Many years ago when I was conducting research on memories I asked participants to write about any event from their lifetime. When I reviewed their responses I was struck by how many people had chosen to write about the birth of a child.
Years later when our first child was born I understood: There is nothing quite so memorable and life changing as the arrival of a new person. The stress and joy of labor and delivery give way to the blur of the first few surreal days, as parents and baby work together to figure it out.
And at some point for countless parents, happiness takes a hit. The consensus for many years was that becoming parents was a net loss for happiness, whereas more recent studies have suggested that the effects of parenthood are mixed. Although becoming a parent can detract from some parts of life, it obviously can improve others.
Ask parents what's hard about parenting and you'll hear similar themes, as summarized in a recent meta-analysis:
In short, being a parent is a taxing and unrelenting job with physical, emotional, and financial costs. Of course, these difficulties always come with disclaimers that "I wouldn't trade it for anything," "it's totally worth it," etc., suggesting some guilt about possibly preferring parts of our pre-parenthood lifestyle.
So when and why does being a parent decrease our happiness? Findings that emerge from research studies confirm my clinical observations and my own experience as a dad: Parenting decreases well-being to the extent that it interferes with our fundamental psychological needs. These needs, based on years of research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, are:
When we are able to satisfy these three needs, we tend to be happier, healthier, and more productive. How does parenthood affect our ability to satisfy these basic needs?
Parenthood has complex effects on our relationships. The new relationship between parent and child can provide a deep connection that's unlike any other, for the rest of a parent's life. Having children can also lead to new friendships, as we develop relationships with the parents of our kids' friends.
Balancing these positive effects of parenthood is the challenge of maintaining one's prior relationships—first and foremost with one's partner. The time and energy that were directed toward one another are now channeled into childcare, often with little left over for each other. Throw in poor sleep and financial strain and it's easy for a couple to start experiencing not only less closeness but more irritability and conflict.
It can also be a struggle to keep up with other friendships. Friends without kids may have a hard time understanding why you've disappeared, or may tire of hearing about our child's latest achievement ("She rolled over!"). Our sleep schedules also tend to change drastically with the arrival of a child, since they're generally early risers with early bedtimes. When your friends without kids are gearing up for dinner, you may be yawning and longing for bed.
We all like to feel like we're good at what we do, and parenthood can provide many opportunities to practice the new skills needed to keep a little person alive. We might feel a sense of accomplishment after the first few days with our first child as we realize, "I can do this."
As our child develops we'll have more opportunities to exert our competence: Helping children manage their emotions, navigating the complex world of elementary school relationships, dealing with sleep issues, and developing kid-friendly meal plans, to name just a few.
At the same time, we might experience a drop in our sense of competence in other ways. We'll have times when we can't figure out why a child is crying inconsolably, or how a child could possibly still be awake. We'll realize in hindsight—or even in real time—that we haven't handled a conflict with our child in the most productive way. We'll lose patience. We'll doubt our instincts about our child's health.
If these inherent challenges weren't enough, we'll receive direct or implied criticism about our parenting style from our own parents, our friends, and the popular media. When it comes to raising kids, everyone has an opinion about what's best. It can be easy at times for parents to feel like maybe they aren't cut out for parenting.
Of the three basic psychological needs, autonomy is arguably affected the most. Any relationship restricts our choices in some way—for example, having a partner typically means we can't date other people, or always pick the shows we want to watch—and the loss of autonomy that comes with a child is profound.
Consider a simple trip to the convenience store to get some milk. Before kids, we could grab a jacket, jump in the car, listen to the radio on the way there, and be in and out in 5 minutes. When a young child is involved there could be a struggle to find the child's shoes and jacket, not to mention the emotional drain of trying to get them on an uncooperative kid. Then once you manage to get out the door—which can be its own private hell at times—there's the car seat, another potential battle.
