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The Price of Parenthood: Part 2

Are parents happier than non-parents? The answer is complicated.

On New Year’s Day I became a parent, sparking my curiosity about the research on parenting and well-being and inspiring a four-part series on parenthood and happiness. This is the second post. Check out the first post here.

Are parents happier than non-parents? Researchers have generally set about trying to answer this deceptively simple question in three ways:

Are people with children happier than those without children?

This is the most common approach to research on parenthood and well-being. In these studies, researchers typically tackle large datasets with thousands of adults, comparing the well-being of people with children to people without children. Although the approach is straightforward, the results are mixed with some studies finding parents are happier than non-parents and other studies find the reverse.

How can these studies with such a basic design find opposite results?

One large problem with this approach is that little work is done to find out who exactly is making up these groups of parents and non-parents. Focusing on the non-parents, only 15% of adults do not have children, making them a small comparison group. More importantly, their reasons for doing so may differ greatly. Young adults may not have children when they take part in the research, but plan to have children later. Older adults may not have children because they were not able to do so, or they may have consciously made the choice to not have children. Imagine comparing a married 48-year old with three children to a married 48 year-old with no children who spent years and hard earned dollars fighting infertility and wishing to be a parent? Who do you think is happier? Now imagine that the non-parent comparison is a 48 year-old who loves to travel, lives all over the globe and chose not to have children because they wouldn’t fit a globetrotting lifestyle. Who do you think is happier? In one study, mothers were no happier than women who chose not to have children, but were significantly happier than infertile women (Callan, 1987). Choice plays an important role on the other side of the table as well—some people become parents by choice while others find themselves in the unexpected position of being a parent when they hadn’t intended it. How might choice affect happiness among these different groups?

Are people happier after they have children than they were before they were parents?

A second way to test whether parenthood brings with it more joy or misery is to compare the happiness levels of people before and after they have children. People typically experience boosts in happiness after becoming parents, but this extra happiness tends to dissipates within a couple of years (Luhmann, Hofmann, Eid, & Lucas, 2012).

This research design gets around some of the issues of comparison groups because the researchers are comparing people to themselves (pre- and post-parenthood). However, there are other issues with this approach. One problem is that these studies only follow people during the transition to parenthood, so there is little research on whether people are happier being parents 10 or 20 years down the road than they were pre-parenthood. Perhaps happiness rises following childbirth and dissipates during the trying days of toddlerhood, but what about when children are teenagers or adults? A second issue is the timing of measuring “pre-parenthood.” On average, couples have been together for about three years when they have their first child, which may mean they are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship (people tend to experience boosts in happiness one year prior to marriage and two years post-marriage; Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2003). If this is the case, then their “pre-parenthood” happiness levels may be higher due to the headiness of new love. So is the dissipation of happiness a few years down the road due to having tiresome children or is it just the result of settling into a relationship that is no longer as new and exciting?

Are parents happier when they spend time with their children than when they spend time without their children?

The third approach that researchers have taken when trying to discover whether parents are happier than non-parents is to compare happiness levels when parents engage in activities with their children versus when they engage in non-parenting activities. Some research suggests that taking care of children is about as enjoyable as housework or surfing the internet, but less enjoyable than shopping or watching TV (e.g., Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2004). However, taking care of children tends to elicit more happiness in a day when compared to all other non-child related activities (Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn, & Lyubomirsky, 2013).

So can we conclude that having children is about as good as doing housework? Probably not. These studies tend to lump all aspects of caring for children together, and disciplining your child is likely to bring much less happiness in the moment than playing with your child. Also, these studies only focus on levels of happiness while with your child. What happiness does parenting bring during the other times of your day? Maybe tending to your child is exasperating in the moment, but thinking about the cute thing your child did the other day could bring a moment of joy and gratitude while at work. To me, this approach is the least well-equipped to answer the question of whether parents are happier than non-parents since even when people are away from their children shopping or surfing the internet, their parent-status is still a defining part of who they are.

So can we conclude anything about whether parenting helps or hinders well-being?  The answer is, it’s complicated. Parenting seems to bring with it moments of great positive emotion and a temporary boost in happiness after the birth of a child, but parents may be no less happy than people who chose not to have children, and the day-to-day realities of child care may be no more pleasant than cleaning one’s house.

But these answers don’t seem to jive with the anecdotes most parents tell me, that although parenting is difficult, it is the most rewarding and important part of their lives. Every parent I know emphatically states that their children bring them more joy than they could have known.

It seems, then, that parenting cannot be simply summed up as “pleasurable” or “painful” instead it is a bittersweet mix of both. So when, as I look forward to a lifetime of parenting, can I expect to feel more pleasure, and when should I be bracing myself for pain? These are the questions I will tackle in my next post.

--Although not related to parenting exactly, I want to take a moment to make a little PSA in regards to consuming research: these studies are great examples of the difficulty of designing good research and the importance of examining the literature as a whole. If we drew conclusions from just one study that we read, we might decide that parenthood is (or is not) related to greater well-being, when clearly the answer is more complicated. This is why it is crucial for us to use different methods to tackle the same question and rely on replication to highlight the truth. 

Want to find out more about what inspired this series of posts? Check out my first post describing my own experiences with becoming a parent.

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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