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Laura Keynes: Babies don’t know much about Proust. But they still enrich many a mother’s life

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A new study, by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, shows that two thirds of parents experience a drop in life satisfaction during the year following the birth of their first child. In short, a first baby can make two in three parents unhappy. Apparently this is unhappiness on a level comparable to divorce or bereavement, and the effect is greatest on well-educated and older parents.

The study looked at how strongly experiences of the first child impact on the probability of a second. Unsurprisingly perhaps, those who weren’t having a great time with the first baby weren’t in a rush to have any more kids, possibly even revising their plans for a larger family.

Not wanting to sound smug, it’s nice to know I’ve bucked the trend on this one. My man and I definitely fit the category of well-educated older parents and whilst we’re not quite through the first year yet, our first born has brought us nothing but joy. I suspect this is only because we won the baby lottery, miraculously finding ourselves with a baby who sleeps from 7pm-7am without fuss. But it’s also a question of expectations.

“Generally, new parents complain about a lack of sleep, relationship stress and a feeling of a loss of freedom and control over their lives”, says the Institute’s director, Mikko Myrskyla.

Like I say, expectations. I’d done plenty of nannying and babysitting over the years, and had seen friends raise children, so I knew what I was in for. I knew this tiny mewling little person was going to completely take over my life and that the easiest thing to do was just give myself up to motherhood and get on with it. “It’s not about you” is the mantra I repeat daily, reminding myself that motherhood means a life lived in service to others.

This doesn’t mean I’m a downtrodden housewife, living a life of domestic drudgery. It just means that I’m happy to accept that self-fulfillment might be found through self-giving, rather than individual autonomy. It’s a creed at odds with a society governed by what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls ‘the ethics of autonomy’.

Funnily enough, my partner is currently reading Rachel Cusk’s infamous book A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (“I thought I’d better see what the fuss was about”, he said) and, leafing through it, it strikes me that Rachel Cusk is driven by the ethic of autonomy. At least, she seems to spend a lot of time wittering on about her loss of autonomy since getting pregnant and having a baby. She moans about the pain and the boredom and the guilt and blah blah blah. I wonder what she expected – for a baby to pop out and start conversing with her about the literary merits of Proust? Who knows.

Maybe the well-educated older parents of this new study are all like Rachel Cusk and just weren’t prepared for what raising a child involves. In the old days, before contraception, and when people had big families, older siblings would have helped raise younger siblings, and then the youngest would have seen the older ones having children of their own, and so on. Parenthood wouldn’t have been such a mystery or shock, and young women who wanted self-determination and intellectual stimulation would have known not to opt for marriage and motherhood. Nowadays, we’re told we can have it all and then get unhappy when it transpires we can’t have it all.

On one level, this study is a sad indictment of our age. It suggests that what people value more than anything is “having freedom and control” over one’s own life. By that measure, having a baby is going to be a bit of a shock to the system. It also suggests that society is letting down two-thirds of new parents.

I’m lucky to have plenty of family and friends around to support me in this project of love called motherhood, but many new parents aren’t so fortunate. Economic circumstances might mean, for example, that new parents have to move to a cheaper neighbourhood, or go abroad for work, all of which can be isolating experiences. And with community services being cut, new parents can struggle to find support in the community.

It’s a sad thing if two-thirds of parents are seriously revising their plans for baby No 2 because baby No 1 has been an uphill struggle. With some countries in Western Europe experiencing demographic decline (Germany, where this study was conducted, has a shrinking population), it’s more important than ever to support new parents, or else there’s going to be a lot of elderly people with no youngsters to look after them. Governments should keep a weather eye open and look at how certain ideologies contribute to new parents’ unhappiness and unmet expectations. Economic stability might just depend on it.

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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