There’s been a lot of talk lately about the costs of raising kids. To be clear, I’m not talking about the money ($118k to $250k in the U.S. by the time the kid reaches age 18, and that’s not counting college). Rather, a lot of the popular press writing on the topic has focused on the drop in marital and/or life satisfaction individuals experience following the birth of a child. Articles in both New York Magazine (All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting) and, more recently, CNN.com (Does having children make you happy?) paint a gloomy picture regarding the impact children have on individual and relationship well-being.
Yet, despite multiple studies that document average declines in well-being for parents vs. non-parent couples (or singles, depending on the study), such depictions of the negatives of childrearing are often met with skepticism by parents who defiantly defend the joys and benefits of parenthood (full disclosure: I am married and have an almost 3 year-old daughter and 6 month-old son, and I was puked on no fewer than 13 times this past week). There are at least two possible explanations for this defiance: (a) these parents, present company included, are insane, which is likely rooted in their lack of sleep and complete loss of independence, or (b) the reporting of general, or ‘modal,’ tendencies in the research fail to appreciate the enormous variation or heterogeneity in the transition to parenthood experience. [Imagine two people, Jack, whose overall (or global) satisfaction with life goes from a 1 (highly satisfied) to a 5 (highly unsatisfied) from pre- to post-parenthood compared to Diane, whose global satisfaction goes from a 5 to a 1. Both Jack and Diane average a score of 3, but clearly they had very different paths, and these different paths might be meaningful]. Although we can’t rule out the former, new work coming out in the Journal of Family Psychology does provide some support for the latter.1
Opening their paper by referencing the New York Magazine piece, Galatzer-Levy (NYU School of Medicine) and colleagues reanalyzed data that had previously shown that “parents decline in their day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction after having a child, and are unable to regain prechildbirth levels even years later” (p.1). The data included individuals’ global life-satisfaction (“How satisfied are you nowadays with your life as a whole?”) assessed repeatedly beginning 4 years before childbirth thru 4 years after birth. Rather than look at average levels of life-satisfaction across the sample, their analysis made use of a modern, fancy statistical technique (i.e., latent growth mixture modeling) that allowed the researchers to identify groups of individuals within the sample whose reports of life-satisfaction changed over time in a unique way. In other words, this approach allowed them to highlight different paths parents’ well-being may take as they transition to and through parenthood. The summary, directly from their abstract, is as follows:
“we find that the majority of individuals (84.2%) demonstrate no long-term effects on life satisfaction in response to childbirth. Only a small percentage demonstrate the sustained declines (7.2%), and a significant cohort, previously unobserved in the literature, demonstrate dramatic and sustained improvements in response to parenthood (4.3%), providing compelling evidence for heterogeneity in life satisfaction among parents.”
In other words, looking at average levels of well-being may be muddying up the story; the transition to parenthood affects different individuals differently. This idea is by no means new. Other work has identified a number of factors that moderate the overall effect parenthood has on individuals and couples (e.g., income, perceived equity in housework, coping mechanisms, type of well-being measure used, planned vs. unplanned pregnancy, etc.),2, 3, 4, 5 but this work is significant in that it identifies different patterns within the sample and allows for a significantly less gloomy portrayal of parenthood. Granted, this is but one study, and it was based on German couples (where family leave policies and other social factors may limit generalizability to individuals in the US, but it should be noted that declines in well-being had been previously documented in this sample using traditional statistical approaches), but the results do suggest that you may not be completely delusional if you (a) claim to like being a parent, and (b) actually like your partner (if you have one) after having a kid.
Along these lines, it is also possible that focusing on simple global measures of well-being, like the single-item noted above, may not provide a complete picture of the transition to parenthood, especially given the evidence that parents report a range of benefits from parenthood that are unique to the parenting context. For example, most of the past work ignores the fulfillment and meaning that comes from parenting (see the New York Magazine article for further discussion). Further, although not an empirically-supported argument, per se, I’ll also draw your attention to a TED presentation given by the founders of babble.com, a great resource for parents. In their discussion of parenting taboos, they do an excellent job, in my humble opinion, of providing an interesting argument for how looking at parents’ average satisfaction or well-being may result in ovelooking the importance of variation in day-to-day emotional experiences (taboo #4; around the 11:15 mark in the video). (that’s a dissertation study waiting to happen)
None of this is to say that parenting isn’t stressful. It is (and should be if you’re trying to do it correctly), and it can certainly strain a marriage (as can many things). But, mounting evidence suggests you might want to reconsider “throwing the baby out with the (statistical) bathwater,” so to speak.
1Galatzer-Levy, I. R., Mazursky, H., Mancini, A. D., & Bonanno, G. A. (2011, May 9). What we don’t expect when expecting: Evidence for heterogeneity in subjective well-being in response to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0023759.
2Lawrence, R., Cobb, R. J., Rothman, A. D., Rothman, M. T., Bradbury, T. N. (2008). Marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 41-50.
3Mitnick, D. M., Heyman, R. E., Smith Slep, A. M. (2009). Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: A meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 848-852.
4Goldberg, A. E., Smith, J. Z., & Kashy, D. A. (2010). Preadoptive factors predicting lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples’ relationship quality across the transition to adoptive parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 221-232.
5Dew, J., & Wilcox, W. B. (2011). If momma ain’t happy: Explaining declines in marital satisfaction among new mothers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 1-12.
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.