Dossier: Our baby

Suddenly parents

Children are supposed to make their parents blissfully happy. But that’s not always the case. Psychoanalyst Peter Schneider and psychologist Valentina Anderegg explore what’s behind this parental paradox.

Text: Barbara Lukesch, photo: Sanitas

Peter Schneider, you have a 27 year old son. Has Laszlo made you happy?

Yes, right from the start. I can’t claim to have been in a permanent state of exaltation for the last 27 years,  but he has made my wife and me very happy most of the time. I could cry now just thinking about how I felt the first time I saw him.

That sounds rather idyllic.

The circumstances couldn’t have been better when he was born. Following a caesarean section, my wife was able to recover in hospital for three weeks. In those days you didn’t have to leave hospital after a couple of days, and we were really able to enjoy those first few weeks together as a family.

And afterwards?

Then we tucked our little mite into a car seat, took him home and suddenly felt quite lost. Where’s the manual, we asked ourselves. Especially when Laszlo started crying a lot more. Then the hard slog began, and it was pretty challenging. But I wouldn’t even consider that period as being unhappy.

The birth of a first child doesn’t just trigger feelings of happiness for parents; it also brings about profound changes which are comparable with only few events in life. Two become three, sometimes even four. You can forget about having peace and quiet, freedom and spare time for the foreseeable future. This is replaced by the cries of children, lack of sleep, stress and sometimes even despair. Most women and men stumble virtually unprepared into this new phase of life which will turn their everyday lives upside down.

Experts call it a “trying time for couples” – there are a whole range of studies based on it:

  • British economist Andrew Oswald surveyed parents and couples without children and concluded that although children don’t make us unhappy, they don’t necessarily make us happy. Parents on a lower income tend to be less happy than those earning more.
  • Nobel prizewinning US behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman questioned 900 Texan mothers on their favourite activities. To his surprise, those questioned listed 15 activities such as shopping, keeping fit, watching television and even washing and cleaning that they preferred doing to looking after their children.
  • As part of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s study “Paare werden Eltern” (Couples becoming parents), scientists are currently examining how a couple’s relationship changes when they become parents. Although the final results of this study haven’t yet been released, Zurich psychologist Valentina Anderegg is already able to comment on the initial findings: Men and women in Switzerland, too, tend to be less happy with their relationship following the birth of a child. “Levels of happiness fall on average by 15% to 18%.”

Anderegg and her colleagues interviewed 284 first-time parents from the 27th week of pregnancy right through to 40 weeks after the birth. They received a very broad spectrum of answers: “Some couples felt happier after the birth of their child, but some felt significantly less satisfied with their circumstances.”

Peter Schneider, why do we expect to be in a state of bliss after the birth of a child?

I’m not sure that people would willingly take on the burden of a newborn if they really knew the challenges they’d face. Let’s be honest: there’s nothing more tedious than spending an entire day with a newborn. It has to be romanticised in some way, or we wouldn’t voluntarily put ourselves in the situation in the first place.

We’re constantly bombarded in the media with images of happy families: smiling mothers, attentive fathers and delightful, rosy-cheeked children. Don’t these sort of images stress parents out even more if they don’t feel instantly happy?

Yes, I think so. Happiness and unhappiness are extremely complicated states of mind. If you suffer from a serious illness that makes you unhappy, you simply hope that it will go away. You can’t do this with families. There’s no right of return for children. Perhaps parental happiness is best described as a situation where mothers and fathers are able to endure the burdens of parenthood without losing the joy of having children.

Nowadays some women openly admit that they don’t enjoy being a mother. The internet is teeming with entries on regretting motherhood.

Yes, sometimes it takes having a child for a woman to realise that it’s not what she really wanted in the first place. These women usually still do what’s necessary to care for their babies; nevertheless, it’s a sobering realisation.

How exactly do couples benefit from having children?

I think children help us to offload “excess love”. For some, this excess love can be showered on their partner, others dote on their dog. A child is certainly considered a socially acceptable way of doing so.

“I think children help us to offload excess love. For some, this excess love can be showered on their partner; others dote on their dog.”
Peter Schneider

Perhaps children force us to face up to our own mortality by making us look beyond our own existence.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but probably true. Children certainly have a way of putting things into perspective. Put simply, once you reach a certain age, you’re happy when you know who you’ll be able to pass your worldly possessions onto, even if it’s only some books that mean a lot to you.

There’s nothing more to it than that?

The idea of experiencing immortality through procreation is purely biological. It’s a strange idea to believe that I’ll live on through my son after I die. Having said that, when you’re old, there is a strong desire to experience this, which intensifies and manifests itself in this desire for immortality.

What do you think about the idea that parents are able to bond through the shared concern of looking after their offspring?

Now I would say that bringing up our child together certainly helped my wife and me connect as a couple. But I could also reel off a list of the many times in the last 27 years when we’ve argued bitterly because of our son.

Psychologist Valentina Anderegg has a different opinion: “Having a child usually doesn’t fix a relationship.” Studies indicate that there are various risk factors which place an additional burden on new parents. Couples who had an unhappy relationship before the birth will find even more reason to quarrel once the child is born. Parents who communicated well and supported each other before they had children are at an advantage.

It’s important that parents communicate, and absolutely vital that they don’t forget to show affection towards each other, says Anderegg. If you manage that, you’re well equipped to deal with the challenges new parenthood throws up and achieve happiness.       

Peter Schneider, what do you think is crucial for successful parenting?

I thing that in the best case, parents experience what you might call meta-happiness, a kind of happiness ceiling under which they can survive the everyday trials of having kids without becoming unhappy. Perhaps you can take solace, maybe even raise a smile, in the fact that the challenging years of being a parent do eventually pass and that your offspring will then hopefully be able to stand on their own two feet.

Peter Schneider lives and works in Zurich as a psychoanalyst, lectures on clinical psychology and psychoanalysis at the University of Zurich, and is Professor for Educational and Development Psychology at the University of Bremen. He is also active as a satirist and columnist in various media.

Valentina Anderegg is a clinical psychologist and qualified psychotherapist. Her research focuses, among other things, on partnerships, parent-child relationships and families. She has been counselling individuals and couples at her practice since 2010.