Health

Does having children make us happier?

A popular belief in many parts of the world is that having children is the key to happiness, and that people who don’t have them don’t feel fulfilled. But is it really so? The answer to this question is both simple and complex, and how satisfied you are with life, whether or not you decide to have children, depends on many complex factors.

Let’s look at the simple answer first: No, having children is not necessary to be happy and feel fulfilled. Studies of childless women by choice show that most feel they have a good sense of identity and individuality. They do not feel defined by their role in the family and feel that they have more freedom and control over their bodies, their lives and their future. Childless women also report greater economic stability, although satisfaction with the decision not to have children does not necessarily mean higher socioeconomic status.

Study

Most of those who decide not to have children are satisfied with their decision

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A man reads a book with his daughters

Alex Garcia / Own

Women and men who do not have children are also on average less stressed and report greater satisfaction in their marriages.

A weird. But studies of men who chose not to have children found that most were satisfied with their decision and happy to have more freedom in their lives. Only a few regretted their decision, especially since they had no inheritance.

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However, there is a risk that childless men experience lower overall life satisfaction in old age if they lack social support.

The Paradox of Parenthood

Things get a little more complicated when we look at the decision to have children. While there is no doubt that parents can feel happy and fulfilled in life, the satisfaction they feel with this decision often develops over time, and also depends on many factors beyond their control.

father and son

Many parents experience a temporary decline in well-being after having a baby; satisfaction comes

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Many parents initially experience a temporary decline in well-being after having a baby, a phenomenon known as the “parenting paradox.” This is because a new baby has many basic needs such as sleeping, eating well and seeing friends. This can be a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Heterosexual women also report more distress when they become mothers than men. This may be because the burden of care often falls disproportionately on women.


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Juan Manuel Garcia

Phubbing parents and children

But living in an area with good family and social support, equally active and involved co-parents, and policies that support work and family can offset the stress and costs of parenthood.

This probably explains why Norwegian women do not report a loss of happiness when they have children, as Norway has many family-friendly policies that make it possible for both parents to raise children and pursue a career.

Although having children can be difficult, that doesn’t mean the step can’t lead to happiness, joy and more meaning in life. The experience of fatherhood and motherhood can also lead to a deeper form of well-being called eudaimonic well-being. It is about the realization of a meaningful life, as opposed to short-term happiness.

Both men and women can experience positive eudaimonic well-being when they become parents. But in the case of women, the increase in eudaimonic well-being they experience also depends on how balanced parenting tasks are with their partners.

Face regret

A father takes his son to school

A father takes his son to school

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Another big concern people have is whether they will regret not having children. Fortunately, studies of childless adults show that many of them have high life satisfaction and resilience in the face of poor mental health.

It seems that the key to being happy with the decision to have or not to have children depends on whether you have control over the matter. When we feel we have chosen our path, we tend to accept our decisions and be happy with them.

But what if that option was taken away from you and you wanted to have a baby but couldn’t? Can you be happy then? Our research shows the answer is yes. We examined the impact of childlessness on 161 women who wanted to have children but were unable to for a variety of reasons, such as lack of a partner or infertility. The age of the participants was between 25 and 75 years.

It was found that, on average, the well-being of the participants did not differ from that of the general population. While 12% were depressed (that is, they felt their lives had no clear direction), 24% were psychologically prosperous, meaning they had the highest level of mental health. The rest experienced a moderate level of well-being.


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Mayette Reus

Father and daughter enjoying at home.  Sitting on the couch reading a book together.

Interestingly, for some, the struggle to have a child led to post-traumatic growth. This refers to the positive psychological changes that occur after a traumatic event. Women with high levels of well-being reported that being able to focus on new possibilities in their lives, outside of motherhood, helped improve their well-being.

Studies of men who have been unable to have children due to infertility show that many experience sadness as a result, although this sadness diminishes with age. However, as with involuntarily childless women, finding ways to reconstruct their identity and role in society outside of parenthood helped many find meaning and satisfaction in their lives.

So, does fatherhood or motherhood make us happier? Does the lack of children make us sad? The answers to these questions are not as simple as they seem. The happiness or fulfillment we experience depends on many factors, many of which are beyond our control. While it is true that the way we choose to give meaning to our lives is a major factor, so is the social support and political environment around us for parenting.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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