Study Shows Parents Are as Unhappy After Baby #1 as They Are After a Death

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

A new study has found that the average person suffers unhappiness comparable to unemployment or the death of a partner or a divorce when their first baby arrives.

In a survey published in the journal Demography, researchers followed 2,016 Germans who were childless at the time the study began until two years after the birth of their first child. These new parents were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 in the two years before they became parents and in the year after. They found that having a child reduced happiness by an average of 1.4 points in the following year. Amazingly, the death of a partner or unemployment only reduced happiness by a single point, and it made no difference the sex of the parent as to their score.

When I read this, instead of being shocked, it touched a nerve. In the midst of a marital meltdown following the birth of my first child, a friend told me, “The first child tears a marriage apart, the second child puts the family back together.”

This was entirely true in my case. When my son was 2-and-a-half years old, I temporarily left my husband.

I was exhausted from working full-time, taking our son to and from nursery school, and spending all weekend parenting. My husband ran a bar and worked crazy hours, so I barely saw him. He often got home around 4 AM on a Sunday morning, not rising until 1 PM, meaning the only time we ever saw each other was Sunday afternoon/evening, and he was always tired and grumpy.

Eventually I snapped. It was a freezing cold February and a blanket of snow enveloped where we lived. Desperately trying to drive to work, I skidded on the frozen snow and drove the car off the rode. I was shattered trying to cope with a teething child waking daily at 5 AM, trying to hold down a stressful job, and now having to sort out the car insurance and buy a new car in a mere 48 hours. I rang my husband for help and he refused, being too tired. Again. I packed a bag and went to my friend’s house, determined he would see how hard it had been for me to juggle everything.

The following week, I went to Ireland to visit my family with my son. I was miserable, lonely, and exhausted. But I was resolute about what I wanted: I wasn’t going to continue the way we were going. We had agreed to have a child together — so why was I left holding the baby? He countered that in order to afford our new house and family lifestyle, he needed this job. He saw no way out — he had only worked in hospitality since arriving in the UK at the age of 23. So we were in the money trap. I can honestly say it was the most miserable time in my life.

Interestingly, the study found that the unhappiness effect of parenting is greatest on moms and dads over the age of 30 and with more than 12 years of education. I was 33 when I had my son and had been educated for 17 years in total. Perhaps it’s because those who have children a bit later have had more years of independence, have had active social lives, and the many years of education have made them more career-driven. It certainly was a shock to my system to go from girl about London to a woman beholden to my baby’s routine – sitting in front of the TV on my own every night. I was incredibly lonely and also at times very bored. While my life had changed incomparably, it felt like my husband’s life hadn’t changed one jot: he still went to work every day and socialized after the bar he ran closed for the night. He explained this as “needing to wind down.”

When was my wind down?

The survey also found that the slump in contentment that comes with the arrival of their firstborn also stops many of the worst-affected parents from having further children.

Yet, we miraculously stayed together and went on to have another child.

So what changed? My husband managed to get weekends off — two or three a month which made a wealth of difference. He started taking our son to mini football and actually made an attempt to spend time with me. Then, somewhere along the line, we decided to have baby no. 2. When our daughter was a year old, my husband got laid off. At the same time, I was asked back to my old job and readily agreed to return.

What seemed to be the worst ever situation actually was the making of us. Suddenly my husband was the stay-at-home parent. He did this for four months while he looked for work and saw firsthand how hard it was — how long a day with a toddler can be. How much work goes into disciplining said toddler, doing laundry, and keeping a house clean. His attitude changed over night. Never again (well almost never!) did he take me for granted.

Two children somehow balanced our relationship; my husband became actively involved in parenting because I simply didn’t have enough pairs of hands to deal with two kids at once. Something felt more complete for us. Plus, he had far more respect for what I had been doing by myself for so long and vowed it would never be like that again.

Having a second child had reunited us, just as my friend predicted. So my advice? After baby no. 1 – get on with making baby no. 2 and happiness just might be within reach.

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