My children are two of my biggest joys in life. I love them unconditionally and, even though there have been some tough times, I can’t imagine my life without them. Would I be any happier? I’d say not.
I could be wrong, though. Because new research has discovered that being a parent doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more content with life than those who remain childless. And, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, chances are you’re considerably more miserable.
David Blanchflower and Andrew Clark, economists who specialise in the study of happiness, noticed several studies concluded that having children actually lowered parents’ happiness. So they decided to review a long-running European Union survey, which looked at the life satisfaction of more than one million people in 35 different countries.
The research covered the whole spectrum – those who were married, divorced, widowed and single; those with natural children and/or stepchildren; lone parents as well as couples. It also took financial status into account.
When compared with those who were childless, they found parents weren’t automatically happier with their lives than those who weren’t. But, it seemed, there was one crucial deciding factor when it came to determining satisfaction levels – how much pressure the parents were under financially.
More money equals happier parents
Blanchflower and Clark’s report, Children, Unhappiness, and Family Finances: Evidence from One Million Europeans, says that if having children doesn’t cause too many money worries, parents are generally happier than non-parents.
“The negative effect of children comes from their effect on financial difficulties,” they concluded. “Children are expensive, making it difficult for some parents to pay the bills.”
In the UK, the Child Poverty Action Group says the average cost of raising a child from birth to the age of 18 is £150,753 for a couple, based on 2018 data. This figure includes rent/mortgage costs and childcare, and rises to £183,335 for a single parent.
Zoe Nicholls, a 27-year-old make-up artist from Leeds, says she’s not surprised financial hardship has an impact on parents’ satisfaction levels. A single parent to a three-year-old son, she says that even though she’s pretty good at budgeting with what she has, she struggles to do more than cover essentials.
“I love him more than anything, but I can’t deny my life would be easier without him,” explains Zoe. “I seem to work all the hours in the day just to make sure I can pay the bills. Childcare is ridiculously expensive, but I have no other option. Then I feel guilty that I’m not spending enough time with him. I worry that all he’ll remember from his childhood is that Mummy was hardly there, and that when she was, she was too tired to do anything.
“I worry what will happen as he gets older, too – whether I’ll manage to provide for him, or if he’ll be bullied by other kids because he won’t have the latest trainers or money to go places.”
Age makes a difference
Age is another deciding factor when it comes to parents’ happiness levels, say Blanchflower and Clark – of both the kids and their parents. Their research found parents aged under 45 were generally happier than those who were older, while those with children aged under ten were happier than those whose kids were aged ten to 14. Possibly the result of those teenage hormones kicking in?
Partly, agrees Kathy Cronshaw. The 43-year-old HR manager from Glasgow feels her 14-year-old daughter is ‘growing away’ from her, and she’s unsettled as a result.
“She’s always been her mum’s girl,” explains Kathy. “Always wanting cuddles and just to be with me. But I’ve noticed that’s happening less and less. She’s more interested in chatting to her friends online and doing her own thing. I know it’s normal and part of growing up, but I do feel I’m – well, just not needed.
“I love my job. It’s great that now she’s older that my husband and I can have a bit more freedom and time together. But it also makes me sad that I’m becoming less important in her life.”
Marital status is another factor when it comes to parental satisfaction. It’s perhaps no surprise that parents who are in a relationship together are happier – they’ve got someone to share the tough times. Single parents were found to be less content overall, with no difference among those who were divorced, separated or widowed. The study found those parents with stepchildren also reported less satisfaction with life than those who had children with their current partner.
Blanchflower believes that ensuring those who are struggling financially have access to more assistance and making childcare more affordable would have a huge impact on parents’ happiness, wellbeing and security.
His belief is underpinned by the 2019 World Happiness Report, released in March, which ranked Finland, Denmark and Norway as the happiest nations – all are known to have strong support systems when it comes to working parents and childcare provision.