American parents are miserable: Moms and dads alike face a massive "happiness gap"

"Having kids in the U.S. is brutal." Sociologists blame the country's paltry social services, among other factors

Published June 23, 2016 8:30AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


“The days are long, but the years are short,” goes the old saying. That’s true of life itself, but the phrase has become a mantra of parents and caregivers, a reassuring bit of what’s called “everyday wisdom” for the perpetually sleep-deprived and stressed-out. Even parents with the deepest reserves of patience and caring need the occasional reminder that 5 am feedings, toddler tantrums and teen eye-rolls will, in the distant future, be affectionately missed when the nest is finally empty. Because while child-rearing is filled with moments of unadulterated joy and wonder, there’s another, far less-discussed open secret of parenting. And it’s that raising kids can sometimes be a real drag.

People are often loath to say that out loud, but social scientists have been confirming it for decades. The New York Times quotes scholar and UK-based author Nick Powdthavee, who cuts to the chase about what the research has to say. “Over the past few decades, social scientists like me have found consistent evidence that there is an almost zero association between having children and happiness,” Powdthavee writes. “But the warnings for prospective parents are even more stark than ‘it’s not going to make you happier.’ Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from. Back in 2004, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman asked 909 working women in Texas to rate their daily activities based on the pleasure they derived from each. On a list of 19 items, childcare came in near the bottom, way down in 16th place. Only “morning commute,” “evening commute” and “working” scored lower, while “housework” actually placed higher. Another 2015 study focused on German parents found the “drop in life satisfaction during the year following the first birth [of a child] is even larger than that caused by unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.”

Powdthavee notes that “the strains associated with parenthood are not only limited to the period during which children are physically and economically dependent.” He cites a 1981 study that found even parents whose kids have grown up and moved out are only as happy, or slightly less happy, than “non-parents of similar age and status.”

All this is proof that the “happiness gap” between those who have kids and those who don’t is an international phenomenon. But a new collaborative study by researchers at the University of Texas, Wake Forest University and Baylor University finds the size of the gap differs from country to country. The researchers studied 22 nations, all wealthy countries with similar birth rates. They discovered that American parents are 13 percent less happy than American non-parents, the largest gap in all the countries surveyed, and one significantly larger than the gap observed in Great Britain and Australia. When researchers drilled down to find out exactly why the gulf is so large in the U.S., they found out it had everything to do with social policies. More specifically, America’s shameful lack of family and parent-support laws explain why so many of the country’s parents fall short on the happiness meter.

“We looked at several specific government policies that we thought would make a difference in the lives of employed parents,” the researchers write in a brief at the Council on Contemporary Families, “the duration and generosity of paid parenting leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the cost of child care for the average 2-year old as a percent of median wages, and the extent of work schedule flexibility offered to parents of dependent children.” They found that “the negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirelyexplained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations.” This held true for both mothers and fathers.

“We comprehensively tested every other alternative,” Jennifer Glass, lead author of the study, told the New York Times. “The two things that came out most strongly in explaining the variation were the cost of care for the average 2-year-old as a percent of wages and the total extent of paid sick and vacation days.”

The researchers also noted that countries with “better family policy ‘packages’ had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents.” That’s probably why countries with generous laws around parental leave—Sweden, France, Finland and Norway among them—have reverse gaps, with parents identifying as happier than their childless cohorts. In America, workers have no legal rights to paid vacation, sick days or maternity leave, and paternity leave isn’t even on the table. Couple that with the financial burden of child care in the U.S. In 2014, the annual average cost of child care for an infant outpaced a year of tuition at public colleges in 28 states and the District of Columbia, according to Child Care Aware of America. The built-in challenges of raising a kid—the long hours and exhausting demands—are compounded in a system that provides parents little to no support.

Americans see themselves as pretty happy in general, ranking their happiness levels somewhere between 8 and 10 on average of scale one to 10, which is higher than most other places. (Researchers note that the French, for example, “tend to rate their levels significantly lower—in the middle of the scale from 5-7.”) This is likely due to differing cultural notions around what qualifies as true happiness. Considering the fact that more Americans take antidepressants than the residents of any other super-rich country, it might do us good to push for the policies that made the happiness gap smaller or nonexistent in other nations. Researchers found that those policies also tended to contribute to everyone’s contentment:

The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not. Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children. The same pattern held even for policies such as subsidized child care, which one might assume would only benefit parents. Countries with cheaper out-of-pocket costs for child care had happier non-parents as well as parents.

"Having kids in the U.S. is brutal," Robin Simon, a Wake Forest sociology professor who co-authored the study, told the South China Morning Post. "The federal government requires that workplaces give six weeks maternity leave, but there is no requirement that it is paid. We just don't do anything to assist parents."

The stress of having to make up for America’s shameful lack of supportive social policies effectively wiped out other benefits the researchers expected to accompany the act of parenting among Americans. The South China Morning Post points out that “in ongoing work looking at 12 indicators of well-being, including physical health, self-acceptance and sense of purpose, Simon and her colleagues found that none, except lower alcohol use, was associated with parenthood in the U.S.”

Another indicator that failed to make its mark? The sense that raising kids makes one's own life more meaningful.

"I thought at least purpose and meaning in life would be higher for parents, and we find it's just flat," Simon told the outlet. "There is joy to having kids. But I think that for most people, the stresses that are associated with having kids overshadow those joys."

By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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