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Does Being a Parent Really Make You Happier?

What the studies actually reveal about moms and, especially, dads.

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Research published in January 2013 issue of Psychological Science appeared to demonstrate for the first time in a long time that parenting really is associated with more happiness and meaning in life. The researchers conducted two studies that explored whether parents were happier than childless peers. One aimed at determining whether parents were more satisfied during daily activities than non-parents. The second looked at whether parents experience more positive feelings while taking care of their children than during their other daily activities.

The researchers reported that parents are happier when taking care of their children than while doing other daily activities—and that fathers in particular expressed greater levels of happiness, positive emotion and meaning in life than their childless peers, and that older and married parents tend to be significantly happier than their age-matched non-parent peers.

The authors admit that it remains an open question whether the pleasures of parenthood might be offset by the surge in responsibility and housework that accompanies the role—and they are right about that.

When we look closer at the study methodology, it becomes clear that it doesn’t really show that parents in general are happier than non-parents.

One of the study's main findings was that men gain in happiness from being parents.
No big surprise there: Societal expectations for mothers and fathers remain rooted firmly in the traditional. Accordingly, the majority of fathers don’t partake in the tasks associated with parenting to nearly the same extent as mothers. It’s still often considered "the mother’s job" to ensure that the children thrive, get fed, arrive at activities on time, and get to their annual checkups.

No wonder fathers find parenting awesome; a lot of things seem awesome when you don’t need to do the work, like owning a house if you have staff doing the yard work, cleaning and maintenance. Being the president of an association is awesome, too, if all you have to do to maintain the fancy title in your email signature is to deliver an address at an annual meeting, while vice-chairs and secretaries put together the program, find a space and direct the caterers.

Another study of how much life satisfaction parenting adds to people’s lives, conducted from 1994 to 2010 by German sociologist Matthias Pollmann-Schult, reported similar results. On the basis of the findings, published in the April 2014 Issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Pollmann-Schult argued that “parenthood by itself has a substantial and enduring positive effect on life satisfaction.”

This conclusion, however, cannot be taken at face value.

The reported data revealed that non-single parents and non-parents reported similar levels of life satisfaction throughout the observation period, whereas single parents reported less life satisfaction than non-parents. The conclusion of the study, then, is based on a fairly common way of controlling for various factors before reporting the results of data collection. Specifically, Pollmann-Schult controlled for the cost and time it takes to rear a child. Basically, the conclusion amounts to this: If it didn’t cost anything and take any extra time to raise children, then raising children would add significantly to people’s life satisfaction.

It is not clear, however, that controlling for these factors gives us any insight into the life satisfaction of parents. If being a parent didn’t cost anything and wasn’t accompanied by significant chores, then it is not clear that we are talking about parenting as opposed to simply being a parent.

Consider the teen sitcom Jessie, about a small-town Texas girl who becomes a nanny to a high-profile, high-powered Manhattan couple's four multi-cultural children. The mother, a business magnate, and the father, a movie director, are both on the road during almost every episode. Clearly, if you have enough money to hire a 24/7 caretaker like Jessie, being the parent of four children may add significantly to your life-satisfaction.

But in such extreme cases we are not really evaluating parenting but rather the role of being a parent. The reality is that for almost everyone else, parenting costs a lot of money and involves a considerable number of unpleasant chores. If you control for the cost and time it takes to rear a child, the results you end up with do not reflect the life satisfaction of parenting but rather the life satisfaction of parents who have other people caring for their children. So the conclusion here too is that the additional burden that comes with parenting a child takes away from the positive experience of parenting.

This suggests that parents with young children and parents who are the primary caregivers should score significantly lower on life-satisfaction measures—and that is indeed the case.

Young parents and people with young children are particularly unhappy, whereas fathers and parents whose children have left home score fairly high on life satisfaction measures. This indicates that it’s primarily the extra chores and additional financial stress that come with being a parent that makes the lives of parents less satisfying than the lives of their childless peers.

Berit Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love

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