Margolis and Myrskyla’s parenthood study initially gained notoriety from a misleading claim that parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment, and even the death of a partner. To draw this conclusion, researchers compared the dissatisfaction, allegedly due to parenthood, to the dissatisfaction due to divorce, unemployment, and death of a partner of an entirely different sample. This assertion can be refuted with basic logic, biology and research.
- Simple logic is proof enough to discredit this assertion: Parents are always eager to talk and brag about their kids, but rarely does that kind of joy and praise come from someone who just lost a parent or has recently become unemployed.
- Biology and social science also substantiate this logic. During childbirth women release a package of hormones associated with euphoria—oxytocin, endorphins, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and prolactin. Oxytocin and prolactin are also released during breastfeeding.
- Other studies have found that overall parents (especially fathers) report relatively higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than nonparents. Dr. Arthur Stone, author of a study on parental happiness published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, put it this way: “[Parents] have higher highs. They have more joy in their lives, but also they have more stress and negative emotions as well.” All in all, Stone and colleagues assert that it is a matter of choice: people who want kids will derive more joy out of parenthood, and those who desire to remain childless will derive happiness from that.
Margolis and Myrskyla’s study is limited in scope and should be appreciated only at face value. The researchers found that life satisfaction increases leading up to and in the year after first birth, that satisfaction decreases from the baseline level after the first year of birth, and that those who have a second birth gained more in life satisfaction around the time of the first birth than those who do not bear more children.
Margolis and Myrskyla are correct that these findings lend insight into the low fertility rates afflicting many countries. The fertility crisis is a consequence of a growing abhorrence for anything that requires self-sacrifice, even if it could produce long term joy. It is far more likely that the true cause of this shortage in births is the rise in non-intact families and decrease in religious practice.
Children raised in non-intact families face parental rejection, which can make giving to others more difficult. These children are also less likely to want to have children of their own. Religious practice on the other hand, improves fertility rates. Religious worship contributes to a sense of selflessness: religious people contribute more to charity and are more likely to volunteer their time. Not surprisingly, very religious women are also more likely to want more kids and to have more kids.
Overall, parenthood is a rewarding, joy-filled adventure if the parents are willing to share their life. Although a couple’s first birth can, and frequently does, bring unanticipated stress and marital discord, it also concurrently brings much happiness. Future research should control for and then highlight the benefits of religious worship and intact families, and the likely dangers of self-centeredness. A revival of the intact married family that worships weekly is an essential, natural solution for the fertility crisis. It will make parents happier, children more abundant, and countries richer.