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Does Having Kids Really Make People Miserable?

What the evidence actually tells us.

Key points

  • A popular article has been circulating suggesting that having children is linked to a lower quality of life.
  • Most studies comparing parents and people without children find negligible differences between the two groups (parents and non-parents).
  • Most parents feel happier when they are spending time with their children compared to their other daily activities.
Emma Bauso/Pexels
Source: Emma Bauso/Pexels

A popular article has been circulating suggesting that having children is linked to a lower quality of life. I have been researching parenting and happiness for nearly a decade, and every few years, we seem to return to this question:

Does having children make people miserable?

Before you put your children up for adoption in pursuit of a happier life, here are some things to think about.

In supporting the claim that having children is detrimental to happiness, people commonly reference a classic study about the daily lives of working women (Kahneman et al., 2004). In this study, 900 working women in Texas recounted an entire day from start to finish, including a description of everything they did that day and a report of how they felt for each “episode.” Then, the researchers ranked the activities from those associated with the highest happiness levels (having sex) to the lowest (commuting). Looking at this list, many people concluded that “having children makes people miserable” because taking care of children ranked 12th out of 16 possible activities on this list.

If we stopped with this study, then the evidence would seem pretty damning for parents, but here are a few things to consider.

1. This study was not designed to evaluate the happiness of parents.

Kahneman’s research has gained a lot of attention for suggesting that parents are miserable; however, this study was not designed to address this research question. Instead, the purpose of this paper is to introduce a new methodology for studying daily life: the Day Reconstruction Method. Essentially, this is a wonderful tool that researchers can use to understand what people are doing and how they are feeling in their daily lives. The ranked list of activities and their corresponding happiness levels are meant to be descriptive and illustrative, as if to indicate to researchers—“look, this is the type of information you could access if you used this method in your own studies!”

Since the original publication, thousands of studies have used this method to answer questions about happiness, emotion, health, parenting, income, meaning in life, and other topics. (According to Google Scholar, this paper has been cited more than 3,000 times.)

If the study were designed to address questions about parenting and happiness, greater attention might have been given to the sample and frequency/comparison of activities, among other methodological issues. For example, this sample included both parents and people without children, and the emotion rankings are collapsed across both groups. Thus, the emotion ratings don’t distinguish parents from nonparents. This approach is not a problem for the original purpose of this study, but it does present challenges when trying to make claims about parents’ happiness. What does it mean to compare how parents feel when taking care of their children with how non-parents feel when socializing with their friends?

In addition, some of the activities in this list are relatively infrequent, so comparing them to more common activities may not reflect people’s daily lived experiences. For example, only 11 percent of the sample reported having sex (the highest-ranked item) for an average of 12 minutes.

Let me be clear: I don’t think anyone is surprised that taking care of children is less enjoyable than having sex. Still, given the low frequency and short duration of time spent having sex vs. the many hours each day people spend caring for their children, that comparison may not reflect how people actually experience their daily lives. We also don’t know if any of the parents in the sample actually had sex on this particular day.

In addition, the rank-ordered list does not offer direct comparisons across activities. The average positive emotion score during childcare was 3.86, and the scores for the four activities above childcare in this list (napping, on the phone, preparing food, and shopping) are between 3.86 and 3.95. These differences are likely not statistically meaningful.

To get a clearer understanding of how parents feel when they are taking care of their children relative to the other activities they actually engaged in, my colleagues and I used the same methodology—the Day Reconstruction Method—and asked a sample of parents to recount a day, episode by episode, and report their positive emotions and feelings of meaning for each episode.

Next, we compared parents’ emotions when caring for their children relative to their reports of everything else they did that day. In those analyses, we found that parents reported greater positive emotions and feelings of meaning when taking care of their children relative to the other activities they engaged in on that day (Nelson et al., 2013).

