Is unhappiness why couples have just one kid?

A controversial new study suggests that parents who are unhappy after the birth of of their first baby are less likely to have another.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Prenatal classes are full of helpful information, like how to manage labour pain and all the various breastfeeding positions. As I look back on those classes, I notice there was something missing: how to babyproof your relationship. But I guess nothing in the world can prepare a couple for the birth of their first child. The sleep deprivation, stress and guilt can take a toll on even the happiest of couples and have them questioning their sanity and, if they’re married, their vows.

But the frantic pace of the baby stage eases and, for most couples, things return to a sort of normalcy. Date nights resume (albeit with less frequency), you go back to work and you might even start thinking about having another baby. But for some couples, that first baby they thought would bring them happiness doesn’t. A new study suggests that this drop in happiness and overall well-being is why many parents choose to have just one child.

Published in the journal Demography, the controversial new study was led by Mikko Myrskylä from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Rachel Margolis from the University of Western Ontario. Wanting to know how the birth of a baby affected parental well-being, the researchers took a look at results from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, an annual survey of 20,000 citizens), to determine whether or not couples were less happy in the year following their baby’s birth. Using a scale from zero to 10, with 10 representing optimal happiness, they discovered that only 58 out of 100 couples who reported a drop in happiness went on to have another child within 10 years. Sixty-six out of 100 couples who didn’t feel a drop in happiness went on to have another baby. This drop in happiness levels with regard to the state of their relationship was even more significant than the unhappiness experienced from losing a job, a divorce or the death of a partner.

“Parents’ experiences with and after the first birth of a child help predict how large the family will eventually be,” explains Myrskylä. “Politicians concerned with low birth rates should pay attention to the well-being of new parents around and after the birth of their first child.” It’s interesting to note that Germany has the lowest birth rate in the world, with only 8.2 babies born per 1,000 citizens over the past five years, despite the government’s investment in child care programs.

Wondering if the same held true for Canadian parents, I asked two friends who are moms to only children if happiness had anything to do with why they decided to have one baby:

“We considered a second child for five minutes—or, at least, I did—but I knew it was out of the question. We were going broke with our small business and I didn’t believe that my now ex-husband would bring in more money. I didn’t trust him to take care of things while I took care of a second baby. If we had been more financially stable, we might have tried for another baby.”

“My partner wanted at least one more baby, and we did try for a while. But as time went on, despite our ongoing relationship issues, I was finding it harder and harder to be a parent and couldn’t imagine throwing another kid into the mix. I also feel really lucky that I was even able to have our daughter. Our baby didn’t make us happier as a couple. I think our daughter has made each of us unbelievably happy in our own personal ways, though.”

There are so many things to consider when planning to have your second baby. I’m not sure about the decision being so closely tied to happiness levels. I’d like to hear from more families with only children: Do you think researchers missed the mark on this study?

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences of giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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