Evolutionary psychologists tell us that wanting offspring is hardwired, but for most of us, the decision to have a child is intensely personal. Rather than considering our species’ survival, the decision often hinges on whether we think being a parent will make us happy--a consideration that has become all the more daunting in recent years thanks to several high-profile research studies that have suggested that parents are miserable and stretched to the limit.
Along with a team of social psychologists, Katie Nelson and I decided to take a closer look at the relationship between parenting and well-being. Contrary to recent media messages, the findings turned out to be rather mixed. Some studies using large-scale nationally representative datasets find that parents are happier and more satisfied than their childless peers, some studies find no difference, and some studies find the reverse. The more we scrutinized the literature, the more convinced we became that the question of whether parents are happier than nonparents is not a very meaningful one. Rather, it depends on the parent…and the child.
Our analysis revealed that certain types of parents (e.g., young parents and parents with small children) are particularly unhappy, while other types (e.g., fathers, married parents, and empty nesters) report especially high life satisfaction, happiness, or meaning. In other words, whether or not children go hand in hand with happiness depends on many factors, including our age, marital status, income and social support, as well as whether our children live with us and have difficult temperaments. Whether we ourselves were securely attached to our own parents is even a factor.
For example, in our own research with a large sample of U.S. adults, my team found that, compared to older parents, parents ages 17 to 25 were less satisfied with their lives than their peers without kids. However, all types of parents reported having more meaning in life than did their childless counterparts, suggesting that the rewards of parenting may be more ineffable than the daily highs (or lows).
Some might argue that parents are deluding themselves: Having sacrificed time, money, and selfhood to parenting, they persuade themselves that, of course, their children make them happy. To rule out this explanation, we decided to unobtrusively measure parents’ actual day-to-day experiences of parenting. Parents randomly beeped throughout the day reported more positive emotions than nonparents, and parents reported more positive emotions and meaning when they weretaking care of their children than when they were doing other activities, like working or eating.
My four children range from 10 months to 14 years, so I can attest firsthand to the veracity of the truism that kids are the fount of our greatest joy and the source of our greatest sorrow. Children give our lives purpose, infuse us with joy, fun, and pride, and enrich our identities. At the same time, they are also vectors for worry, anger, and disappointment; they deprive us of energy and sleep; and they strain our finances and our marriages. Not surprisingly, research suggests that the downsides of parenting are more evident when kids are very young or teenagers, and when we lack the resources (monetary, social, developmental) to manage them. Keep these findings in mind when deciding to have a child, and consider that 94% of parents say that it is still worth it, despite the costs.
A version of this post appeared in TIME Magazine online on August 1, 2013.