Being a parent is one of the sources of greatest joys in life while it is also the cause of some of the deepest sorrows. It is assumed that having children is the key to living a happy, meaningful life; on the other hand well-being of nonparents is observed higher in significant number of cases. Often parenthood is called to be a crazy ride on a rollercoaster with highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There has been a long-standing debate regarding whether parenthood promotes parent’s well-being or not.
The literature supports both perspectives, with some researchers demonstrating that parents perceive higher well-being than their childless peers and others showing the opposite. For most parents their children are a source of happiness and joy; but as is often the case, studies offer a more complicated view of the relationship between being a parent and being happy. Parenthood is a transformative experience—imposing a unique mix of stress and rewards for those who enter (Nomaguchi & Milkie, 2003)
This study aims to reconcile the conflicting literature to unfold the complex parenting journey by modeling how and why parenthood and well-being are related. The question of when parents experience more or less happiness is answered according to that. By investigating the highly complex relationship, the research draws a comprehensive picture of parenting and happiness connection.
RESEARCH UNFOLD UTILIZE WHY
Peer reviewed article “The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How Is Parenthood Associated With More or Less Well-Being?” published in 2014 by S. Katherine Nelson S, Kushlev K. and Lyubomirsky S. is the primary source for this study as it reconciles all literature of opposing views and gathers the information to turn into a clear model. It is discussed in the next section in detail.
The book “All Joy and No Fun” by Jennifer Senior discusses the topic in an authentic style of the author’s. She states raising children is terribly hard work, often thankless and mind-numbing, and yet the most rapturous experience available to adults. Parents are both happier and more miserable than nonparents, that child rearing dictates a wider emotional range than people have generally known before it.
Recent articles covering the subject from different points of view with contradicting findings are very insightful to see the big picture of parenthood and well-being relation. They are cited in References section, and their findings are reconciled through the study.
There is a significant number of podcasts on parenting, but Fletcher’s “Happy Mum, Happy Baby” is specifically useful as it focuses on the well-being of the parents in physical, mental and emotional ways. In the same way, 1989 movie “Parenthood” by Howard is a funny and thoughtfully crafted look at the best and worst moments of parenting.
Furthermore, interview with a family therapist, Aysun Yilmaz, covering the cultural aspects of parenthood and happiness supports the research with recent global views. Countless number of resources is scanned for this research, and this sample is found to be significantly representing the opposing views parents’ more or less well-being.
The article “The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why, and How Is Parenthood Associated With More or Less Well-Being?” which is used as a main source in this study scans through the literature and tries to model the findings to give a big picture of the assessment of the relation between parenthood and well-being. Researchers have so far examined the relationship between parenthood and well-being with three basic types of methodologies all of which have some pros and cons and addresses different areas on wellbeing of parents. The first way compares parents to nonparents, while the second one examines the happiness before and after a being a parent and the last one focuses on the experiences with or without children. The outputs of these studies are as follows:
1. Parents versus nonparents;
This is the most common model. Essentially it is an effort to solve the problem of “Do the people with children experience well-being differently than their childless counterparts?” Immediate question arises; then “What is well-being?”. The constructs and related measures of anxiety, depressive symptoms, happiness, parental subjective well-being, psychological distress, satisfaction with life and stress are utilized as constructs to formalize along with meaning in life, positive emotions and relationship satisfaction are the fundamental mediators to predict well-being. (Busseri & Sadava, 2011)
Findings widely vary in such a way that in comparison to nonparents, parents:
- have been found to experience lower levels of well-being (Evenson & Simon, 2005; Glenn & Weaver, 1979; McLanahan & Adams, 1987, 1989),
- higher levels of well-being (Aassve et al., 2012; Nelson et al., 2013),
- similar levels of well-being (Rothrauff & Cooney, 2008).
The conflicting outcomes are mostly due to diverse demographics of both parents and children such as age, gender, health condition as well as the well-being measures specified. Furthermore, the characteristics of the nonparents play a significant role in the results as nonparents are voluntarily or involuntarily childless together with their age group whether they are middle aged or still young not to have children plans yet.
