The headline of a Washington Post article from Aug. 11 reads: "It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner."
It's a grabby headline, if ever there was one. The study in question, conducted by Rachel Margolis of the University of Western Ontario and Mikko Myrskylä of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, found that couples in Germany who have recently had a first child report overall life satisfaction declines that are, on average, substantially greater than those reported by people who have experienced the death of a loved one, divorce or unemployment.
The authors of the study were trying to understand why German couples have fewer kids (less than two on average) than they say they desire (at least two). They hypothesized, reasonably, that this would be explained by the finding that people think the experience of having a first kid so hard that they don't want to go through it again.
Their findings seem to bear this out. The decision not to have a second child correlates to the surprising difficulty of surviving the first.
Now, in one sense, there's nothing at all surprising about this. Having a kid is very hard.
Consider: There is a common condition afflicting human beings that leads, according to 2013 World Health Organization estimates, to more than 250,000 women dying each year. As recently as 1990, the death toll was in the vicinity of half a million. The affliction in question is no disease — it's called childbirth. Even in the so-called "developed world," 16 women die in childbirth for every 100,000 successful pregnancies. In other parts of the world, that ratio spikes to 230 in 100,000. By my math, that's about one death for every 430 deliveries or so.
So, it shouldn't surprise us that something so bound up with life and death is truly challenging. Add on all the other factors that previous studies have looked at in the experience of "first world" parents — that having a kid sometimes causes stress in relationships, isolation, sleeplessness, career setbacks, depression, etc. — and you have a recipe for something like trauma.
What's truly surprising to me in all this is not the finding itself, but the fact that it strikes us as surprising at all.
Why does it take having a kid to know how difficult it is or would be to have one? This, it seems to me, is the astonishing finding buried in this story's lead.
It's clear that this is the supposition. The study's reasoning, after all, is that parents don't have the second kid because they learn how difficult it is to have a kid only after their experience with the first one.
But why do we need this firsthand experience to learn this? After all, you would have thought that something so basic, something that so forcibly impresses itself on generation after generation of parents, would be a knowledge that gets passed on. What's to stop parents and aunts and uncles from communicating what they've learned to young couples? Why not share the benefit of their experience?
Well, one answer stares us in the face: If we all knew how (potentially) terrible it would be to have a kid, then maybe we wouldn't do it. That would be bad! Could it be that there's a kind of cultural or evolutionary conspiracy of silence? Don't tell them how bad it is! We don't want the species to die out!
Unlikely. Maybe the thing is that being a parent gets better so fast that we sort of forget how hard it was at first. The article itself is silent on this question. The data on satisfaction rates as time goes on are not in. In any event, it seems plausible that because families are smaller now, there will be fewer opportunities for young people to witness, firsthand, how hard that first kid is on those around them.
But there is another, more interesting possibility. Maybe there are some kinds of knowledge that you can't get secondhand. Neither watching what goes on with others, nor hearing their testimony, is enough to let us really understand what it will mean to have an utterly dependent and wildly energetic and demanding new member of the household. Maybe the problem, finally, is epistemic — that is to say, it's a knowledge problem. (This is an idea that has been explored in the work of UNC-Chapel Hill philosopher Laurie Paul.)
In any event, there would appear to be only two strategies open to low-fertility-rate countries that want to improve fertility rates. Either find ways to make it easier for people to live through parenting the first time — or find ways to compensate people better for what will come to seem to them as their loss.
In the absence of a compelling need to go for that second kid (today's economies don't work that way — we don't need help on the farm, and we're stuck caring for ourselves in old age anyway, in comparison to how it was before nursing homes, hospice, etc.) smart people just aren't going to put themselves through it.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe