Psychologically, having children can make you feel older because you are shoved off your place as a member of the youngest generation. Suddenly you are a mum or dad, and some people claim within a few months of a birth you also look like one. “You can spot them,” said Darren, a teenager. “There’s something about the women in particular that tells you they’re somebody’s mum.”
What is it then?
There is of course plenty of medical evidence that having children actually lengthens your life – particularly if you are a woman. Childlessness in women is associated with a greater risk of ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are protective.
However, the strain on the body of a pregnancy, not to mention what comes afterwards, causes many people to believe the stress of children ages them by decades. Dealing with tantrums and – even worse – the disapproving grimaces of onlookers is right up there on the list of life’s most stressful moments. “I was on a plane with my two toddlers,” says Marion, “and they were misbehaving like only toddlers can when confined to a small space for several hours. There was a woman in front of me who flicked calmly through a magazine throughout the flight, but at the end she approached me by poking me in the back and shouted, ‘You’re supposed to be controlling them not the other way round!’ ”
Parents get used to carrying weights which childless people only experience at the gym, but these weights can cause damage since they often kick, scream and writhe while we carry them. Carrying a toddler on the hip puts the spine into an S-shape, leaving mothers vulnerable to scoliosis and arthritis. Lack of sleep and living constantly on adrenaline when on a busy road with young children takes its toll. Add to that the worry of school performance, the nagging to buy the latest gadget or brand name and the rebellion of teenage years and it is little wonder some biologists say having children can lead to an earlier death. Professor Thomas Kirkwood, a biological gerontologist at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, UK, has come up with the ‘disposable soma theory’. If a body invests in reproduction, resources are diverted away from repairing the continual damage caused by the ageing process. Experiments on fruit flies have demonstrated that individuals who are genetically programmed to live longer are less fertile.
After childbirth women feel frumpier for a reason. Muscles are laxer, bladder control is compromised causing temporary or sometimes permanent incontinence (on coughing or sneezing) and fat accumulated around the abdomen for breast milk production is fiendishly difficult to shift. It is difficult to feel sophisticated when your breasts are leaking all over your blouse or – later on – when you are racing back from work to pick up the kids or trying to hold down a job while cooking, shopping and helping with university applications.
However, a Danish study has recently suggested that it is the childless who are more likely to die early. “Childless couples are at increased risk of dying early of all causes,” says researcher Esben Agerbo PhD, associate professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. Both women and men benefited from having children and this study has been confirmed elsewhere. Michael Eisenberg MD, director of male reproductive medicine at Stanford University, found that childless married men had a higher risk of dying of heart disease. Among women who remain childless, the death rate from heart disease, cancer and accidents was four times as high.
The interesting thing is that adoption also has the same positive effect. Theories as to why having children lengthens life hinge on the lifestyle choices of parents. They may have less late nights (as they have to get up to serve breakfast and drive to school), choose better food options and exhibit less risky behaviour overall (no time, probably, for that kind of ‘fun’). It could also be that undesired childlessness causes a fatalistic attitude, and depression. There may be less of a will to fight to survive. Focusing on the need to stay around for the children’s sake probably has a major effect on health, say psychologists, confirming the mind-body link.
So, next time they’re driving us mad and we swear they’ll be the death of us, let us remember….the reverse could be true.