2. Well-being before and after the parenthood
This methodology analyzes the well-being across the parenthood transition. One significant study shows that there is a happiness jump during pregnancy and right after the birth of child but it flattens returns back to its old value after two years. (Dyrdal & Lucas, 2013). On the other hand, components of well-being play an important role in the interpretation such that it is found parents experience more positive emotions after having child but a mixed of first incline then decline in life satisfaction in parallel. (Luhmann, Hofmann, Eid, & Lucas, 2012).
The advantage of this approach is its being free of selection biases of the samples such as the tendency of unhappy people not to have children. However, the timeline base chosen for these longitudinal affects the results directly. If the well-being is measured only within pregnancy it is impossible to differentiate the normal well-being outputs, and even for a few years happiness parameters are affected by relationship or marriage dynamics.
3. Life experiences with and without children
The last method explores the happiness during child care and other daily daily activities. For both and women childcare takes its place in the middle when the activities are ordered according to the rate of being enjoyable, although the parents expresses feelings of more fulfillment when looking after their children. (Nelson et al., 2013, Study 3)
This methodology has superiority to the first two as it measures the well-being specifically for the time spent directly with children. On the contrary since it focuses on daily activities it is hard to have an overall conclusion of the well-being on parents on a long time scale.
The big picture of literature scan does not produce a single result on the association of well-being and parenthood. It turns out that the relation is not a simple one and can be interpreted better when approached with another perspective. Through consolidation and with the help of mediators; the link between parenthood and well-being is best answered when the question is slightly changed into ‘Why and parents experience more or less happiness than nonparents?”
It is clear that only some theories to date have been developed to explain why parenthood may be related to higher or lower well-being. A number of processes, both positive and negative, by which parenthood might lead to more or less well-being are defined to build a framework for comprehending all research findings.
Purpose and meaning in life, human needs, positive emotions and social roles are the factors leading the parenting to more well-being. On the other hand regarding the path from parenthood to lower well-being, considerable evidence attests to the roles of negative emotions, sleep disturbance and fatigue, and strained partner relationships, and some evidence supports the role of financial strain.
There are lots of variables affecting the well-being of parents closely. Demographic factors of parent age, child age, parent gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, employment status, family structure, residence impact the happiness in a positive or negative way. In addition to that there are a number of psychological dimensions in place like social support, parenting style, child problems, child temperament and parent attachment style. Researches support that being young, being single, having young children, having children with special needs decrease the overall well-being of the parent including the noncustodial ones. On the other hand, parents express more happiness when they are married and when they have children at an older age , especially the fathers.
In summary, parenthood and well-being relation is quite complex. It is misleading to conclude that parents are happier or unhappier based on separate studies, but instead the association should be interpreted by formulating the problem with critical variables. In brief, we can say that parents experience less well-being when they have problematic relations or their children have special needs or they are in need of financial support; but at the same time they are definitely happier since their social roles are magnified, they get positive emotions and find greater meaning and fulfillment in life.
To support the research in global view aspects I decided to interview with an expert family therapist Aysun Yilmaz in Turkey. She has broad academical work in the area both inside and outside the country , as well as having blogs and podcasts on the parenting and happiness. We discussed specifically two points; culture effects and local parenting style applications of parenting on the well-being.
She started her talk by saying that views about parenthood or not having children by choice differ widely across cultures. Typical number of children per family varies from country to country, even from region to region in the same place. The time the parents expected to spend with kids, its priority among all other social roles, gender differences all play important factors.
Having seen lots of clients from different cultures she emphasizes that Turkey is a collectivistic culture and family is very important. This decreases child-rearing practices significantly. After a certain age all adults feel the pressure of marrying and having children. This has both positive and negative effects of happiness on the happiness. First of all parenting age is quite young and typical number of children is relatively high. The parents feel financial strains and their own life priorities all change and become child centric. It makes them unhappy. Furthermore, since there is a pressure they cannot express their unhappiness, and this causes anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. On the other hand, comparatively they can have more support from their families and communities while raising children, which helps to increase their well-beings.
