An interesting new study out of the Open University in the UK finds that couples without children are happier than couples with children. As someone who hasn’t slept an uninterrupted night in literally years and who has strollers and toys cluttering her whole house, it’s a headline that grabbed my attention.
The researchers interviewed and surveyed 5,000 couples of all ages, statuses, and sexual orientation over a two-year period. It’s a fairly small sample, and relies heavily on self-reporting (and we know people are notoriously bad at introspection). Add to that some obvious concerns with “interviewer effects” and “social desireabilty” (what someone might think the researchers want to hear), we have to take this research somewhat with a grain of salt.
Still, the idea that children are the source of misery for couples around the world doesn’t sound crazy. And there are a lot of worn-out parents who haven’t seen a movie above a G-rating in ages who would agree that, in some respects, parenthood places strains on a marriage. It’s harder to be spontaneous, there’s more stress, less sleep, and not as much time for each other.
But this is sort of a one-dimensional view of parenthood. While the stresses are obvious, the shared joy and emotional bond that develops from having children together is something wonderful as well.
And that’s what’s interesting in the study. Perhaps the bigger finding that the researchers and news reporters largely ignored is that mothers were happier than any other group in the study. And women without children were the least happy with life overall.
Obviously people in this survey weren't randomly assigned to be married or to have children. Unfortunately like many scientific reports — and news stories about them — this one gives the impression that married couples with children are less happy because of the children. But we don't know that at all. Maybe happier women to begin with are the ones who are more likely to have children. Perhaps people less satisfied with their marriage were simply less satisfied even before they tied the knot.
Bottom line: Correlation ain't causation and you should still have kids!
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