Everyone who has children, works with children, or researches family life knows that parenting is hard work. Yet despite the challenge raising children presents, society sends clear messages that having children should make parents happy. From the time of conception, a baby is supposed to bring joy into parent's lives. After birth, the expectations continue about how we should feel about being a parent. We're supposed to be enthralled by the role, devoted to it, and happy about it. Parenting magazines and websites provide us with countless images of doting and attentive parents engaged in wholesome activities with their children, and, of course, they are loving it.
Parenting research, however, tells a different story. Decades of research provides compelling data indicating that being a mum or dad is not just hard work, but it actually diminishes happiness rather than boosting it. (It's important to note that in most studies, happiness is measured by how we feel about our life, and how much positive emotion we are experiencing).
When we measure the positive feelings we experience as a parent, they are clearly reduced, on average, when the kids are around. Sure, there are some tremendous high points, but they are rare in comparison to the mundane moments that make up the majority of our day.
One reason for this is that much of the work of a parent is physically tiring, emotionally taxing, banal in its repetition, and unappealing in its content. We wake up in the middle of the night to screaming infants, we endlessly cook, clean, and wash, and we fight through power struggles with teenagers seeking greater freedom. Parents have plenty of reasons to find this labor of love a chore. And research indicates that, on the whole, that's precisely how we see it—at least most of the time. In an oft-cited time-sampling study by Kahnemann, et al., a sample of mums indicated they experienced more positive affect doing just about anything—including housework—when compared to working with the children.
But it seems that not all parents find misery and suffering in their role as providers, nurturers, and caregivers. Childrearing is clearly not all fun and games, but some parents derive higher levels of happiness, meaning, and satisfaction than others.
What is it about these parents that is different to the rest?
When I started my Ph.D., I was interested in how parents perceived the role of parent. I hypothesised that, in spite of the research that said otherwise, with the "right" orientation to parenting, it could be a joy. Instead of happiness draining out of us when our children arrived, happiness could be enhanced by being involved with our kids. But there was no such thing in the parenting literature about a "parenting orientation." There was, however, some influential research conducted by Amy Wrzesniewski about a "work orientation."
In the 1980's and 1990's, several influential researchers, namely Bellah and Wrzesniewski, developed a model of work orientation. They argued that we might see our work as a job, a career, or a calling.
A job orientation meant the person did what had to be done to get the paycheck at the end of the week. A job was an unsatisfying necessity.
A career orientation described the race to the top. A career was about status, achievement, recognition, and looking good. The chosen field was less important than the accolades and ladder-climbing that it provided.
A calling orientation described work that led to fulfillment and autonomous motivation, a sense of meaning, and a belief that what was being done made a meaningful contribution to something much greater than self. A person might feel called to any work role. It need not be glamorous, highly paid, or specifically green or based on a global humanitarian effort. A calling, like a job or career, is a reflection of personal orientation, behavior, and cognition, rather than any specific attributes of the role.
The research showed, quite clearly, that for those who saw their work as a calling, life was good. They had high levels of life satisfaction and work satisfaction compared with the other groups. They were also less likely to be absent from work. On a range of other measures, the calling-oriented group were also better off, including income.
Borrowing from this three-dimensional model of work orientation, I decided to see whether there might be such a thing as a calling-oriented parent. What would a calling-oriented parent think or do differently, and would those cognitions or behaviors translate into measurable wellbeing differences, including momentary happiness and life satisfaction?
The Calling-Oriented Parent
It turns out that, yes, parents can feel like their role is a calling. Consistent with previous research on callings in careers and historical religious literature, some parents feel as though their role as parent really is a calling. They see it as their life purpose, a meaningful and worthwhile sacrifice, and as one of the key reasons they are on the earth. They think about it, engage in it, and devote themselves to it. They feel it is a sacred trust.
