Happiness findings may resonate beyond the family

Adela Talbot // Western News

Sociology professor Rachel Margolis recently published a paper in the journal Demography showing parental happiness depends on the age of the parents at the time of their first child’s birth as well as the number of children the parents have.

Your happiness as a parent largely depends on two things – your age at the time of the first arrival and the number of children you have, according one Western researcher.

“People’s happiness trajectories are based on when they have children, and based on the number of children, and this really aligns with what we’re seeing in all developed countries, with low and late fertility – people waiting to have a child, and people deciding to have one, two or more,” said Sociology professor Rachel Margolis, who recently published a paper outlining parental happiness trajectories in the journal Demography.

Going forward, these findings could lead to changes in key family-related policies, involving child care and maternity leaves, among others.

The paper, a collaboration with Mikko Myrskylä from the London School of Economics and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, is part of a larger Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council study looking at parental decision-making about when to have children and how many to have.

The study used a large dataset from The British Household Panel Survey and the German Socio-Economic panel, and came from developed countries that have fertility patterns similar to what would be expected in Canada.

“We used data collected over a long period of time, and we selected a subgroup of people who became parents during that time,” Margolis continued.

A survey of the data showed parents’ happiness increases in the year before and after the birth of the first child. However, it quickly dropped afterward. According to Margolis, this suggests relationship dynamics between the parents after the birth of a child and the ability to make plans for the future play a role in the trajectory of parental happiness.

What’s more, women were happier than men when expecting a child, and following the birth. Consequently, they had steeper drops in happiness following the first year after the child was born. But in the long run, there were no differences between the happiness levels of men and women, the study found.

Individuals who are older and more educated at the time of their first arrival seemed to be happier, and parents between the ages of 35-49, had the strongest happiness gains around the time of birth and stayed at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents.

“What we see is that if a gain in parents’ happiness is X-size for the first child, it’s half of that for the second child and negligible for the third child,” she explained. “This means, in terms of happiness trajectory, the third child is statistically insignificant.”

That’s not to say parents shouldn’t have three or more children, she continued, but these findings suggest happiness trajectories may, at least, partially explain ever-increasing low and late fertility rates.

“We’re not saying the exact findings are replicable to all families in Canada, but we’re talking more generally about countries where there’s low fertility, where fertility is being postponed more and more – and Canada is one of those countries,” Margolis noted.

“Canada and lots of other developed countries are dealing with a huge problem of population aging – the average age of the population is increasing over time and this has major implications for how we are spending our country’s money. We need more money for health care, pensions for older people. The main demographic reason for population aging is low fertility, so when you have smaller cohorts of new children being born, this is what’s causing all these budget problems.”

In the past, the feminist movement, the rise of women in education and their entrance into the labour force was looked at as a contributing factor to lower fertility and parental happiness trajectories, Margolis continued, noting her project considers the potential of policy, on things such as childcare, to affect fertility and happiness.

“Policies which actually affect how parents are able to transition into parenthood and integrate children into their lives are really important to helping people maybe have another child if they wouldn’t otherwise,” she said.