Self-Inflicted Trauma

A recent survey of new parents in Germany has suggested that the birth of a child is, on average, more traumatizing than divorce or even the death of a spouse. Nic asked me to write a bit about why this matters for us.

The survey was conducted as an attempt to shed light on the seeming discrepancy between couples’ stated desire to have two children and Germany’s persistently low birth rate that has rested at 1.5 for forty years. If the average couple says they want two children, why are so few doing so?

Researchers surveyed 2,016 German parents in the year prior to birth and for at least to two years following it. They were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). Given that it is taboo for parents to speak negatively about a new child, this indirect question was designed to elicit honest responses over the span of pre- and early parenthood. While this survey method leaves much room for the misinterpretation of results, its findings still offer an intriguing window into modern perceptions of child-rearing.

Once Is Enough

Previous studies have quantified the impact of other life events on the same scale of 0-10. The average responses related to divorce indicate a drop of 0.6 “happiness units.” Sudden unemployment and the death of a partner each similarly rank at the loss of 1 unit.

Respondents in this survey indicated that new parenthood yielded a striking 1.4 unit drop in happiness for both mothers and fathers. Given these reactions to parenthood, it begins to make sense why so many parents start out wanting two children and call it quits after the first. The pattern is strongest among parents aged 30 or older with higher education.

Experts are concerned not purely about the falling rate, but about the fact that it has continued to fall even as the economy shows modest signs of improvement.

When describing reasons that influenced their decision not to have a second child, parents cited three categories of factors. First, many were hesitant to relive the woman’s pain and nausea in pregnancy and birth. Second, both men and women pointed to experiences with complications at birth as serious enough to dissuade them from a second go. Lastly, the strenuous nature of rearing the child after birth persuaded many not to add to the burden with a second child.

The Home Front

While this study was conducted in Germany, it’s not over-reaching to expect that it might yield similar results in the United States. Fertility rates in the US have seen a marked decline through recent decades. In 2013, we saw a fertility rate[1] of 1.87, the lowest since 1986. The total number of births in the U.S. has also followed an interesting rise and fall. In 2000, the number reached around 4.05 million. It peaked at just over 4.3 million in 2007 but declined to 3.95 million by 2011.

The rate held steady through 2012, leading many to hope the decline would even out, correlating with an improving economy. In 2013, however, concerns revived as the number of births fell by 20,000, even as the number of women ages 20-39 grew. Experts are concerned not purely about the falling rate, but about the fact that it continued to fall even as the economy shows modest signs of improvement.

There’s space to debate whether citizens of child-bearing-age have benefited from improvements in the economy, and some signs point to a possible rebound in fertility in the near future, though there’s no way to know for sure.

It is surely true, though, that both economic and cultural factors are contributing to our current state of affairs. Change in the average employment situation of women, to name only one factor, has increased the opportunity cost of having children in one’s 20s or 30s. Recent studies have also indicated that the percent of U.S. adults who identify themselves as “single” has risen from 37.4% in 1976 to 50.2% in 2014. This represents both those who have never married and who have divorced. These and other realities suggest that more is happening here than economic aftereffects, which brings us back to the survey of new parents.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis

The fundamental experience of birth and child-rearing has not changed dramatically over the past few decades, but our cultural expectation of it might have. The results of the study bring us to the basic question of, “What is satisfaction?”

What if we’re doing our math wrong?

Interestingly, in contrast to the drop in satisfaction after birth, respondents in the survey reported increased satisfaction during pregnancy. Pain, nausea, increased expenses, and other life disruptions are part of the experience of pregnancy, but they somehow correlated with an increase in satisfaction before birth rather than the decrease reported after birth. Perhaps we can attribute the difference to the buoying effect of expectation and the reality that, while pregnancy imposes certain limitations (with increasing intensity as birth nears), it doesn’t limit independence in the same way that a newborn does.145H

We tend to associate “satisfaction” with a life that revolves around us and meets our perceived needs or rights. How satisfied are you with your job? Does it compensate you appropriately? Do you have opportunities for advancement? What are the benefits? Do you feel like a valued team member? How satisfied are you with your insurance coverage, or your phone carrier?

But are we having children with the goal of personal fulfillment or satisfaction? When life with a newborn proves more strenuous than stimulating, the gap between expectation and reality can take a toll on satisfaction. If we pursue parenthood on the basis of what we’ll get out of it, particularly in an era when most of us don’t need a bounty of children to work our land or contribute to our livelihood, the cost-benefit analysis unsurprisingly favors childlessness. But what if we’re doing our math wrong?

Why bother?

Nic has said this about the experience of parenting: “Alexi and I were very happy without children. It was nice to have uninterrupted conversations, disposable income, a more spontaneous love life, and more time to spend enjoying the company of adult friends. We traded that in to have children, and when we did that, all of those things changed. We ceased to be merely a couple and became a family in the broader sense. And for the one to be birthed, the other had to die.”

…giving life to another, even through small daily sacrifices of time, liberty, and luxury, is an offering to and an imitation of our Lord.

Of course there is joy and fulfillment to be had in parenthood. In our calculations, though, we misunderstand that happiness is not the same as satisfaction, and neither are the same as joy. We know rich joy and fulfillment in acting out our identities as creatures made in the image of our Creator, commissioned to be caretakers of our world. We are commissioned to produce life through the covenanted joining of male and female and to nurture life everywhere it exists in the world around us.

Having children is a future-minded act born out of joyful duty, self-sacrifice, and a resilient sense of hope. We die to ourselves to give life to another. We set aside our ease, our comfort, and the things we hold most dear for the sake of our children, just as our Father did before us. We invest our whole selves in parenting not for what it gives us, but because giving life to another, even through small daily sacrifices of time, liberty, and luxury, is an offering to and an imitation of our Lord. And in the face of an often frighteningly unstable world, we do so in hope, trusting in the sovereignty and goodness of God to provide and orchestrate above the seeming chaos in our range of vision.


[1] Fertility rates measure the number of children a woman would bear in a lifetime if that year’s rate applied to all of her child-bearing years.

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