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The big baby swindle


My straight-talking midwife asks me if I have a birth plan and I say what's that, exactly? She tries again: "Have you had any thoughts about how you're going to feed your baby?"

I've had half a thought that I might use my breasts, but respond by looking a bit blank. At this point, she assumes correctly that my partner and I are unprepared.

Accidentally finding ourselves pregnant at 20, we are roundly, soundly clueless. So my stout-hearted midwife decides to boss me through my first labour. After the birth, I have just enough time to count fingers and toes in a daze before my baby is taken away.

Later, when I'm alone, midwife resumes her bossing: "Leave your baby in the incubator. He needs warming up. I'll bring him to you later. You're not to get out of bed."

Yeah, yeah, of course, I say and wait for her to leave so I can shuffle straight down to the room where my baby sleeps in the clear plastic incubator. I lift him out. He feels like a bag of warm, soggy chips and I hold him in a whoops-a-daisy way.

My eyes smack wide open. I stare at my son. At first, I can't identify this tilting, shifting feeling, but it suddenly slides up and registers in my body with a visceral thump. Ecstasy, I think. And I don't understand why it feels sharp or frightening because I'm in a state of bliss and I know, I just know, there is no going back.

Six weeks later, it's 4am. My son is hungry and my breasts feel as if they have been slammed hard in a door. The moments of bliss have been mitigated by shattering amounts of leg work. For six weeks, my partner and I have been riding a wave, led by love and nerves.

We are still riding the same rough wave of parenting, 24 years and three more children later, and it's been knackering.

I've learnt a couple of unassailable facts about parenting. The first is that parents' happiness is utterly contingent on the happiness of their children, which basically means they are only ever roughly as happy as their least happy child. The second is that parental love fries your nerves and bruises your heart.

Has parenting made me happy? Yes. Has it made me unhappy? Absolutely. But is it really possible to sum up parenting in terms of its overall effect on general well-being?

Apparently, it is. In a raft of studies on parental happiness, attempts have been made to do just this, sum it all up -- and the results are surprising.

Most people assume that having children will make them happier, but a significant body of research shows that the opposite is true. In fact, a wide variety of academic research suggests that parents aren't any happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.

Robin Simon, an American sociologist at Wake Forest University, claims that parents are more depressed than non-parents, no matter what their circumstances.

Slightly more positively, the economist Andrew Oswald, who's compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, says that "the broad message is not that children make you less happy; it's just that children don't make you more happy".

Although he does qualify this by saying that if you have more than one child, there is a definite negative impact on parental well-being.

I ask Jess, a mother of three teenagers: "Does having children make you happier as a person?" She answers, "Not when you have flu", and this is the closest I'll get to a one-word answer in my (unscientific) poll of parents and childless couples.

I also found that most parents believe the research to be wrong, and all stated that however tough parenting is, they have never regretted having children.

Jess says having children has been a profound source of joy, but that this doesn't always translate as having fun. "Of course children make you happy, but being a mother often doesn't." She explains that there have been long phases of parenting where it felt as if her life shrank to the size of her kitchen and she had to resist being "swallowed whole" by her children.

She clarifies: "Parenting is an all-in experience and it changes all the time, as your children change. It's consuming but it's important to stay connected to the person you were before you had children, to sustain interests and passions you had before kids."

John (37) believes having children would hamper his pursuit of the many interests that fulfil him. The bedrock of his happiness is the family in which he was reared, but, though deeply loved by family in ways he wholly appreciates, he doesn't want children and never has.

"I feel my life is full enough without children. I don't feel the lack of them in my life and I would consider myself to be every bit as happy as my friends who have children, if not more."

John certainly seems more relaxed than any of the parents I spoke to. "Ten out of 10 most days," is how he rates his happiness, and he observes that many of his peers "don't seem to enjoy parenting much. It all looks like graft to me".

Perhaps graft is one of the reasons why, according to American psychologists W Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, today's parents don't appear to enjoy rearing their children as much as former generations.

Pre-industrialisation, people had children because, well, they just had them. Kids were regarded, among other things, as economic assets and expected to help out in the family business. However, modernity, with its technological and moral revolutions, changed all this. Children needed an education to succeed, and they became expensive. They were increasingly regarded as 'projects to be perfected'. As aspirations for children rose, the donkey work also increased.

Have these shifts in attitudes to childhood made modern-day parenting simply too exhausting to be fun? Nina (76), a mother of six and grandmother to 19, believes, to some extent, it has.

"In my day, we just had children without thinking about it too much. Parents definitely have higher expectations of parenting and children now."

She calls today's parenting style "professional parenting" and says: "My generation had a more relaxed approach to parenting, I think. We didn't look at children in the same way that some parents do today -- as assignments that need to be refined ... we didn't run ourselves ragged with after-school activities, etc, or worry to quite the same degree. But we had children younger, often leaving straight from our parents' house to marry and start a family."

She says today's parents suffer from the "icing on the cake" delusion. She explains: "People now have exciting lives before they have children, full of career highs, travel, time to indulge themselves however they want. Delayed parenting gives time for expectations to rise. When couples get round to it, it can feel like a damp squib."

Nina maintains that "viewing children as the icing on the cake is the wrong way round; children are the cake and all the other stuff is the icing".

She considers her Italian lessons, time spent with friends, etc, as the icing. "These are uncomplicated sources of fun and happiness for me because my emotional investment is at a comfortable level. The happiness I derive from my children is different."

That happiness, she explains, is always at some level tinged with concern or worry.

She has hit upon it here -- the gap between loving one's children and loving parenting. She's also hit upon the difference between straight-forward fun and the happiness one derives from having children, which she describes as providing "a unique core fulfilment, meaning and purpose".

When I lifted my son from his incubator, at the time I'd have had trouble describing the complexity of what I felt. The simplest thing I can say is that I fell in love with my son then and I still love him now, but while the love for my children has been an unwavering constant, happiness hasn't (is it ever?).

But, the heart bruises and fried nerves are entirely worth it.

Weekend Magazine