Is parenthood worse than death of a spouse?

Let’s take a moment to exercise our inquisitive skills. A recent Washington Post article headline read as follows: It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner. That sounds dreadful. Fortunately, as is most often the case, the headline suggests a different story from the actual paper. In this brief off-topic discussion, I’m going to highlight the major disparities between the tabloidism and the research findings.
Birth rates in many countries, like Germany, are falling, which will create a big problem in decades to come. Understanding the reasons why couples are not having children is important to coming up with real solutions.
This particular study analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP), a nationally representative longitudinal study of private households run by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). They looked at couples from 3 yrs prior to up to 2 yrs post birth.
Key Variables
The key outcome is a birth of a second child, while the key independent variable is parents’ subjective well-being, measured annually over the course of the transition to parenthood. Respondents were asked annually, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?” Responses range from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied).

The authors examined whether three aspects of respondents’ subjective well-being during the transition to parenthood are associated with a second birth, net of other important factors:

  1. Subjective well-being levels over the period of having a first child. We measure levels of subjective well-being over the transition to parenthood, measured from two years before a child is born until the year after a first birth.

  2. Gain in well-being before first birth. We capture the gain in well-being in anticipation of a first birth. First, we calculate a baseline level of life satisfaction for each respondent by averaging their life satisfaction level for three, four, and five years before a first birth. Then we sum deviations from this base level for the period two years before, one year before, and the year of first birth.

  3. Drop in well-being over the transition to parenthood. We calculate the size of the drop in subjective well-being around a first child’s birth. We measure the difference between the maximum level of life satisfaction before a child is born (from two years before the birth through the year the child’s birth is reported) and the minimum level of life satisfaction after the birth (measured in the year the child is reported and the year after the birth is reported). This is a continuous measure that ranges from 0 if there is no drop or a gain, to 9, the maximum drop we observe in the data. This measure captures the issues raised by new parents who reported that the most common high is just before or just after the child arrives and that the most common low is during the first year after birth (Newman 2008).

How do their findings stack up with the WP’s?
The post based much of its discussion on this compelling graph.
Be wary of nice graphics, as they are often created by the journalism, rather than the researchers.

Be wary of nice graphics, as they are often created by the journalism, rather than the researchers.

Looking at that graph alone you might swear off kids. The article uses the data in that graph as its linch pin for the headline. However, when I first read the article few questions immediately arose, the biggest one for me being:
  • Was the scale corrected for initial happiness? It is safe to say that most people getting a divorce couldn’t get much less happy by the divorce. Death of a spouse? I’m guessing that includes sudden death and chronic illness, in which case death can actually be a relief. As for unemployment, there’s a lot there too. Being fired suddently is very different from taking a leave from work or leaving a job that sucks.

As it turns out, the actual research paper could not answer that question. Why? Well it goes back t0 that graphic, which does not exist in the paper. That’s correct. The journalist created a composite graph from other research that was not directly cited. In fact, the researchers never even discuss this comparison at all. What is even worse is that the data in the figure are wrong!

The researchers separate out respondents as those who show a 0, 1, 2, and 3+ unit drop in satisfaction; none of those groups exceeds 1.47. This leads me back to my main question that I cannot answer without a significant amount of digging. However, I really do not need to, because its highly likely that the earlier studies cannot be directly compared for many reasons, including the one I outlined above. Such a post-hoc analysis should not be confused with a meta-analysis, which first adjusts the data to be sure all of it can be compared. Journalistic post-hoc Frankenstein analyses like this often misrepresent all the data, then misinterpret their results. It’s akin to running a race with different start and finish lines; how do you know who actually won? 

What the research does report is that there can be a large drop in life satisfaction after the first child. However, more than 60% reported a drop of only 1-unit or less and nearly 60% of all respondents reported having another child. They also note that there was a significant difference in satisfaction between those showing low changes in satisfaction and those reporting high drops (3+ units) in satisfaction; i.e., “those who have a more difficult transition to parenthood are more likely to be women, have lower levels of household income, are less educated, and are less likely to be working. There were no differences by partnership status at the time of a first child, nativity, or birth cohort.” Based on these findings the researchers note that the evidence indicates that greater parental support may be essential to reversing the low birth rate in many countries stating:
“…this article presents evidence that parents’ subjective experience of a first birth is an important and understudied factor in determining final family size. An immediate follow-up question stemming from our results is whether policy could influence the subjective well-being of new parents. In 2007, Germany implemented several new policies that were aimed at supporting new parents, and preliminary evidence suggests that these policies may have positively influenced parental well-being (Myrskylä and Margolis 2013). Further research on low fertility should address the ways in which parenting experiences throughout the life course affect fertility behavior upward or downward.”
This article offered me an ideal opportunity demonstrate why approaching what journalists write with skepticism is essential now. If a topic is either of interest to, or possibly impacts your life, it is essential that you go to the source. While you may not fully understand all the methodology used in research papers, it is often fairly easy to spot major red flags, like I noted here. When you collect a few of those concerns, its probably best to largely ignore the hype.
Bottom line: the study raises important issues for those choosing not to have more children, but it in no way suggests that having kids is worse than your spouse dying!

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