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Teachers College, Columbia University
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What Not to Expect When You're Expecting: A Big Change in Overall Satisfaction With Life

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George Bonanno

George Bonanno

Most first-time parents are about as happy – or dissatisfied – as they were before the birth.

By Patricia Lamiell

Expecting your first baby? Parenthood will definitely change your life, but not necessarily your outlook on it. In fact, for the vast majority of parents, having a baby has minimal long-term effect on their sense of wellbeing.

That is among the findings of a research team led by George A. Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. According to a new study based on a survey of thousands of new parents, those who reported high levels of wellbeing before childbirth said they continued to feel that way four years after giving birth. Those who did not feel an abundance of wellbeing before having a child did not improve much in their outlook after four years of parenthood.

Interestingly, those whose sense of wellbeing remained basically unchanged after childbirth had more education, were wealthier, and more likely to be married.

The new data counters decades of psychological studies showing that first-time parents are no happier, and in some cases less so, than their childless peers. Research since the 1970s has suggested that becoming a parent does not transform an unhappy person into an optimistic one, and in fact may cause a previously happy person to become dissatisfied.
 
In a paper published in May in the Journal of Family Psychology, the researchers reported that fewer than one-tenth of parents who were interviewed said they experienced sustained declines in wellbeing after becoming a parent, while more than 4 percent – a small but significant group which, according to the researchers, had been “completely ignored” in previous studies – experienced a “dramatic and sustained” increase in wellbeing after having a baby.

The Bonanno research team producing the study included Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy, Heather Mazursky and Anthony D. Mancini. Galatzer-Levy is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, and Mancini is now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Pace University.

Previous studies had compared the self-reported Subjective Well-Being (SWB) scores of first-time parents with non-parents. Instead, the team of researchers at Teachers College analyzed responses to interviews of the same parents for four years prior to four years after the birth of their first child, in order to study the long-term effects on individuals of having a baby.

The data came from annual interviews over nine years of a total of 2,358 German parents who experienced the birth of their first child between 1985 and 2003. The parents were part of the German Socioeconomic Panel Study, a nationally representative study of German households identified through random sampling by the Institute for Socioeconomic Research. An equal number of men and women responded to the question, “How satisfied are you nowadays with your life as a whole?” Respondents rated this question on a scale from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied).

While the data showed “marked individual differences and several distinct but smaller classes of individuals,” on average, a large majority of respondents – 84.2 percent – reported no lasting change in their Subjective Well-Being (SWB). Those who were satisfied with their lives prior to childbirth remained satisfied four years after childbirth, while the group that reported lower levels of wellbeing before childbirth remained dissatisfied.

A much smaller group – 7.2 percent – showed a persistent decline in SWB after giving birth. In a class not previously represented in the literature, 4.3 percent showed a sustained increase in self-reported SWB.

The study found that those who reported a sustained change in SWB were affected by a variety of factors, including gender, marital status, income and education, with some factors tending to occur together (higher income and education are often correlated, for example). The researchers found that:

  1. Individuals in the highly stable class (those whose sense of wellbeing remained basically unchanged after childbirth) had more education, were wealthier, and more likely to be married compared to the groups whose wellbeing increased or decreased.
  2. Those who experienced an increase in wellbeing tended to have a low sense of wellbeing until the time of the birth, when they experienced a sharp rise in reported wellbeing. This class of respondents, 4.3 percent of the total, tended to be less educated than the stable category and unmarried, had incomes that were generally lower before childbirth than those of the stable class. This may indicate, write the researchers, either that incomes in this group increased immediately following childbirth – “which is unlikely given the financial strain of this event” – or that the subjective well-being in this relatively low-income group went up after having a child.
  3. Although more women reported carrying the burden of child care, no distinction was detected between the responses of men and women. “This might indicate that men and women are equally… equipped to become parents,” the study finds.

Future studies should include additional measures of wellbeing, such as measures of “health, recreation, and romantic and other relationships,” the authors write. In general, the study results suggest that “adults preparing to be parents who are also at higher risk for a future drop in life satisfaction can be targeted and provided with information regarding new parenting programs.”
 


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