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What Is the Price of Parenthood?

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

This is the first in a four-part series on parenthood and happiness.


On New Year's Day I celebrated not only the start of a new year but a new phase in my life. Just a few (long) hours after midnight I became a parent, and my life was irrevocably changed. On the journey to parenthood I knew one thing to be true—that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Would becoming a parent bring me joy, love, and gratitude greater than I had previously known? Would I find myself anxious, worried, depressed, and dreaming of my former life? Or, as I suspected, would I find myself experiencing intense moments of both?

In my short time as a parent I have experienced great joy, love and gratitude as well as intense worry, and sometimes even sadness. Happily, as I sit here typing up this post with my two and a half month old swaddled next to me on the couch, eyeing me trustingly as she falls in and out of sleep, I can say that the balance tends to weigh strongly on the side of joy. But in those moments where I don’t have the luxury to type up this post because I’m tending to a crying child, or changing a dirty diaper, I dream of the freedom of my former life and the balance is just a bit more evenly weighted.

And the one thing I know with certainty is that I still have no clue what exactly I’ve gotten myself into. While my days often stretch out in front of me with the sameness that comes from having an infant with simple needs, I also know that she is growing and changing at a rapid pace. Each week we are in uncharted territory as she learns to smile, sit, and eventually walk, talk and push back as she becomes her own independent person.

I know my experiences are shared by the 85% of adults (Child Trends, 2002) who become parents, and so I wonder, what are the vast majority of us getting into? Are we signing up for a life filled with more pain or pleasure than one that is child-free? Researchers have readily asked this question. Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one because the results have been muddled and contradictory. Sometimes parents are happier than non-parents, sometimes they are more miserable, and sometimes it seems that parenthood has little effect on people’s happiness.

How do we reconcile these conflicting findings? We start by moving beyond the basic question of whether parents are happier. We have to specify who the parents are and what we mean by happiness. Do we mean young or old parents? Parents of young or old children? Do we want to know if they are happier than they were before they became parents or if they are happier than people who are childless? Who are the people who are childless? Are they young and will have children later, or are they never going to have children? If they never have children, is it by choice? These are just a few of the critical questions we have to ask when trying to understand the link between parenthood and well-being. A 19-year-old single mother may be less happy than her childless peers, but a 50-year-old in a happy marriage may be happier than her childless peers, particularly if her peers regret not having children. And what is “happy”? A parent may experience more stress and worry, but also greater joy and meaning in life.

Happily, I am not the only one asking these questions, and so in a series of posts I will summarize a review of the literature that was just published on this topic (Nelson, Kushlev, & Lyubomirsky, 2014).

In my second post, I will look at the type of research being done on whether or not parents are happier than non-parents.

In my third post, I will lay out the reasons why parenting may bring pleasure or pain, such as the experience of greater positive emotions but also greater fatigue.

In my final post, I will consider various factors that may make parenting more pleasurable or painful, such as your age when you become a parent, your gender, and your education level.

Has parenting brought you more joy or pain? Did you think you knew what you were getting into? Was it anything like you expected?

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

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