Parenting, no doubt, is a demanding job. While parenting can bring people great joy and meaning, it can also be incredibly stressful and frustrating. The debate over whether parents are more or less happy than non-parents doesn’t have a definitive answer. This is in part due to the fact that people who have children differ, on average, from those who do not have children in ways that are related to happiness, such as in their marital status, age, and income.
While people have debated whether parents are happier than non-parents, researchers suggest that the question of whether parents are more or less happy is not the most meaningful question. Rather, we should begin asking the questions of when, why, and how parenting may contribute to greater happiness or negativity. In a recent review linking parenting and well-being, researchers outlined a number of these differences, and identify a wide range of factors that affect the degree to which parenting affects happiness.1 Spoiler alert: It’s complicated.
First, the age of parents and their children play a role in how happy parents are. Parents who are older and who have older children tend to be happier given that they are relatively more mature and financially stable. Further, parents of older children feel more effective at parenting and may experience greater happiness if they have positive and supportive relationships with their older children.
Gender, marital status, and education level matter too. For instance, men tend to experience greater well-being from becoming parents. The picture is less clear for women; parenthood has been linked to greater happiness in some studies and to less happiness in other studies, likely because women tend to engage in child rearing tasks that center upon both routine and play, while men tend to spend a greater proportion of their caregiving time on play.2 In addition, married parents tend to have relatively greater happiness than their non-married counterparts given the increased social support available to married adults, lower financial strain, and greater help with chores and housework.
And lastly, parental education and socioeconomic status relate to happiness as well. Specifically, parents of higher education and socioeconomic status find less value and fulfillment in parenting relative to those who are lower in socioeconomic status and education, with research indicating that these parents may find parenting to conflict with other goals in their lives, such as their careers.
While we know that many demographic factors relate to parenting and happiness, it’s hard to tease apart what the driving forces are in shaping parental happiness given that many of these factors co-occur together. Building off of these past findings, the researchers propose a new model of parenting and happiness that helps us understand when, why, and how parenting influences happiness.
In this model (shown in the figure below), the authors posit that parents experience greater happiness for a number of reasons. First, being a parent can give parents a sense of purpose and meaning in life that they didn’t have before having children. Additionally, parenting can satisfy important human needs of feeling autonomous, connected, and competent. Having children can also promote the experience of many positive emotions, be it through laughing at something funny a child says or the joys of watching a child grow and mature. Lastly, parenting can contribute to greater happiness insofar as being a parent provides a unique social role that may provide parents with rewards in addition to, or that they may not have in, other relational and work roles.
While there are a number of ways that having children may bring parents joy, there are also conditions that may compromise their happiness. For instance, parents may experience lower levels of happiness to the extent that their children elicit negative emotions and stress in their daily lives—after all, children require a huge degree of support from parents in a myriad of ways. Furthermore, having children can be a heavy financial burden, and particularly in the early years of parenting, and may disrupt sleep and increase fatigue. Lastly, having children may detract from parental happiness insofar as having children decreases the amount of satisfaction and time that romantic partners have for one another once they have children.3
So, does parenting make people happy or miserable? What we’ve learned from research is, it depends! Some parents may be happier than others on average, but on the whole, having children can be both stressful and demanding, but can also provide parents with great joy and meaning in many ways.
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1Nelson, 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. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035444
2Wang, W. (2013, October 8). Parents’ time with kids more rewarding than paid work—and more exhausting. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from www.pewsocialtrends.org
3Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 574-583.
Bonnie Le, M. A. – University of Toronto | Website/CV
Bonnie’s research focuses on the factors associated with prosociality and well-being in parent-child, romantic, and interracial relationships. Specifically, she examines behaviors such as caregiving and sacrifice and how they influence well-being by investigating the types of motivations, emotions, and physiological responses associated with these behaviors across relationships.