life satisfaction” in men. And for women, having kids only makes them happier once the kids are in school.

As a culture, we like to think that having children makes for a happier life. But there’s a fair amount of research out there that suggests parenthood does NOT increase happiness.

It may even decrease happiness.

Last year a study showed that parents have a higher level of depression than people who don’t have kids. The study is entitled “Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression” and reports that:

The worries associated with being entirely responsible for another human being appear to outweigh the benefits.

Many parents are starting to admit that the sacrifices don’t always outweigh the joys. Having a child is hard on the relationship between the two parents.

There are many transcendent moments in parenthood that seem to make up for the drudgery. But parenting is grueling work, especially in the first five years.

It’s such a huge life change. It’s unpredictable, it’s forever, and it’s full of very daily concerns that can be completely overwhelming.

So, are couples who don’t have children happier?

Many couples without children are happy and fulfilled by their work, their extended families, and their interests. I like to think that we are progressing toward a society where there is not so much negative judgment toward the couple who doesn’t have kids.

People who choose to not have children, couples who remain child-free, report being able to stay connected to one another in a way that really has to be worked on by a couple who has kids.

Another recent survey on marriage and parenting found that children had fallen to eighth out of nine on a list of factors that people associate with successful marriages well behind "sharing household chores," "good housing," "adequate income," a "happy sexual relationship" and "faithfulness."

Respondents say the main purpose of marriage is the “mutual happiness and fulfillment” of adults rather than the “bearing and raising of children.”

It seems like it would go without saying that parenthood is hard work, but still, lots of people seem surprised by how hard it is.

I just read the book "Blindsided by a Diaper," a collection of essays by women and men who have become parents. The theme is that they had no idea what a freaky experience it was going to be to be parents, and that their relationships were changed forever. The stories are horrendous. They’re also funny. But it's not lighthearted. It’s serious business when a crucial relationship—a partnership or marriage—changes so dramatically.

I like to equate it with running whitewater in a canoe. You and your partner might walk along the rapids before you shoot the rapids and plan “we’re going to go here, then we’re going to pull hard and get over here, then we’ll go down that chute, then we’ll be out.” And then you get in the canoe at the top of the rapids and you can’t really see your path in the same way and you’re trying to remember and keep your wits about you and you have to work together and you’re terrified. The analogy goes on and on, because if you don’t work together and call out about what to do next, you’ll probably tip over….…..

Parenting is harder and more complex than we can understand before we go into it. Admitting that lifestyle happiness and job satisfaction are important to us is a big step in evaluating whether we want to be parents.

It’s important to realize how deeply the relationship between two people changes when they become parents.

Comments (8)

Nanci -

Is this a US based study ? You made the comment this morning that the US doesn't have family-friendly economic and health policies. As a union activist, I have spent lots of time on these issues, including trying win improvements in the FMLA. I am the father of three-year old twins, and was given what would be considered "generous" accomodations and support from my employer when they were born, but it was stingy compared to just about any other western country.

It would be interesting to see how much overall happiness was improved by the presence of stronger family support policies.

Interesting story.

Erik Jensen

Posted by Erik Jensen | December 18, 2007 10:25 AM


This is a British study. The second study that I reference in the above blog entry is from The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, put out by The American Sociological Association. The survey on marriage and parenthood is by The Pew Research Center (Washington D.C.).

Do you talk with other parents about the family leave policies that exist in other countries?

Do you talk with other parents about what family policies would make their lives as workers and parents easier?

Maybe there'd be more day-to-day happiness if we could do the parenthood/employee dance a little more gracefully.

Nanci Olesen

Posted by Nanci Olesen | December 18, 2007 10:59 AM

As a parent of three teenagers, I've been there and done that. I agree that caring for babies and toddlers is hard physical work, often difficult emotionally, and I can't begin to imagine what the stress level would have been like if I'd held a full time job while mine were little.

I also agree that it's a good thing that it seems there
is less societal judgment toward couples who remain child free. Heaven knows people who don't want to be parents shouldn't!

That said, I do wonder what research would have shown 20, 30, 40 years ago--I have a hard time believing that a majority then would have been happier without kids. I feel like a walking anachronism--one of the reasons I got married was because I met a man who I felt on a deep level that I wanted to have children with!

In addition to the negative stress fostered by our largely "family unfriendly" employment policies, I propose that some of the depression and dissatisfaction among parents could be correlated with increasing levels of unfettered marketing of goods and services, the extremely high value our culture places on individualism, and the upward mobility that drives many of us to work longer and earn more money to buy more stuff--or simply to keep the stuff we have. It's human nature that it's harder to be satisfied with hand-me-downs and a 10-year-old minivan when your neighbor's kids are wearing adorable Hanna Anderson and their parent's driving a Highlander hybrid.

