Why Parents Are Statistically Less Happy Than Non‑Parents
Gendered expectations and a lack of supportive policies and resources erode parents’ life satisfaction, experts say.
A July 2019 policy brief for the European Research Council highlighted “a decline in individuals’ subjective wellbeing – either happiness or life satisfaction – once parenthood begins.” The brief was based on findings from a pan-European analysis called the European Subjective Wellbeing and Fertility study. Similar findings of a “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents have been found in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It’s tempting to write this off to simply the toll and toil of raising a human being. That effort, and its related stress and distress, has been a hot topic of culture debates, recently, as women talk openly about being less happy since motherhood. But this “happiness gap” has systemic and social causes, especially for women, that have nothing to do with the often one-sided relationship between parent and child. More importantly, it has proven systemic and social solutions.
“Research consistently points out that the key problem is not mothers’ individual or psychological failure to be happy,” Shani Orgad, PhD, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, writes on the topic for LSE’s Parenting for a Digital Future blog. “Rather, the fundamental factors that mediate the relationship between individual wellbeing and happiness and parenting are structural and institutional.”
This is true for mothers, particularly. Increased awareness of conditions like the baby blues and postpartum depression can only be a good thing, in terms of health care, but in isolation, it risks painting parental happiness as an individualized experience prompted by unique risk factors; this could overshadow the fact that certain, widespread social factors have an effect on parental life satisfaction, especially for women. For instance, in urban India each day, the average woman does 10 times more carework — a term that encompasses everything from childcare to eldercare to household chores — than the average man. Aside from the physical toll of this unequal and unpaid labor, research has linked the mental effort of being the primary ‘family manager’ to distress and dissatisfaction in women.
Related on The Swaddle:
Under such a burden, one way to reclaim time and ease mental and physical burdens is by dropping out of the workforce; India sees a sharp decline in women’s participation in the formal workforce at the middle and senior management levels, which typically coincide with the age at which many choose to start families. While researching her new book, Heading Home, Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, Orgad found women’s decisions to leave the formal workforce broke down into the following catalysts:
- “work structures and work cultures that are utterly incompatible with family life, where late hours and sleep deprivation are the norm, and where commitment to career supposes that one never thinks about, values or does anything else
- denial of requests to work part-time; gender pay gaps
- precarious work contracts
- implicit or explicit pressure from male partners working in ‘always on’ jobs
- lack of suitable and sustained childcare support; and stubborn social perceptions against which women constantly are measured and judged by family, friends, employers and co-workers, media and government.”
While Orgad’s research focused on women in the U.K., these reasons sound awfully familiar to an Indian audience. It is backed by local, corroborating research; a 2018 report by McKinsey & Company that examined women’s participation in the workforce in South Asia and Asia Pacific found, “the largest barrier to women moving into senior roles cited by executives — 45% — was the ‘anytime, anywhere’ performance model. The second biggest — cited by 32% of respondents — was the ‘double burden’ of women holding down a job while looking after their families ….” This effect is compounded in India by a widespread belief (shared by 70% of Indian respondents) that “when a mother works for pay, the children suffer,” according to the report. With such gender-specific pressure, the lion’s share of carework, and untenable work environments, it’s unsurprising that becoming a parent might correlate with a dip in happiness for women.
It’s not a hopeless situation, however: Addressing these systemic failures and gendered inequities improves parents’ life satisfaction — for both men and women, according to new research. A new study examining the life satisfaction of parents in Western Germany, using socio-economic survey data from 1984 to 2015, concluded, “as support for a gendered division of labor has lost ground, the transition to parenthood has become increasingly conducive to life satisfaction for both genders, and the parental happiness gap has vanished.” Primarily, researchers say, the happiness gap between mothers and women who have no children has closed; life satisfaction has barely changed for men, over the years, with no difference in happiness between fathers and men who have no children, even as expectations to be equally involved in household care have increased. “Fathers who step up to meet the new expectations placed on them are increasingly rewarded with public praise for their commitment,” the study’s first author, Klaus Preisner, of the UZH Institute of Sociology, said in a statement.
This transition and correlative increase in happiness have been fostered by national and workplace policies that enable equality, the researchers say. In addition to post-birth maternity leave, recent reforms extended non-gender-specific, paid parental leave with the aim of encouraging parents to share childcare more equally. Since these took effect in 2015, Germans are entitled to a total of 24 months of paid parental leave, if used by one parent, or, a total of 28 months of paid leave, if divided between two parents. The state also subsidizes childcare outside the home, easing the personal and financial burden on working parents.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.