Finally, you're both in your seats, exhausted and unhappy but ready to drive. (By this time the childless version of you is already back with the milk.) You turn on the radio and hear an intriguing snippet on the news, and then your child says she wants to listen to her music CD. You don't have the heart for another battle so you put her music on, reminding yourself to look up the news story later on, which you'll forget to do.
At the store, there's the inevitable 60 seconds that feel like forever as you wait for your child to get out of the car, which she insists on doing herself. Inside the store you grab the milk and hurry to the checkout because you've got to get home to get dinner started, and you realize you're on borrowed time as it's been a while since her snack, making a toddler meltdown nearly inevitable. Getting back into the car is a repeat of earlier, and once you're home and desperately needing to use the bathroom, your child is taking an unbelievably long time to get out of her carseat. Finally, when you feel like you're about to wet your pants, you scoop her up and carry her inside, as she screams and flails in your arms.
When we have children our actions are no longer autonomous, as every decision and every activity is affected by them. Simple daily activities like eating, sleeping, exercising, and showering are not entirely in our hands anymore, and big decisions like where we live and what we do for a career may be changed by having kids. Weekends and vacations that used to be for unwinding and recharging become family adventures that can make work seem like a nice break.
A highly-publicized research study from 2013 declared that "children are associated with more joy than misery." However, the fine print of the article noted that "parenthood was associated with increased satisfaction and happiness only among fathers" (emphasis added).
This pattern is a common one in research on parenting, with mothers in heterosexual couples more likely to experience negative effects of parenting—and less likely to experience positive effects—than fathers. A recent review in this area included studies showing that, compared to fathers, mothers tend to experience:
These findings are in line with a groundbreaking book called The Transition to Parenthood by Jay Belsky and John Kelly, which followed couples from pre-children to 3 years post-baby. They noted that there are in fact two transitions to parenthood for most couples: His and hers. As Belsky and Kelly described, the majority of men fairly quickly reclaim many parts of their pre-child life: They return to work as before, their sleep improves, they make time for pastimes and friends, they exercise, and so forth. In contrast, mothers' lives on average change a lot more, with a more fundamental realignment of their time and energy toward caring for the child. Accordingly, fathers are more likely to be getting their psychological needs met, whereas mothers more often sacrifice their needs for those of the child. (Obviously, there are exceptions to these general trends.)
Much of the conflict that follows the arrival of a child comes from these different experiences, and disagreement about where each parent focuses his or her time and energy. Moms tend to see their partners as too self-focused, whereas dads often see their partners as too child-focused.
It's not hard to understand the greater toll parenthood can take on mothers' needs. A mother who's working a longer "second shift" (or third) at home will have less time to devote to other relationships. Stay-at-home mothers might miss the satisfaction of exercising their competence at work, and discount their current occupation as being "just a mom" (even while recognizing there's no harder or more important job). Mothers who work outside the home can feel like they're letting people down on two fronts, as their bosses and their families pressure them for more time. They're also more likely to have to call out from work to care for a sick child, leading to greater role conflict.
Part of the value of Ryan and Deci's research on fundamental human needs is that by understanding what our needs are, we have a better chance of satisfying them. If you've found that your sense of relatedness, competence, or autonomy have suffered after having kids, consider trying one of these evidence-based strategies to better meet your needs:
For parents who are intimately involved in their children's lives, parenting will never be an easy or sacrifice-free endeavor—nor should it be. Continuing the chain of life is no small thing. And when we're willing to consider our own needs alongside those of our children, everyone will benefit: our partners, ourselves, and even our kids.
Belsky, J., & Kelly, J. (1995). The transition to parenthood: How a first child changes a marriage. New York: Dell Books.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268
McLanahan, S., & Adams, J. (1987). Parenthood and psychological well-being. Annual Review of Sociology, 13, 237-257.
Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., English, T., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 24, 3-10.
Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846-895.
Waters, L. & Sun, J. (2017). Can a brief strength-based parenting intervention boost self-efficacy and positive emotions in parents? International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. doi:10.1007/s41042-017-0007-x