The second point she emphasizes is parenting style impacts. Much of literature evaluates the parenting styles from the point of child outcomes and surprisingly parents’ well-being might not always be correlated with the child outcomes. In contrast to so many Western cultures, relaxing parenting style is practiced. They are still somehow the center of life but the parents do not feel the pressure to be perfect and this helps with their own well-being. They do not feel they have to engage in time-demanding children activities all the time. The children live among grandparents and extensive family members and this gives the parents to take time for themselves more. Cultural expectations for raising kids are not so demanding in a way that when they become adults it is enough for them to be good humans and not necessarily competent in every domain. Loving children is seen as sufficient and all the other efforts are given second priority. Although this parenting approach cannot be accepted as best for children, apparently the parents get less anxious and depressed.
We ended the interview by briefly discussing all the other cultural points that may affect well-being like gender roles, social economic statuses and even the variability of well-being definition across eastern and western cultures.
As the study suggests the answer to the question “Does parenthood increase or decrease well-being?” is not a simple yes or no. This study shows that the relation between having children or none and being happy or not is dependent upon many other variables including both parent and child characteristics. Financial problems, troubled marriages and sleep disturbance affect parents’ wellbeing negatively; on the other hand they feel happier by finding bigger meaning in life, experiencing more positive emotions with children and by the fulfilling social roles.
The outcomes of this research build a beneficial guide to identify the parents groups who have the tendency to be unhappy and be a good source to focus on the related segments to increase their well-being. For example, it is clear that single parents struggle more in life when raising children on their own, so the amount of social and community support can be extended.
Furthermore, findings encourage that parents can increase their happiness level and enhance their positive emotions by a number of activities. These activities include practicing wisdom skills like expressing gratitude, kindness, compassion and humility. This is structured by positive-activity model. Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013)
The model suggests that well-being can be maintained in four main dimensions which are positive emotions, positive thoughts, positive behaviors, and need satisfaction. The dosage and variety of the activities, the motivation and effort of the parents and the extent to which activities fit the people are major components of the happiness it brings to the parents. The studies show that a major shift in well-being is possible only with little focused changes in thoughts and behaviors. All these approaches can be brought into practice by increasing more awareness of the parenting issues in the society and giving more financial supports to help the vulnerable parents to access to all kinds of sources with their mental health and social and emotional well-being. It is obvious that there exists a convincing improvement area in the parents’ short-term and long-term happiness within varying circumstances of cultural and socioeconomic dynamics.
There are many potential steps that can be taken to increase the overall well-being of parents not only for the sake of themselves but also for the happiness of the children.
- Nelson, 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? American Psychological Association , DOI: 10.1037/a0035444
- Yilmaz, A., Ph.D. Psychology Istanbul University, 1996. Interview March, 2020
- Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood: Little, Brown Book Group
- Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 57–62. doi:10.1177/0963721412469809
- De Botton, A. (2020). The Philosophical Parent: The School of Life, London, UK https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/the-philosophical-parent/
- Klein, A. (2019). Having kids makes you happier, but only when they move out https://www.newscientist.com/article/2213655-having-kids-makes-you-happier-but-only-when-they-move-out/
- Dickinson, K. (2018). Decades of data suggest parenthood makes people unhappy: Big Think https://bigthink.com/sex-relationships/should-you-have-kids
- Luscombe, B. (2016) Many Parents Are Happier Than Non-Parents — But Not in the U.S.: Time Magazine https://time.com/collection/guide-to-happiness/4370344/parents-happiness-children-study/
- Swanson, A. (2016). Many parents will say kids made them happier. They’re probably lying. : The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/06/many-americans-will-tell-you-having-kids-made-them-happier-theyre-probably-lying/
- Fletcher, G. (2020). Happy Mum, Happy Baby Podcast: Peanut
- Howard, R. (1989). Parenthood: Movie, Universal Pictures