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For years, social scientists have known that nonparents are happier than parents. Study after study has confirmed the troubling finding that having kids makes you less happy than your child-free peers.
Now new research helps explain the parental happiness gap, suggesting it’s less about the children and more about family support in the country where you live.
Based on data from 22 countries and two international surveys of well-being, researchers found that American parents face the largest happiness shortfall compared to people who don’t have children. The happiness gap between parents and nonparents in the United States is significantly larger than the gap found in other industrialized nations, including Great Britain and Australia. And in other Western countries, the happiness gap is nonexistent or even reversed. Parents in Norway, Sweden and Finland — and Russia and Hungary — report even greater levels of happiness than their childless peers.
The researchers, led by the University of Texas sociology professor Jennifer Glass, looked for factors that might explain the international differences in parental happiness, and specifically why parents in the United States suffer a greater happiness penalty than their peers around the world.
They discovered the gap could be explained by differences in family-friendly social policies such as subsidized child care and paid vacation and sick leave. In countries that gave parents what researchers called “the tools to combine work and family,” the negative impact of parenting on happiness disappeared.
“We comprehensively tested every other alternative,” said Dr. Glass, the lead author of the study, which will be published in the American Journal of Sociology in September. “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.”
Notably, the researchers found that economic differences, whether a parent was married or partnered and whether the pregnancy was planned or unintended had no impact on the happiness gap. They also considered the impact of other family-friendly social policies, such as extended maternity and paternity leaves, flexible schedules and even policies that gave money to parents in the form of a child allowance or monthly payments.
Paid parenting leave has “nowhere near as big an effect as these other two policies, “said Dr. Glass, while the other policies didn’t have a significant impact on the happiness gap. Policies that made it less stressful and less costly to combine child rearing with paid work “seem to be the ones that really matter.”
Those same two policies, she said, were also correlated with increased happiness among nonparents. That more paid sick leave and vacation time would make nonparents happier was no surprise, but “we were a little puzzled that lower child care costs would show an effect on nonparents,” Dr. Glass said. She and her colleagues speculate that the result is what economists call an indirect benefit: Everyone is better off when countries invest in the future of their labor force, and everyone suffers when they don’t.
But while there are certainly distinctions in family policy to be made between the United States and other developed countries, there are also substantial cultural differences in the ways children are raised here and in other countries. Those distinctions are hard to measure, but might also account for some of the relative difference between parental and nonparental happiness.
“There’s an incredible anxiety around parenting here that I just don’t feel in other countries,” said Christine Gross-Loh, the author of “Parenting Without Borders,” a comprehensive look at modern parent culture across the developed world, who is raising her children between the United States and Japan. She points to Americans’ anxiety around children’s college and future prospects, and also to our emphasis on keeping children physically safe, and the harsh judgment of parents who are perceived to be doing a poor job of it.
“In Japan, my 6-year-old and my 9-year-old can go out and take the 4-year-old neighbor, and that’s just normal,” she said, while in the United States that kind of freedom can draw criticism and even lead to interventions by Child Protective Services.
In countries where there is a strong agreement about the norms around parenting, parents may worry less about their own choices. Without a single overarching parenting tradition, American parents may feel like they have “too many choices” as compared to parents in more homogeneous cultures, says W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “A clear and well-defined script can be psychologically comforting,” he said, and its lack can leave parents feeling “unmoored.”
Dr. Glass agrees that cultural differences add to the greater relative parent and nonparent happiness gap — but she notes that those cultural differences are also reflected in our family policies. Much of our anxiety around our children in the United States, she said, is very clearly a reflection of our policy choices.
“We have to compete for good child care. We compete to live where there’s a good elementary school,” she said. “We compete for activities because a child’s entire fate seems to depend on where he goes to college, because there’s no guarantee — if we don’t, our child might be left behind.”
Those fears, Dr. Glass said, come in part from our country’s high tolerance for unequal access to the resources families need. In countries that offer policies supporting a parent’s ability to balance work and family, she sees a commitment to egalitarianism. “A crucial part of what’s going on is the idea that every child deserves an equal chance in life,” she said.
The good news is that the findings show that the happiness gap of parenting is not inevitable. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families, said it was a pleasant surprise to see the researchers document the need for better family policies.
“Don’t just swoop in and give a longer maternity leave,” Dr. Coontz said. “It’s a lifetime investment in helping people combine work and family for the long haul.”
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