New research has sought to understand why parents report lower happiness levels than their childless peers in a number of countries around the world.  Historically, the predominant explanation for a happiness gap has been that children increase adults’ exposure to a variety of stressors, such as anger, which can decrease positive feelings such as happiness.  This new study sought to also understand ‘distal’ sources of stress which are rooted in the larger social context in which people parent.  

The study analysed data from 22 European and English-speaking countries, and its results will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September.  On average, American parents report being 12 percent unhappier than non-parents – the biggest gap in the 22 countries the researchers studied. In 12 other countries parents also described themselves as being less happy than parents.  However, in Portugal, Hungary, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France and Russia parents described themselves as happier than non-parents.  What are those countries doing right for parents?

The study concluded that the parenting environment and policy factors of a particular country significantly explain the gap in happiness between parents and non-parents.  This included factors such as extended family support, paid parenting leave, paid sick and vacation leave, and work flexibility. In countries with the strongest supportive policies the inverse relationship between parenthood and happiness was completely eliminated. 

In countries where the happiness gap was large parents often had to cope with demands of parenthood through their own resources and social networks; the challenges parents experience were perceived as a private matter rather than a social problem.  This caused more stress for parents which could also take a toll on their health.  The study noted that this perception and the absence of supportive public policies are themselves rooted in a more individualistic culture that values personal rather than collective responsibility for raising healthy children. 

In contrast, countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland and France have extensive social safety nets and supportive family policies. Russia and Hungary continue to maintain certain Soviet-era policies that take care of and value families. In Portugal and Spain, extended family networks tend to help take care of children. Certainly in Portugal, where parents are significantly happier than non-parents, extended family ties have traditionally been very strong; it is not uncommon for three generations to live under the same roof and children are indulged and welcomed, as well as expected to contribute to the overall welfare of the family.  Family and friendship even play a major role in business transactions and politics, and placing elderly relatives in rest homes is unusual.  

“What we found was astonishing,” the researchers write in a briefing that explains their findings. “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.”  The researchers also found that the presence of family-friendly policies didn’t appear to decrease the happiness of non-parents in those countries – for example, by increasing their tax dollars or work hours.

The results seem to reflect the impact of a breakdown in the family and family support networks, and a resultant focus on individualism in the countries where parents are the least happy.  In countries with more individualistic cultures, parents are less likely to be able to lean on extended family for support, and have likely also been less exposed to children and babies as a natural part of life, making parenting something of a shock.  As the world becomes more global many couples live hundreds of miles from their extended families. 

More and more research suggests that social relationships are one of the most important factors in a person’s well-being.  Yet the modern world increasingly isolates parents – and busy roads and potential crime isolate children from each other; they are often easiest and happiest when engaged in play.  Many mothers return to work fairly quickly, through choice or necessity, meaning there is no longer a network of women and families around as much during the day to offer support and companionship; the general peace of mind that there are ‘others like you’ just down the street.  This also leaves many parents feeling conflicted about sacrifices they are making by giving up work – or returning to work – and torn in many directions. Many women have likely been told they can ‘do anything’ career-wise at school, and rarely if ever advised that they should also consider the reality of having and raising children that previous generations saw as inevitable.

The study notes that over 70 percent of children in the United States – where the happiness gap is largest – are raised in households in which all adults work outside the home, with over four in ten households with children supported solely or primarily by a mothers’ earnings.  Despite this, the United States has done little to ameliorate the incompatibility of full time employment and family care.  The mediocre quality of most non-parental childcare in the United States, especially for working-class families (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000), creates further anxiety and stress among parents.  

Not surprisingly, the study notes that stressors are greatest among single, rather than married, parents; thus higher marriage breakdown is a factor decreasing parental happiness.  Another factor that the study doesn’t seem to have accounted for is age.  People around the world are increasingly starting to have children in their 30s and even 40s; an age group likely to have less energy, be more susceptible to age-related illness, and be more set in its ways, making the change to parenting more stressful.  

Parents are also often forced to protect children much more from their culture, rather than feeling supported by it.  Inappropriate images and content are everywhere in a way that would have shocked parents of the 1950s.  Ironically society also seems to increasingly hand down multiple theories on best parenting practice, which can be perceived by sensitive, over-tired parents doing their best as multiple judgments.  

Thus, unless governments compensate families with policies that help to deal with this juggle, no wonder many families report heightened stress levels.  At the same time, those countries that choose to offer family policies seemingly also value family and family culture more than those that don’t, seeing it as society’s role to support parents and future generations, making parents generally feel more valued and supported and providing them with the on-going support of extended family members.

Being a parent is a really important function within society and we need to appreciate that this is the case, not just through government policy but in our attitude to the importance of family and family life and the way we regard and revere the important role of ‘mother’ and ‘father’.  We don’t need CEOs, lawyers, politicians, or any goods whatsoever if we have no future generation. 

Study author Jennifer Glass comments, “I think that most parents are completely happy with the fact that they had children and can’t imagine not having those children in their lives.  But loving your children and feeling devoted to them is not the same thing as having a stress-free experience.”

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...