Other studies have also reached similar conclusions—in general, parents tend to feel pretty happy when taking care of their kids compared to the other things they do (Kerr et al., 2019; Musick et al., 2019; Nelson-Coffey et al., 2017, 2019).

2. This study included only employed women, and not all of them were parents.

Another important consideration when concluding this study is that the sample included only employed women, and not all of them were parents. The experiences of mothers and fathers are remarkably different. Mothers are more likely to be responsible for invisible and emotional labor within families, and they tend to take on more responsibilities in caring for children (Musick et al., 2016; Yavorsky et al., 2015).

On the other hand, fathers’ time with children is much more likely to involve play and leisure (Musick et al., 2016; Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019). These differences have important implications for understanding the happiness levels of parents. Playing with children tends to be a lot more fun and enjoyable than changing their diapers, begging them to eat their dinner, or prodding them to clean their room.

In our initial research on parenting and happiness described above (Nelson et al., 2013), my colleagues and I also found that fathers were more likely to report elevated happiness compared to men without children, whereas mothers were not. In a more recent series of studies, we found a similar pattern (Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019), and other scholars have found similar results (e.g., Musick et al., 2016). Using an experience sampling approach in which participants received a smartphone notification several times a day for a few weeks that asked what they were doing, who they were with, and how they felt, we found that fathers reported greater happiness when they were taking care of their children compared to their other activities. Still, mothers reported lower happiness when taking care of their children (Nelson-Coffey et al., 2019).

These findings are consistent with the rank-ordered list from Kahneman’s study, showing that childcare was ranked near the bottom of the list of possible daily activities in a sample of working women. My concern is that Kahneman’s research is often used to support a claim that all parents are unhappy when it may be more appropriate to suggest that perhaps mothers are unhappy.

It’s also worth noting that Kahneman’s research included employed women. The challenges of motherhood are compounded for working mothers, who continue to bear the brunt of childrearing, while also facing pressures at work. For example, women are perceived as less competent in the workplace after having children, yet fathers are perceived as more competent (Cuddy & Fiske, 2004). In addition, working mothers face additional emotional challenges, such as work-family guilt (Borelli et al., 2017).

Ultimately, it’s really hard to make big claims that apply to all parents, like “having children makes people unhappy.” Most studies comparing parents and people without children find negligible differences between the two groups (e.g., Nelson et al., 2013). Instead, we ought to consider which parents are happy or unhappy, under what circumstances, and why is that the case (Nelson et al., 2014)? That information could then be used to develop policies and offer support to improve the lives of those families who need it.

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Borelli, J. L., Nelson, S. K., River, L. M., Birken, S. A., & Moss-Racusin, C. (2017). Gender differences in work-family guilt in parents of young children. Sex Roles, 76(5-6), 356-368.

Cuddy, A. J. C., & Fiske, S. T. (2004). When professionals become mothers, warmth doesn’t cut the ice. Journal of Social Issues, 60(4), 701-718.

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The Day Reconstruction Method. Science, 306(5702), 1776-1780. 15576620

Kerr, M. L., Buttitta, K. V., Smiley, P. A., Rasmussen, H. F., & Borelli, J. L. (2019). Mothers' real-time emotion as a function of attachment and proximity to their children. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(5), 575-585.

Musick, K., Meier, A., & Flood, S. (2016). How parents fare: Mothers’ and fathers’ subjective well-being in time with children American Sociological Review, 81(5), 1069-1095.

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(1), 3-10.

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenthood: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846-895.

Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Borelli, J. L., & River, L. M. (2017). Attachment avoidance, but not anxiety, minimizes the joys of caregiving. Attachment and Human Development, 19(5), 504-531.

Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Killingsworth, M., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2019). Parenthood is associated with greater well-being for fathers than mothers Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45.

Yavorsky, J. E., Kamp Dush, C. M., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. (2015). The Production of Inequality: The Gender Division of Labor Across the Transition to Parenthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(3), 662-679.

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