Something interesting happens to parents who feel "called" to raise their children. The higher their sense of calling, the more importance they place on the actual role of parent. And just like those with a calling orientation at work, a higher sense of calling is related to higher personal life satisfaction and work (parenting) satisfaction. The burden of parenting is lower. Such parents experience greater positive affect and lower levels of negative affect. Importantly, they're not just happier, they also experience significantly greater levels of meaning in their life than those who are less inclined to see their role as a calling.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this research is related to a small subset of early adolescents who also completed a range of measures about their own happiness. The data showed that as parent's sense of calling increased, their young teenagers experienced greater positive affect and life satisfaction too. They also experienced a significant increase in what Todd Kashdan and Jeffrey Froh call "Engaged Living in Youth." That is, there was a significant positive relationship between parental sense of calling and teens being socially integrated and absorbed in the tasks of adolescence.
How to Increase Calling in Parents
So what strategies are there for parents who would like to do better with their parenting, but don't see it as a calling? Research is still in its infancy in this area, but there are some ideas that have worked in other domains that may be useful for parents as well.
1. Focus on the cognitive approach you have to parenting. Can you swing your mindset from seeing interaction with children as a chore and challenge to a choice experience? Consider the bigger picture rather than this specific moment. Your teenager may be yelling at you. Your toddler may not be sleeping. Your approach in that moment has much larger repercussions than what happens here and now. Your careful decision to nurture and guide, rather than to criticize, judge, and by impatient, has potentially lifelong ramifications for your child. A big-picture approach can help you make better choices—and ultimately feel better about your parenting, your children, and your life.
2. Focus on your behavioral approach. What tasks are you doing, and when are you doing them? Is there a way that you can focus on "parenting" tasks when you are with your children, and focus on "personal" tasks when the children are occupied? Often we try to make phone calls, use the Internet, and do our work while our children need us. By bringing the personal and parenting into the same situation, we can find ourselves resenting our children because of the inconvenience "they" create. By shifting our tasks around to be more present and available for parenting, we can actually engage in it more meaningfully.
3. Consider the social aspects of what you are doing and look for ways to build more positive social experiences. Spend time with parents who do things well and watch them. Learn from them. Look for opportunities to socialize with your children. Build your social resources relevant to this role.
Research in work domains has shown these ideas can promote a sense of calling, and leads to the associated positive outcomes. By changing the way we think about parenting (big picture, life purpose), altering our behaviors and the way we do things, and creating a social life that interacts with our parenting, I suspect we can increase the sense of meaning, contribution, passion, and awareness we feel towards parenting,
Does parenting make us happy or unhappy?
It depends on a couple of factors: how we're measuring happiness, and how we're "approaching," or oriented to, parenting.
Children require us to put off our natural self-serving tendencies, to sacrifice ourselves for something greater (them), and to engage with them. Effective parenting requires us to control ourselves for their benefit. In a lot of cases, this means we feel less satisfied with our lives. We experience less positive affect. We experience more negative affect. We see our friends less. We chase our ambition less. And we feel more guilt when we do something for us. The reason most studies show parenting reduces happiness is because most studies measure happiness through subjective wellbeing, or the extent to which our life satisfaction is high and positive affect is high. Making these sacrifices will reduce happiness when that's how we measure it.
But paradoxically, our willingness to subsume our "happiness" for this "greater cause" promotes greater meaningfulness, more tender moments, and an increased sense of purpose and contribution. Over time, these things can increase our happiness, even if being happy takes a hit early on.
The second point is important at a personal level. My research suggests that parenting can make you as happy, or unhappy, as you want it to. To some extent, it seems to come down to how you see the role, and how you make it fit into your life. If you hold parenting up as something you value at a deep level and you act accordingly by engaging with your children, being available to them, and working with them, you'll more than likely find far more happiness in it. The more attentive you are to the role, and the more you are able to immerse yourself in it with a long-term view of the good you are doing as a parent, the more likely it is that you will find happiness and satisfaction in it, as well as meaning.
A calling orientation leads you to see it as important. You'll feel good for it. And your children will benefit by it.
Dr. Justin Coulson is a parenting, relationships, and happiness expert. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong, where he lectures in the psychology of wellbeing. He has had his research published in academic journals and peer-reviewed books and appears regularly as a parenting expert in the media. Justin and his wife Kylie are the parents of five children. His new book, What Your Child Needs From You, is due out mid-2012 from ACER press. Dr. Coulson can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org