woensdag 21 november 2012

Lessons learned: On happiness, babies and cultural differences

It is by now quite undisputed in academic circles that having children will lower your level of happiness. This is due to more anxiety, less (disposable) income and more time pressure to get everything done. (And, especially in the beginning, to lack of sleep on top of that.)


Different studies report different drops in happiness levels. And the depth of the drop can be traced back to the cultural framework. Because each culture has adopted its own Right Way of Dealing With The Work/Life Balance. (If there even exists such a thing, as Forbes Woman argues alongside myself.)

Generally, it goes something like this: man and woman get married*, their happiness spikes, they decide to have a child, the child is born, happiness flies out the window. Generally, again, fatherly happiness drops quicker than motherly happiness and is also quicker to recover.

* Almost all, if not all, research has been done looking at heterosexual couples having biological children. I have not found (and admittedly not looked very hard for) research on adoptive parents and/or same sex couples.

This mom/dad divide has everything to do with equality and traditional gender roles.

One of the most recent studies on parental happiness to make worldwide headlines, In Defense of Parenthood, has found that actually, no, parents are not more unhappy then the general population. This is due to the fact that dads are quite happy. Mothers not so, the researchers admit, which is "not unexpected as the pleasures associated with parenting may be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that arrives with motherhood." (The researchers found no difference in happiness levels between childless and child-bearing women.)

The countries that have managed to counter this effect best are Sweden, Denmark and, interestingly, the US as Rebecca Asher recounts in Shattered. Modern Motherhood and the Myth of Equality. The first two have done it by equalizing the opportunities for caregiving during the first months after birth (in Sweden part of the parental leave can only be taken by the father - if he forfeits, those months are not tranferable), the US has done it by not arranging for any maternity leave it all, effectively equalizing opportunities as well. Slate's Kate Roiphe got told off by Norwegians for using them as an example for equal opportunities, she recounted during a recent doublexx gabfest, because it is still the women taking a year off, thereby setting themselves up as primary carers and the men happily trundling along their chosen career path.

So do these parents manage to keep up their happiness levels? No, not really. They still have the same anxieties, the same stress and the same worries - now it's just both of them, instead of mainly the woman.

Both the Scandinavian contingent and the US have another thing in common: Both parents are more than likely to work full-time. So how does part-time work influence happiness levels?

Take a look at the Netherlands, where part-time work for women is not just a common occurrence, but actually regarded as a natural consequence of having children. Men have this right too, and do use it in steadily (but oh so slowly) growing numbers, but there is still a dearly held prejudice in the business world that this means they are less career-oriented. So yes, working part-time or flexible does seem to have a negative effect on the steady progression of a career.

So is it true that Dutch women don't get depressed? Is part-time work the answer to parental anxiety and time pressure and the recipe for happiness?

Unfortunately, no. (I once heard the Netherlands are only second to the US when it comes to psychologists per capita, but I can't find stats on that.) In fact, Babette Pouwels of the University Utrecht has shown that where fatherly life satisfaction drops for an average of 7.5 years after the birth of the first child, mothers will take up to 15 years to get back on their happy feet.

However, there is more to the Dutch story. People who decide to have children are actually happier than average. The drop they experience, furthermore, isn't very steep - they simply drop down to the happiness level of the average population. And after fifteen years they get to be happier again than their childless fellows, on top of reporting more meaningful lives.

The reasons for the drop differ between men and women. Fathers are dissatisfied with the way their free time gets taken over by family time and by the fact that a large part of their income gets diverted to the children, whereas mothers are dissatisfied with their lower income in general and lesser job satisfaction. This presumably lasts until they get fully back in the workforce, approximately about fifteen years after the first child is born when the youngest one enters secondary school.

So no culture's Right Way is, in actual fact, the route to happiness. Parents will always worry and parents will always still be humans with their own needs and dreams and wishes which conflict with the childrens' needs and hopes and preferences and there is no perfect answer on how to do this thing and make our lives serene and peaceful again. (Though it definitely helps if your child is a good sleeper. Never underestimate the power of shut-eye.)

So why have children? Because they are bundles of maddening, gladdening joy. To feel that your heart has no limits. To become part of the fabric of humanity. Nobody said it would be easy and nothing worth doing is ever easy. Because outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens.

One last thought: All countries' happiness levels can be seen in the world happiness database. Denmark and Iceland usually come out on top, the Netherlands and the other Scandinavian countries are not far behind. A fair few of these countries are actually in the midst of a small babyboom, but their national happiness levels are holding steady.

So the drop in happiness after birth is not making much of a dent in the overall happiness of a country or a culture. Now isn't that a happy thought?

NaBloPoMo November 2012

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