Happiness: Before and After the Kids

Abstract

Understanding how having children influences parents’ subjective well-being (“happiness”) has great potential to explain fertility behavior. We study parental happiness trajectories before and after the birth of a child, using large British and German longitudinal data sets. We account for unobserved parental characteristics using fixed-effects models and study how sociodemographic factors modify the parental happiness trajectories. Consistent with existing work, we find that happiness increases in the years around the birth of a first child and then decreases to before-child levels. Moreover, happiness increases before birth, suggesting that the trajectories may capture not only the effect of the birth but also the broader process of childbearing, which may include partnership formation and quality. Sociodemographic factors strongly modify this pattern. Those who have children at older ages or who have more education have a particularly positive happiness response to a first birth; and although having the first two children increases happiness, having a third child does not. The results, which are similar in Britain and Germany, suggest that having up to two children increases happiness, and mostly for those who have postponed childbearing. This pattern is consistent with the fertility behavior that emerged during the second demographic transition and provides new insights into low and late fertility.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Part of the gap between desired and actual fertility is explained by measurement: desired fertility is a cohort concept, but fertility behavior is often measured on a period basis. However, even accounting for this, a gap of 0.34 children remains in the European Union (Sobotka and Lutz 2011).

  2. 2.

    Perelli-Harris et al. (2009) reported that 18 % of first births in the United Kingdom in 1995–2005 were to single women; in West Germany and among women born in 1971–1973, who were in their prime childbearing years at ages 22–34 in 1995–2005, 11 % of first births were to single women. In 2008, 32 % of German mothers with children younger than age 3 were working; in the United Kingdom, the corresponding proportion was 52 % (OECD 2012).

  3. 3.

    The differences in the questions provide external validity. Research on happiness has been criticized for being sensitive to measurement, but we find our results to be robust to the way the life satisfaction question is framed.

  4. 4.

    After this transformation, the distributional characteristics are similar. The median, mean, and standard deviation of well-being are 7.3 , 7.1, and 1.7, respectively, in the SOEP; these values for the BHPS are 6.7, 6.8, and 1.9, respectively.

  5. 5.

    Clark et al. (2008) estimated two equations: one for the happiness trajectory before the event, and another for after the event. A resulting problem is two baselines. We circumvent this problem by combining the equations.

  6. 6.

    In BHPS, post-birth follow-up ends in 15 years. Thus, in the BHPS analysis, we replace A 10–18 with A 10–15.

  7. 7.

    We also considered linear, quadratic, and cubic age specifications. The results did not change.

  8. 8.

    We avoid the age-period-cohort identification problem by combining three time periods for which descriptive statistics suggested no differences. Alternative ways to identify the model (e.g., using quadratic age) did not influence the results.

  9. 9.

    Kohler et al. (2005) analyzed fertility and happiness among twins to get at the causal relationship. This avoids many problems present in standard OLS approaches, although even here unobserved life events may have shaped the twins so that they differ from each other in ways that influence both fertility and subjective well-being; this could bias the results.

  10. 10.

    Excluding cohabiters would decrease the proportion in the British data below that observed in the German data. However, the regression results for partnership status (Fig. 4) are not sensitive to whether cohabiters are combined with the married.

  11. 11.

    Parents aged 17 or younger are excluded because (1) teenage childbearing is a different process than having children at young adult ages; (2) our samples include very few people who had children before turning age 18; and (3) it is difficult to construct a meaningful pre-birth baseline happiness for teen parents.

  12. 12.

    As a reviewer recommended, we considered instrumental variables regressions. We first used the birth of twins as an instrument for having two children. Results for twins were not statistically different from 0. The 95 % confidence intervals overlapped also with the happiness trajectories observed for the first and second birth. We then used sex distribution of children as an instrument for having additional children. Having a boy versus girl did not predict parity progression, but having the first two children of the same sex increased the likelihood of having a third child. Regressions in which the birth of a third child was instrumented with the sex distribution of the first two children were also statistically indistinguishable from 0 and from the noninstrumented happiness trajectory for the third child. In our data, the commonly used instruments of sex distribution and multiple births had too little statistical power to establish any results. Data on miscarriages, another possible instrument, were not available.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by the European Research Council Grant 2013-StG-336475 and an Insight Development grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We are grateful for comments and suggestions that we have received at the 2012 annual meeting of the Population Association of America and at seminars at Stockholm University, University of Hohenheim, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, McGill University, and Bowling Green State University. We also acknowledge helpful comments from Josh Goldstein, Jan Hoem, Elizabeth Gregory, Bill Avison, Debby Carr, Sam Preston, Michaela Kreyenfeld, Francesco Billari, Arnstein Aassve, and Carl Schmertmann.

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Myrskylä, M., Margolis, R. Happiness: Before and After the Kids. Demography 51, 1843–1866 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0321-x

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Keywords

  • Fertility
  • Happiness
  • Life course
  • Parenthood