Thanks for the story.
Kris Berggren

Posted by Kris Berggren | December 18, 2007 8:04 PM

Does anybody even consider that to be so radically self-centered as to suggest that having children is so we can be "happy" is just plain sick? Maybe the reason those interviewed aren't happy has nothing to do with the kids themselves but rather has to do with the fact that when a person is so inward-focused as to believe that everything revolves around their own happiness that those same people are incapable of being happy as true happiness is not centered in self but rather in God?

Just a thought.

Posted by Andy Kaiyala | December 19, 2007 9:53 AM

Parenting teenagers, as Kris is doing (and as I am doing) gives one a chance to step back a bit and reflect on the gnarly years when they were younger. Parenting teenagers is a happier state for me in many ways, but I built my work around commenting about the ups and down of parenting small children, and supporting mothers of small children.

I love to hear people tell their stories about motherhood and parenthood. There have been transcendent moments in each stage of parenting for me. I have found various levels of happiness in each stage.

I know many people who are deeply unhappy as parents. And I know many people whose relationships have changed for the worse when they became parents.

I do feel very strongly that our society would benefit from not being so negative towards people who don't have kids.

I think that people should research how having kids will change their relationship.

Posted by Nanci Olesen | December 19, 2007 11:20 AM

This is a great thread, Nanci.

I for one, have no plans to have kids. Part of that is because I just don't have the maternal instinct telling me that it's something I must do. And since there are so many people I know who DO have that urge, why not leave the parenting to them? I'm happy to play a support role as aunt, which I believe is also critical for the healthy development of children, and gives me great satisfaction.

As for happiness, I think this is a much more complex issue than the study conveys. Raising children today involves so much more money and time than it used to - sports uniforms and equipment, chaperoning to and from after-school activities, setting aside money for college, etc etc etc. So the stresses surrounding the raising of children have definitely increased. Than there are the daily worries - what if he gets in a car accident? What if she gets pregnant? What if he's given access to drugs? How can I protect my child from the cruelty of the world, and still leave him/her free to experience its wonders?

Doubtless there is great satisfaction and happiness to be had from those unforgettable moments when your child adores you, accomplishes something for the first time, or simply does a chore without being asked. The ratio of blissful moments to frustrating ones probably fluctuates from one family to the next, depending on rearing methods, patience, etc. Some parents appreciate these happy moments far more than others. Some parents can't stop focusing on the flaws.

I guess when I look at the downside of parenting I think about the overall quality of life. Would I still get enough sleep? Would my partner/husband and I still get to spend time together just reading, or going out for an evening? Would I have time to myself? Could I maintain the house (clean/orderly)the way I do now? Would I feel as at peace as I do now?

I find great joy and comfort in all sorts of relationships - with my boyfriend, my friends, my family and my colleagues. Perhaps I won't ever know what it means to give birth to my own child, but I still feel I have ample opportunities to live a rich and full life while doing my part to care for the kids of the world.

Posted by Marianne Combs | December 19, 2007 1:22 PM

Nanci, yes I talk to other parents about the more supportive policies is other western countries, especially in Nordic countries. People are very interested, but there are such powerful forces opposed to these improvements (employers and conservative ideology) and the people who would benefit - parents and their children - are at a stage in their lives when they have less time to be involved politically.

That is one of the toughest challenges in advancing family-friendly policies.

I have to say, I think Andy's comment is really off the mark. For me, one of the great joys of having (young) children is your unconditional obligation. I assume there has always been something distinct about the relationship between parent and child. In this age, one that is selfish and individualistic, I find the total obligation a wonderful contrast to much of what goes on in the rest of our lives.

I am supportive of the trend towards a less negative additude towards those w/out children. That is a natural outgrowth of the changes in family life that has been going on for at least thirty years. Some of my best friends are childless.

There is one aspect of this that concerns me deeply, however. I have had a number of conversations with some of my childless co-workers about not wanting to pay for benefits for children, whether it's health insurance, public schools, or family leave, since "I get no benefit from that", they say. This is simply an expression of the individualism aforementioned.

The idea that children are not (at least partly) a collective responsibility is totally vile as far as i am concerned.

Erik Jensen

Posted by Erik Jensen | December 20, 2007 3:24 PM

I would like to shine a different light on the "child leave policies." As a childfree person I got always stuck to staying late at work because co-workers had to leave to pick up their kids. I was fine with that for the most part, but it got very old after a while. I was expected to stay every single time, no matter what my plans were. In the end, I wasn't even asked, but said co-workers just left, leaving me to pick up their chores and taking care of patients. All the "reasoning talks" with them and eventually with my supervisor didn't help, simply "Well, what's important in your life? You don't have any children." Needless to say, I was not happy.

Posted by ice_empress | February 18, 2008 11:24 AM