No one ever said being a parent is easy. It takes dedication and commitment, love and kindness, and devotion and sacrifice not only to be an effective parent, but also to gain some personal satisfaction from the difficult and, oftentimes, thankless job that parenting is. Parenting brings personal satisfaction, perhaps, but not necessarily happiness. A new study from Germany, published in the journal Demography, finds that parenthood might not be as joyous as we think it should be. researchers were trying to find out why some parents stop having children after only one, keeping birthrates in some countries low. Ariana Eunjung Cha says some parents feel parenthood is more than they bargained for:
In fact, on average, the effect of a new baby on a person’s life in the first year is devastatingly bad — worse than divorce, worse than unemployment and worse even than the death of a partner.
[The researchers] found that most couples in their study started out pretty happy when they set out to have their first child. In the year prior to the birth, their life satisfaction ticked up even more, perhaps due to the pregnancy and anticipation of the baby.
It was only after birth that the parents’ experiences diverged.
About 30 percent remained at about the same state of happiness or better once they had the baby, according to self-reported measures of well-being. The rest said their happiness decreased during the first and second year after the birth.
It was “the continuous and intense nature of childrearing” — the sleep deprivation, the physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression, and domestic isolation — that the researchers say brought these parents down.
David Roberts thinks parents need to chill. So much of parenting success, he says, comes from sheer luck anyway, rather than from indulgent parenting styles:
Like any parent, I would love to believe that my awesome kids are a result of my awesome parenting. Sadly, expert opinion indicates it ain’t so. Genes have an enormous influence. Peers and culture have an enormous influence. But parenting styles inside the home, apart from extreme cases like abuse or neglect, have very little long-term influence on a person’s personality or success in life, at least that social scientists have been able to detect.
This isn’t to say parents and parenting aren’t important. Parents supply the genes, except in cases of adoption (or remarriage). They control, at least to some extent, the peers and environments to which children are exposed. And of course they crucially affect a child’s quality of life at home, which, as I will argue shortly, is not some minor detail.
But it’s safe to say that your kids’ long-term fate will not be meaningfully affected by the speed and timing of potty training, the brand of educational videos you purchase, or the precise tone of voice in which you discipline.
Roberts says the factors which lead to successful parenting (and, ultimately, successful children) can be whittled down to this:
Have a healthy kid, live in an affluent area (with low crime and good schools), be from a socially privileged demographic, and make a decent amount of money. From there on, it’s pretty much coasting.
Roberts wants parents to keep this important point in mind: Childhood isn’t preparation for life. It is life:
Life is just a series of moments, and it’s amazing how many of them we miss, rush past, or disrupt because our minds are elsewhere, anticipating the future or dwelling on the past. But a moment of joy or connection is its own justification, not a means to an end. Play can just be fun. Fart jokes can just be funny. Daydreaming and wasted time don’t have to be framed as developmental tools; they’re just nice.
The top piece of advice I’d give fledgling parents (which I wish I could follow better myself) is just this: Be aware of those moments, and never turn one down. If you face a choice — a moment or a chore, a moment or bedtime, a moment or work obligations, a moment or your damn iPhone — always choose the moment. They seem abundant, sometimes too abundant, in those early years. But childhood isn’t linear; it seems to accelerate faster and faster as it progresses, and when it’s over that set of memories will be all too finite.
So don’t worry — be happy!