Is there anything worse than divorce, unemployment, or the death of a partner? According to German adults: parenthood.
Rachel Margolis, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, and Mikko Myrskylä, Executive Director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, were interested in understanding why parents so often stop at one child, especially after previously expressing interest in having larger families. Understanding that shift in thinking, they believe, is key to understanding why fertility rates vary from one country to another. Germany, where the total fertility rate has been below 1.5 children per woman for more than thirty years, served as their test case for the notion that lower fertility is related to experiencing greater unhappiness than expected in parenting a first child.
The results of that study were recently published in the journal Demography. Margolis and Myrskylä used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, a longitudinal study of German adults since 1984, to investigate 2,000 adults’ reported levels of personal life satisfaction, both before and after they became parents.
Each year, Margolis and Myrskylä report, participants were asked, “‘How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?’ Responses range from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied).” The average drop was 1.4 units on this scale. Nearly three in ten respondents reported no decline, but over one third reported a large decline of two units or more. For the sake of comparison, consider that in applying this same metric, international studies have found drops averaging one unit for a partner’s death and unemployment, while divorce drives a mere 0.6 unit drop.
Sixty percent of adults who showed no drop in well-being after becoming parents had another child “in five years, compared with 50% of those with a large drop.” Asked about the significance of that 10 percentage point gap over email, Professor Margolis responded: “Whether one considers a 10 percentage point gap a large or a small finding depends on how one looks at it. This is the finding net of other factors which we also control for, such as changes in partnership status, health and work. It seems to be that isolating the effect of this one thing to 10% is quite a lot.”
She continued, explaining the impact of happiness across various segments of the population: “People with less education and income have larger drops in well-being [after becoming parents] on average. But the size of the drop in well-being at the first child is a stronger inhibitor of having a second, for well-educated parents and those who have a first child older.”
Respondents’ definition of life satisfaction seems highly personal and subjective, defined by the subjects when they participated in the original longitudinal study. The results recall the words of renowned Viennese-Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who noted that “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
Since this was a demographic study, cultural and religious factors were not considered in relation to participants’ happiness. That raises questions about how much these results reflect conditions specific to Germany, and whether the results are applicable elsewhere.
What is it about Germany that makes adults less enamored with parenthood and the family experience than they seem to be in the U.S.?
Consider, for instance, that close to a quarter of German men do not want to have any children at all, according to a report by the Robert Bosch Foundation and Germany’s Federal Institute for Population Research. Concerned about the nation’s low fertility rates, the German government devotes $265 billion to family subsidies each year. In spite of the sizable sum, demographic trends don’t indicate any shift in adults’ behavior.
By contrast, a mere 2 percent of Americans say zero is the ideal number of children for a family to have, while 13 percent believe the ideal number is four or more. That 13 percent seem to be onto something: Institute for Family Studies senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox has found that among American parents, “the relationship between family size and marital happiness is not linear, but curvilinear… The happiest husbands and wives among today’s young couples are those with no children and those with four or more children.” Religious faith, social support, and a sense of purpose are central to those parents’ sense of contentment in their marriage.
The United States remains more religious than highly secular Germany, which likely contributes to larger family size norms here. As Laurie DeRose has written, cultural norms influence couples’ decisions about family size. So, what is it about Germany that makes adults less enamored with parenthood and the family experience than they seem to be in the U.S.?
Dresden-based journalist Sonya Winterberg, a married mother of two who has parented in the United States, Finland, and now Germany, describes Germany as a “somewhat hostile” place to raise a family. She tweeted:
[Germans] in general are more private and reserved so play dates etc are just not as easy to come by… Many are just not as comfortable having kids here. It's not considered “natural,” but rather a big “production.” A friendly, happy outlook on life is what I miss here most. Germans tend to see Americans as superficial when all I see is friendly/open vs. rigid/grumpy.
Winterberg also messaged me on Facebook that while Americans and Finns encourage sharing and compromise among their children, “in Germany it is all about self-sufficiency and standing up for yourself… While it is not meant to be mean or confrontational, it puts the ‘me’ or ‘I’ before the ‘we.’”
Winterberg notes that childbearing is also a sacrifice for many German women, because society discourages men from taking parental leave, and women who want to return to work are shamed as “‘bad mothers’ not having their priorities sorted out.” Indeed, the New York Times reported in 2013 that “working women with children are still tagged with the label ‘raven mothers,’ implying neglectfulness.”
Berlin-based non-profit professional Dagmar Schmidt, who is not a parent, shared her own thoughts about why so many Germans are childless. Like Winterberg, Schmidt cited women’s career opportunities, as well as relationship instability, as drivers of low fertility. On Facebook, she also commented via message:
I believe that my generation still carries some of the issues of the post-WW2 aftermath of our parents’ generation. This suppressed shame and guilt and somehow “lost” sense of belonging was our meta-narrative. It is unusual that so many of us do not have children, or if they do, only one child (often later in life).
Economic issues and the desire for stable adult relationships before expanding family size aren’t German-specific, but living with the shadow, and ongoing shame, of World War II certainly is.
Author Wendy Shalit, who famously celebrated the traditional lifestyle in her book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, emailed:
Someone who decides that having kids is too upsetting to their inner harmony—well, their life might certainly be less demanding. But ultimately happier? I’m not buying it. If you’ve ever pushed to the limit of your abilities, you know that the pain is also the joy; it’s flexing those muscles you don’t yet have and developing your hidden ability to be more versatile, more giving and ultimately, to have an expanded view of happiness.
Considering that Germany has the world’s fifth-largest economy, one might expect it to rank higher than 26th in a survey of world happiness, rather than falling behind Oman and Venezuela. Young Germans may be haunted by their past, or like other young Westerners, they may be chasing career success and more casual relationships, presuming happiness will follow. But one has to wonder, would Germans be happier if they re-embraced faith, family, and community? Parenthood makes life meaningful, and for many people, that’s another way of saying they’ve embraced long-term happiness.