Many people believe that having children makes you happy. But often this is not the case. On the contrary, parents between 40 and 50 are less happy than non-parents of the same age.
Text: Thomas Gull
Translation by Philip Isler
When a couple has a child, they turn into a family. For many, the desire to start their own family and build up family life is a key part of being in a relationship. In Switzerland, the most common form of family life is the traditional nuclear family – mother, father and their child(ren). However, around one-quarter of families take a different form: single parents, patchwork families or rainbow families with LGBTIQ parents. Advances in reproductive medicine have brought about new family constellations and biological relationships. “If you were to use all the possibilities of reproductive medicine, you could have up to six parents,” says theologian Michael Coors. “This changes our understanding of parenthood.” According to Coors, parenthood is thus no longer determined by biological but increasingly also social factors. This goes for same-sex couples, where only one parent is genetically related to their child, as well as for patchwork families, where one or both parents bring children from a previous relationship.
Children with LGBTIQ parents often bullied
Biological parents? Social parents? Does it matter, as long as the kids are loved and looked after? Psychologist Guy Bodenmann confirms that it doesn’t, at least to a certain extent: “A family's climate is more important than its structure. It matters more how family members treat each other, and how much affection, support and encouragement they experience. Cohesion and adaptability are also important.” Family life means you have to balance your own needs with those of others and find compromises.
Bodenmann’s research shows that there are factors that promote a child’s healthy development, including the amount and quality of time parents spend with their children, the parents’ mental well-being and with it their ability to respond to their children’s needs, and also their parenting skills. A stable, healthy relationship between parents also plays an important role. If all these elements are given, the actual structure of a family is of little account. The same goes for rainbow families, emphasizes the psychologist. Growing up with two mothers or two fathers is no problem. “Most studies indicate that there are no significant differences to families with heterosexual parents,” says Bodenmann. However, children from LGBTIQ families are more often affected by bullying, with almost half of children in rainbow families experiencing discrimination.
The nuclear family – a Hollywood cliché
And yet, children who grow up in a traditional family setting, with one mother and one father, are least likely to show signs of behavioral and psychological problems, states Bodenmann. Single-parent families and complicated patchwork arrangements provide a less favorable environment in this regard.
So the idea of the traditional nuclear family as the ideal safe haven is true? “Absolutely,” says Bodenmann. Researchers are observing an apparent return to the family, especially in times of globalization and political and economic uncertainty. “The family as a haven of stability is getting more important again – a happy place, if you will.” While the world outside may be rough, confusing and increasingly complex, people are turning to their families for support.
In historical terms, the notion of the traditional nuclear family as a safe and secure haven is a relatively recent one. Historian Simon Teuscher describes this idea of family as a “1940s Hollywood cliché, with the stay-at-home housewife looking after the kids while keeping sexy for her husband and provider, who comes home from work in the evening.” For Teuscher, this is the result of a narrowing view of the family and household ideal in the Western middle class, which solidified in the course of the 20th century. “According to this model, mother, father and their children form a self-contained unit.” Teuscher believes that this is problematic, in particular since deviations from the standard model are often construed as a threat to the child’s well-being. This is why he believes the ideal of the harmonious nuclear family, as lauded by family psychologist Bodenmann, has its downside – it is often difficult to achieve. “With today’s divorce rates, this ideal would mean that many families have actually failed, even though most are producing healthy, happy children,” cautions the historian.
Nowadays, we devote much of our time and attention to raising our children. But this wasn’t always the case, says Teuscher: “Until about the 1950s, raising your own children was largely a lower-class phenomenon.” In the middle classes, childcare was often delegated – to governesses and nannies. Looking even further back in time, some families even outsourced child-rearing altogether. “Well-to-do families often paid wet-nurses to breastfeed infants and look after their small children,” says medieval history specialist Teuscher. In 14th and 15th century Tuscany, it was common practice for upper-class families to send their newborn to live with wealthy farming families in the countryside until they had outgrown infancy, with the occasional family visit on Sundays, says Teuscher. The farmers, in turn, gave their babies to poorer families. “This led to a kind of cascading chain of childcare, comparable to today’s practice of employing nannies from abroad,” says the historian.
Nowadays, the luxury is no longer paying someone to care for your children, but being able to spend time with them. “If you’re wealthy, you’re more likely to let others know by showing up at the playground together with your children and your nanny,” says Teuscher.
More stressed, less happy
The significance of children for modern-day parents has completely changed compared to previous generations, where couples couldn’t yet make the deliberate decision to have a child – having children, and sometimes losing them, was a matter of fate. As a result, having children wasn’t such an emotionally charged topic. For parents today, their children and their relationship with them are a key ingredient of a successful and happy life. But do children really make us happy? Researchers have no clear-cut answer to this yet. Many people want to have children, but once they have them, they’re often not as fulfilled as they had hoped. The partner’s level of happiness and satisfaction drops after a baby joins the mix. Women without children are more satisfied than women who have children, by a rate of 60 to 40. “The sharpest drop in happiness comes after giving birth,” says couples psychologist Bodenmann, “and stress levels are highest after childbirth.” The issue of stress doesn’t go away, either: life with children may be beautiful, but it’s also a lot of work –and comes with a financial burden.
Parents between 40 and 50 are thus less happy than non-parents of the same age. But this changes later in life, with higher levels of happiness reported among older people who have a family. Philosopher Barbara Bleisch has an explanation for both of these observations: “Children give your life depth and meaning. Many people become especially aware of this when they look back on their life.” And when it comes to the drop in happiness levels of parents in middle age, she says: “Sometimes our life satisfaction not only depends on the meaning of our lives, but also on whether we’re getting enough sleep.”
University Research Priority Program
Human Reproduction Reloaded
Over 40 years ago, Louise Brown was the first human to have been born after conception by in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Reproductive medicine has continued to evolve ever since, changing and expanding the ways in which people can have children. In Switzerland, over 2,000 children are born each year with the help of reproductive medicine. The medical advances have also given rise to new social, ethical and legal questions, for example when it comes to social egg freezing, genetic screening of embryos, germ cell transplantation or the future use of the CRISPR/Cas gene scissors in reproductive medicine. Over the next eight years, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by law professor Andrea Büchler at the new UZH University Research Priority Program “Human Reproduction Reloaded” will investigate these and other topics and analyze the possible consequences for society, science and business.