It is a common belief in many parts of the world that having children is the key to happiness and that people without children will not feel satisfied. But is it really so? The answer to this question is both simple and complex. Whether or not you decide to have children, your satisfaction with life depends on many complex factors.
Let’s start with a simple answer: No, it’s not necessary to have children to be happy and content. Research on women who choose not to have children shows that most feel they have a good sense of identity and personality. They do not feel that their role in the family is defined and feel that they have more freedom and control over their bodies, lives and futures. Childless women also report greater financial stability, although one does not necessarily have to have a higher socioeconomic status to be satisfied with the decision not to have children.
Most people who decide not to have children are happy with their decision
On average, childless women and men are also less stressed and more satisfied with their marriages.
There is little research on single men and their experiences of childlessness, and even less research on the experiences of childlessness among transgender or transsexual people. Queer. But a study of men who chose not to have children found that most were happy with their decision and happy to have more freedom in their lives. Only a few regret their decisions, especially since they won’t leave a legacy.
However, if social support is lacking, childless men may experience reduced overall life satisfaction in old age.
The paradox of father-son relationship
When we consider the decision to have a baby, things get a little complicated. While there is no doubt that parents can be happy and content in their lives, their satisfaction with this decision often develops over time and may also depend on many factors beyond their control.
Many parents experience an initial temporary drop in happiness after having a baby, a phenomenon known as the “parenting paradox.” This is because a newborn can get in the way of many basic needs, such as sleeping, eating well and seeing friends. This can lead to dissatisfaction.
Heterosexual women are also less happy than men after becoming mothers. This may be because the burden of care often falls disproportionately on women.
However, having good family and social support, equally involved co-parents, and living in an area with supportive work and family policies can offset the stress and costs of parenthood.
This may explain why Norwegian women do not experience a loss of happiness after having children, as Norway has many family-friendly policies that make it possible for both parents to raise children and have careers.
Although having a baby can be difficult, that doesn’t mean this step can’t bring happiness, joy, and greater meaning in life. The experience of parenthood can even bring about a profound sense of happiness called eudaimonia. It is the feeling of living a worthwhile life, which is different from temporary happiness.
Both men and women can experience positive feelings of well-being after becoming parents. But in the case of women, the increase in happiness they experienced also depended on how well they balanced their parenting tasks with their partner.
Another big concern people have is whether they will regret not having children. Fortunately, research on childless older adults shows that many of them have high levels of life satisfaction and resilience in the face of poor mental health.
It seems that being satisfied with the decision to have or not have children depends largely on whether you have control over it. When we feel like we’ve chosen our path, we tend to accept our decisions and feel happier with them.
But what if that option is taken away and you want a child but can’t? So can you be happy? Our research shows the answer is yes. We examined the impact of childlessness on 161 women who wanted children but were unable to do so for a variety of reasons, including unavailability of a partner or infertility. Participants ranged in age from 25 to 75 years old.
It was found that, on average, participants’ happiness was no different than that of the general public. Twelve percent were depressed (meaning they felt they had no clear direction in life), while 24 percent were mentally healthy, meaning they had the highest level of mental health. The rest had a moderate level of happiness.
Interestingly, for some, the struggle of having children leads to post-traumatic growth. This refers to the positive psychological changes that occur after a traumatic event. Women with the highest levels of happiness reported that being able to focus on new possibilities in life, in addition to motherhood, helped improve their happiness.
Studies of men who are unable to have children due to infertility show that many experience sadness as a result, although this sadness decreases with age. Yet, like women who are involuntarily childless, finding ways to reshape their identities and roles in society outside of parenthood has helped many find meaning and satisfaction in their lives.
So, does being a father or a mother make us happier? Does not having children make us unhappy? The answers to these questions are not as simple as they seem. The happiness or contentment we experience depends on many factors, many of which are beyond our control. While it is true that the way we choose to give meaning to our lives is a key factor, so is the social support we have as parents and the political climate around us.
This article originally appeared on The Conversation.