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Story highlights

Struggles in early parenthood can affect whether people have another child, study finds

The effect is strongest with highly educated parents

Editor’s Note: Daphne Sashin is a producer with the CNN social discovery team. Reach her on Twitter @dsashin or weigh in with CNN Parents on Facebook.

(CNN) —  

If they’re being honest, most mothers will tell you that no matter how badly you want a child, the transition to parenthood is hard. Really hard.

According to a recent study, the drop in happiness experienced by parents after the birth of first child was larger than the experience of unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.

The ickiness you feel in pregnancy as your body becomes alien to you. The childbirth, and the healing after. The breastfeeding struggles – oh, the struggles and the tears. The isolation of being home alone all day with a crying infant while your partner is at work.

At least, that’s what it was like for me, when my first child was born in 2011.

A new study suggests when people experience early parenthood – pregnancy, childbirth and the baby days – as particularly stressful, they are less likely to want to do it again.

The study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, found “the larger the loss in well-being, the smaller the probability of a second baby.” The effect is especially strong for highly-educated parents and those who waited longer to have a second child.

That might sound obvious, but it has policy implications for countries with low birth rates, the authors suggest.

The findings were recently published in the Journal Demography by Mikko Myrskyla, demographer and director at the Planck Institute, and Rachel Margolis from the sociology department at the University of Western Ontario. They looked at well-being data from 2,000 first-time parents starting two years before the birth of their first child until the year after the birth. They found 58% of the participants went on to have a second child over an average of nine years after the first one.

“The investigation deals with a taboo subject. It is rarely discussed that parents often experience a considerable loss of happiness after the birth of a first child,” the Institute said in a press release. “The new study shows that for mothers and fathers in Germany, the drop in life satisfaction during the year following the first birth is even larger than that caused by unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.”

That last line is making parents wince. Cheree Pollard Biggs wrote on the CNN Parents Facebook page, “I have suffered through a death of my partner and a divorce and I can tell you that both death and divorce are far more ‘unhappy’ than the joy I felt after the birth of each child. Yes, I was tired and overwhelmed, but I was happy. Birth is an addition, a renewed sense of hope, a reason to continue. Death and divorce are losses.”

But plenty of parents we surveyed agreed that the lows of parenthood can be pretty low – and it really does take a village to combat them.

Alexa Hart, a mother of a 15-month-old in the Bay Area, told me part of the trauma of new parenthood “rests in our cultural silence” about how challenging it is, financially, emotionally, and on a marriage.

“We accept that divorce and death are traumatic, and condolences are offered when those life events occur. But when you’re pregnant/expecting, everyone is ‘so happy’ for you. We expect some challenges, but we don’t discuss the deep frustration, total sleep deprivation and heartbreaking questioning of self that comes with new life,” she said.

Postpartum depression: One mom’s mission becomes a movement

The authors said they were not looking at what makes parents happy or unhappy – they were specifically looking at why, although most German couples say they would like to have two children, they end up stopping after one.

“On the whole,” Myrskyla said, “despite the unhappiness after the first birth of a baby, having up to two children rather increases overall happiness in life.”

In my case, it took a good two years before I could even consider going through pregnancy, childbirth and the baby days again. The second time around, I sought out help from lots of different people, and was determined to change the most unpleasant parts of the experience in whatever ways I could.

Robert Hughes Jr., professor of family studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ‏said if countries want more highly educated parents to have a second child, they must “really think about how you support these families.” The U.S. has the same pattern of older and well-educated parents not replacing themselves, he said.

“I think people are making really rational choices,” he said. “We’re going to have to reduce the burden of balancing work and family life, and most of that is probably going to be on the side of altering work schedules and providing new parents in particular with extra supports during that transitional period.”