Happy Even After (Kids)
by Ester Rizzi and Malgorzata Mikucka
Do our children make us happier? It is a loaded question, but one with important policy implications—and therefore worth exploring.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the birth of a child increases parents’ happiness in general. Survey results show a spike in happiness in the year of the birth of the first child. This jump is especially high for mothers, who reported an increase in happiness comparable to the drop reported following a divorce, about half a point (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Changes in women’s and men’s life satisfaction before birth, at birth and at other ages of the first child compared to the level of life satisfaction 5 years before the birth of the first child. Circles indicate statistically significant coefficients compared to the reference category. Source: author’s calculations on basis of SHP data waves 2–14.
However, scientific studies also indicate that in the years following birth, sleep deprivation, the lack of personal time, and conflicts between professional and care responsibilities can drag levels of happiness down. So which is it?
One explanation dismisses the importance of these life events in general. Set point theory holds that life satisfaction is shaped more by personality and genetic traits than life events. Any change in happiness experienced following certain life events is only temporary, part of a normal adaptation process. But breaking down happiness trajectories by gender, education and income shows that there is more at play than just an adaptation process.
Happiness in motherhood
Remember that jump in happiness women experienced at the birth of their first child? It turns out that it may be especially high for women with lower levels of education. Meanwhile, the subsequent decline in happiness is felt more sharply by their more highly educated counterparts.
Here, we have the first indication that family policies matter. Comparing Germany and Switzerland, we see a greater gap between high and low educated women in the latter, where state support for families is more limited. Once concrete example: according to OECD data, in 2010 only 8.5% of Swiss three-year-olds attended preschool, while in the EU the average is 68%. We see the main instrument for reconciling work and family in Switzerland is the part-time work schedule, with 45.6% of Swiss women working less than 30 hours per week. In the OECD, only the Netherlands has a higher rate (60.7%).
While part-time is effective, a family policy that privileges part-time arrangements is especially unfavourable for more educated women, for whom the opportunity costs of reducing working hours are higher. Emotional costs are also likely to be higher for this group of women, who tend to experience more attachment to work. This is likely to have a direct, and negative, effect on happiness.
Fatherhood, on the other hand
The results for men are quite different. Contrary to women, highly educated men and men with high incomes are generally happier with the birth of their first child than other fathers. Moreover, in the years following the birth, the happiness of this group of men declines less precipitously.
Meanwhile, the results for men with low levels of income border on alarming. In Switzerland, these fathers experience a particularly strong long-term decline in happiness after the birth of their first child. In Switzerland at least, this could be related to the high cost of living, which heightens awareness of the monetary costs of children, as well as more acute perception of men as principal breadwinners.
Better data, better policies
It is clear that women and men experience parenthood differently, especially when we break down their experiences by education and income. Cross-country variations in these differences suggest that welfare state type, i.e. policy, is an important factor.
However, to date, only a few national contexts have been examined because the availability of long panel data is limited. Some countries, like Switzerland, have begun to collect data longitudinally. Survey programmes like the Generations and Gender Programme (GGP) certainly help, but, ultimately, to fully understand the relationship between parenting, policies and happiness—the most meaningful measure of welfare and wellbeing—more data is needed.
- Mikucka M., Rizzi E. (2016): Does it take a village to raise a child? The buffering effect of relationships with relatives for parental life satisfaction. FORS Working Paper Series, 2016-1, Lausanne: FORS.
- Myrskylä, M., & Margolis, R. (2014): Happiness: Before and after the kids. Demography 51(5): 1843-1866.
- Rizzi E., Mikucka M. (2015): The happiness-parenthood link in a context of limited state support: The case of Switzerland. FORS Working Paper Series, 2015-3, Lausanne: FORS.
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