The notion that parenthood brings happiness and fulfilment is self-evident to those of us who have partaken of healthy family life, but it’s still gratifying to receive validation from academia. A study “In Defense of Parenthood” (partial title) was a complex, long-ranging and intensive affair undertaken jointly by numerous researchers at three faculties: University of California, Riverside; University of British Columbia (Canada); and Stanford University. At just under 24 pages (including tables and references) the report itself is, from a layman’s perspective, lengthy, but worth a perusal even if you don’t enjoy (or remotely understand) statistical methodology and analysis.
The Abstract, as abstracts are wont to do, gives a good précis:
Recent scholarly and media accounts paint a portrait of unhappy parents who find remarkably little joy in taking care of their children, but the scientific basis for these claims remains inconclusive. In three studies, we used a strategy of converging evidence to test whether parents evaluate their lives more positively than do non-parents (Study 1), feel relatively better than non-parents on a day-to-day basis (Study 2), and derive more positive feelings from caring for their children than other daily activities (Study 3). The results indicate that, contrary to previous reports, parents (and especially fathers) report relatively higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life.
Researchers accounted for various factors in their demographic samples, specifically respondents’ age, marital status, gender, and number of children. Not surprisingly, they found that attitudes differed somewhat according to various groups. For instance, broadly speaking, dads seemed to enjoy parenthood overall more than moms. This will come as no surprise to families where mom does most of the dirty work and dad gets to spend more time playing with the kids. (I know fathers who’ve never changed a diaper. Happily, I’m not married to one.)
Age was also a significant factor:
Simple effects analyses revealed that young parents (ages 17-25) were less satisfied with their lives than their childless counterparts; mid-range age parents (ages 26-62) were more satisfied than their childless peers; and older parents (ages 63 and older) did not differ from older non-parents.
This likewise is not surprising: in youth-oriented western culture, TV shows and ads (regardless of product, whether it’s beer or hairspray) hint that for the 20-something crowd, life is an endless beach party, not late-night sessions sitting up with a feverish vomiting child. The fact that parents have to deal with unpleasant or challenging situations involving tiny people who are utterly dependent upon them is mainly why—no, entirely why—parenting is for grown-ups.
Parents never quite escape the unappealing stuff (changing messy diapers doesn’t hold a candle to bailing a drunk teen out of jail or seeing a daughter move in with a loser), but the years do allow one to gradually acquire the wisdom and maturity to cope with it. Given this, attributes and concepts such as maturity, commitment, and even ‘joy’ itself might be difficult to quantify empirically. (For example, what you find ‘fun’ at any given moment is not necessarily what gives you a deep sense of joy or fulfilment.)
Also every person and every family is unique; the dynamics will not be the same in any two families, so it can be difficult to draw conclusions, and the researches seemed to be aware of this.
Although each of our methods has clear limitations, the consistency of our findings across these three studies provides strong evidence challenging the widely-held perception that children are a source of reduced well-being. […] We believe the present findings may be instructive to the general public, especially for those planning a family. Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, parents may find solace that children can actually be a source of happiness and meaning in their lives.
In short, happy parents mean happy kids and healthy families, which can only be good for society. Studies like this can’t hurt in a culture that has for decades tended toward being anti-fecundity and pro-narcissism.