Do Children Make Us Happy?
“When you have a child,” is a sentence that’s been uttered for millennia.
But, today more people than ever are asking themselves whether they want a child at all.
Previously an obligation, chiefly due to societal and economic pressures, the choice to have a child is now increasingly viewed as both an option, and indeed a privilege, rather than a given.
An American study in 2018, by Pew, found that 37% of non-parents aged 18-49 thought they wouldn’t have children. A follow up study in 2021, using the same parameters, found a 7% increase in this answer, to 44%.
Unlike baby giraffes that careen out of the womb with the majesty of a ballroom dancer, we soft-headed humans can’t really do much by ourselves until… 12? And legally, kids only break free of parental shackles when they turn 18.
Having a child is arguably the most important decision that can be made in one’s life.
With that in mind, how does it impact our wellbeing? And what are some of the reasons offered as to why people are choosing voluntary childlessness?
Longer & Less Frequent
There are two parts to this shift in behaviour. One: we’re waiting longer to have children. 2: There’s a more pronounced, but currently unquantifiable, number of people who are considering childlessness as an option for their life, as illustrated above.
In recent years, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states that 25-29 year old mothers are the only age group that’s maintained rates of child birth.
Younger than 25? The rate of childbirth is dropping. Older than 29? Every biologically possible category continues to rise.
A 2022 ONS report found that, for the first time on record, just over half (50.1%) of women born in 1990 were childless by their 30th birthday.
The birth rate in 2022 was 1.61 children per woman, compared with 1.94 in 2012 – far below the average of 2.1 needed to maintain population levels. Dropping birth rates foreshadow inevitable change to the way we’ll live our lives.
Moving from a pyramid like structure of age distribution towards a column shape of equal ages will have massive ramifications on how we live and how we age. Combine this with an increasing average age and it’s clear that the systems that serve us right now will need to be considered, and funded, in a different manner.
In terms of non-parents, the ONS stats suggest that the percentage of women who don’t have children has roughly stayed the same since the 1950s: around 18%.
Before we continue: yes, many of these stats will refer to women. Men are of course included in the conversation – between 1964 and 2020, the average father has increased in age from 30.3 years old to 33.7 years old – but let’s call a spade a spade. Examining a female horse in this race makes more sense.
Okay, let’s get the main one out of the way.
Pounds & Pence
Duh, of course we’re going to start with money. Kids are insanely expensive – the average cost of raising a child to the age of 18, as per 2022 figures, is £183,000.
This, in large part, is due to the childcare fees in Britain. We have the third highest cost of childcare in the entire world, only behind Switzerland and New Zealand. This is important as there’s a clear correlation between the cost of childcare and the happiness of parents.
A 2016 paper found that Norwegian and Hungarian parents, who had lower childcare expenses, were happier than childless couples. The reverse was true for parents in Australia and Britain, with higher expenses, where nonparents were happier overall than parents.
There’s also what’s known as motherhood penalties, which essentially refers to the mother’s diminished earning power after having children. One study found that British mothers earned 40% less, on average, than they did prior to having a child (H. Kleven et al., 2019).
Then comes maternity pay. Mothers receive six-weeks’ statutory pay at 90% of their salary, which then drops to either £172 or 90% of weekly earnings, whichever is lower, for 33 weeks. So, a max of £688 per month.
Not sure if you’ve noticed but… the world’s getting more expensive at an alarming rate. Gone are the days where the average person could pay for a mortgage, car and child on a single wage.
Today, to live a stable and comfortable lifestyle, particularly with a child, the average person needs a dual-wage to maintain some semblance of normality that’s concomitant with a positive state of wellbeing.
The instability of the rental market, particularly right now, leads to many prioritising a house before a child. The average house now costs 9.1 times the average salary of a UK resident…
Parents have often harnessed the attitude of “we’ll make it work”, but with so much uncertainty in the air, it’s no wonder that many are considering whether that’s even a possibility.
“Having kids is the best thing I’ve done!” Something you’ve no doubt heard before.
Two things on this:
- It’s almost unacceptable in our society to say anything other than this.
- The data makes this a little less clear cut.
A 2004 study by the venerated Daniel Kahneman asked 900 women to report their happiness throughout the day. Turns out, on average, they considered the time they spent with their children less enjoyable than activities like answering emails and washing the dishes.
So how does that square up with the above quote? Supposedly it’s known as memory distortion, which refers to our tendency to remember the peaks of our happiness and not the troughs of frustration/dullness in between.
But, what’s best for our life isn’t always what makes us happiest.
Alex Hormozi says that if we’re stuck between two problems, choose the one that makes for the better story. So which sounds better as a description for yourself: the father who did X or the woman without kids who achieved Y?
Happiness, data suggests, increases for parents… temporarily.
Jennifer Glass, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, claims that there’s an initial “bump” (wonderful phrasing) of happiness for around the first year of a child’s life, before converging to a similar level as nonparents.
Another study, from Princeton, found no discernible difference in life satisfaction between parents and nonparents. Parents, however, experienced more daily joy and more daily stress than nonparents.
The stress involved with kids is something that’s rarely considered in its entirety. They’re brought into the world with the best intentions, but then subsequent worries about their success, their potential, and whether or not they’ve been parented “right” emerge.
Once they no longer live solely under parental care, the world happens to them.
The Meaning of Life
Bringing a child into this world is a trade-off.
We get the responsibility and therefore the purpose, a la Peterson. But so too do we get drawbacks.
Our finances, freedom and wellbeing all take a hit when we suddenly choose to usher someone ahead of us. Now that we are no longer in a period where we need to optimise for survival, we can start to optimise for other desires.
Freedom, happiness and performance are all in vogue right now. All of which, temporarily or otherwise, take a hit when one chooses to enter parenthood.
Then there are the folks who try to get their kids to actualise their dream.
Or those who essentially view the graft of raising a child as an investment in their future. It sounds incredibly utilitarian but it bears considering – who’s going to look after us when we’re older?
Speaking of older, let’s quote the pope. He said, in 2022, that the choice to be a non-parent “diminishes us and takes away our humanity.”
How many kids does he have again? Can’t remember…
There’s much discussion, chiefly from religious and right-leaning individuals, that refer to nonparents as somehow “selfish” (again, pope). Implicitly, voluntary childlessness is somehow seen as hedonistically solipsistic.
In reality, some people just don’t want kids. Having the agency to make this choice leads to a better quality of life for them, and we dare say kids, too. After all, nothing bad can happen to a child that doesn’t exist.
Procreation is enmeshed in our sense of humanity, but the unfathomable complexity of modern life, in tandem with the general economic and educational advancements, has afforded more people than ever the opportunity to decide whether or not to have kids.
Deciding not to have a child says nothing about a person’s character beyond… that choice. We can still be brilliant Aunts, Uncles, Godparents and friends, to children. There’s nothing inherently hateful, or selfish, about deciding not to have kids.
What’s your driver?
In closing, there seems to be data backed answers for the question dependent on what we want from life.
One study by psychologist Roy Baumeister found that, the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was – even though they reported that their life was no happier than non-parents.
Continuing this line of thought, LSE Professor Paul Dolan’s 2019 book, Happy Ever After, states that the “happiest” subgroup in the population are unmarried, childless women, and they’re more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers.
So, to draw a line under all this… the decision, from a wellbeing standpoint, depends on your desired trajectory.
Are you searching for meaning, or happiness?