Becoming a parent may be a mixed blessing. Clearly, having a child is costly in terms of time and money. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently examined the financial cost of raising a child from birth to young adulthood. It estimated that families with lower incomes shell out $175,000 on child-rearing costs, and families with higher incomes spend about $372,000 per child. However, many people point to the emotional benefits of raising a child, which are less tangible.
To examine the consequences of raising a child, research has investigated the link between having children and parental happiness. Initial work suggested that child-rearing exacts a toll on parental happiness; spouses who raise children appear less happy than childless spouses. Overall, these studies reported that parents experience greater anxiety, depression, and marriage dissatisfaction than spouses without children. In fact, one study ranked the enjoyment of daily activities and found that child care was only slightly more enjoyable than housework or commuting to work (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2004).
However, studies that reported a happiness deficit for parents often painted the entire population of parents with a single broad brush. For example, early studies didn’t consider differences between nations. To address this, Glass, Simon, and Andersson (2016) compared the happiness levels of couples with and without children from 22 countries. They found that although the happiness deficit existed for parents from some nations, parents from other nations experienced a happiness surplus. For example, compared with childless couples, parents from Norway and Hungary tend to be happier. However, parents from Australia and Great Britain were less happy than their childless counterparts. The country with the largest happiness deficit related to having children was the United States.
What explains the large differences in the happiness of parents across nations? The differences seem to come down to whether the nation has social policies that help parents face the challenges of balancing paid work with the responsibilities of raising their children. Countries such as Norway, where parents are happier than nonparents, tend to have family-friendly policies, including paid parental leave, affordable and subsidized child care, more government-protected paid vacation and sick days, and greater work schedule flexibility. These social policies were important to the happiness of both mothers and fathers. In fact, both parents and nonparents were happier in countries with these social policies in place. Government and corporate policies that support children’s well-being seem to benefit society as a whole; for example, these policies are linked to lower crime rates and increased productivity.
So do children contribute to our happiness? A recent study examined the link between having children and happiness from two surveys completed by almost 120,000 total people (Herbst & Ifcher, 2016). They identified two trends. First, compared with nonparents, parents are becoming happier. Second, nonparents are increasingly reporting lower levels of happiness.
Some studies are now beginning to show that having children may actually produce a happiness surplus. However, I wonder if happiness is the best outcome measure. Perhaps research should also examine the relationship between having children and meaning in life.
Glass, J., Simon, R. W. & Andersson, M. A. (2016). Parenthood and happiness: Effects of work-family reconciliation policies in 22 OECD countries, American Journal of Sociology, 122 (3), 886-929
Herbst, C. M. & Ifcher, J. (2016). The Increasing Happiness of U.S. Parents. Review of Economics of the Household, 14(3), 529-551.