Does having children really make you happy?

Does having children really make you happy?

As I turn the pages of our family photo albums, I see countless pictures of our children growing up.

Most of the shots capture moments of happiness or achievement: my daughters are laughing on care-free holidays under azure summer skies, or clutching a medal, holding a certificate, winning a race.

These albums, stored in a memory chest I have created for my family, are a record not just of my children's happiness and achievements, but my own as well. I love to look at the pictures of us, it's a sort of proof that I'm living the 'parental dream'. Or that's what I thought.

But now I'm being told that my parental happiness is a delusion and that my photo albums - like my parental memory bank - contain only the moments I have chosen to archive.

Mothers and fathers, according to the latest research by top scientists, simply choose to forget - or else don't admit to - all the other hideous stuff which makes us miserable on an almost daily basis; the tears, the tedium and the tantrums.

In fact, this research goes even further than that. It suggests that there's a good chance having children actually makes people unhappy - or at least a lot less happy than those who are childless. It has long been instilled in us that the key to ultimate joy and fulfilment lies with having a family - in fact, it is even detailed in the Bible. Can it really be that this is no longer true?

When I was growing up, there was a couple living on our street called the Harrisons and everyone felt pity for them because they were childless. It never even occurred to anyone that they might have remained child-free through choice. As young as seven years old, I remember feeling sad for them and deliberately popping in to see them - as if my presence could somehow bring some childlike joy to their colourless, childless world.

Back then, couples like the Harrisons were to be pitied. Now, apparently, according to the experts, they should be envied. Which is quite possibly why the numbers of them are increasing year on year. According to statistics collected by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, among UK women born in 1946, only nine per cent remain childless. Of those born in 1952, 16 per cent are childless; of those born 20 years later, in 1972, that figure has grown to 20 per cent.

Women like the international editor of Channel 4 news Lindsey Hilsum, 51, who is currently on assignment in Afghanistan.

'I wanted to travel the world,' she told me from Kabul. 'Being able to jump on an aeroplane at the drop of a hat isn't really compatible with being a mother.' Those like Hilsum - who describe themselves as child-free through choice - used to suffer the stigma of a society that judged them to be selfish, or even labelled them as unnatural.

Perhaps, if this new research is right, they were just jealous, bogged down by the stress, emotionally and financially, of raising a family.

'I don't see why people assume non-parents like me may come to regret not having children,' Hilsum says.

'The same people would never suggest that a parent could come to regret having children. That's taboo because if any parent admitted it, they would hurt the ones they love. But some parents might - in some ways - actually have regrets.'

Professor Andrew Oswald, from Warwick University, agrees. He has studied happiness levels in both parents and non-parents and says the non-parents simply have many more sources of happiness available to them - work choices, spontaneity, disposal income, skiing in the Alps, sports cars and so on.

'Parents really don't like hearing this,' he says. 'But our evidence shows that having children has no positive effect on happiness.

'On the contrary, it shows that parents are at their most happy six months before the baby is born, when they are thrilled with the idea of having a baby.

They also appear happy in the first year after the child is born. But that's the end of the good news. The finding is that after that it's downhill all the way.'

His views are very much in keeping with the latest, rather shocking, research from the U.S.

Professor Robin Simon, a sociology professor from Florida State University, has collected data from 13,000 Americans and concludes: 'No group of parents - married, single, step or even empty nest -p> reported significantly greater emotional wellbeing than the people who had never had children.'

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Read more about parenting options for gay, lesbian, single and infertile couples at

Posted: 29/07/2010 11:12:04


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