Couples Who Equally Split Child Care Are Happier, Study Confirms

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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Popular ideals about parenthood might make you believe parents are, on average, more satisfied with their lives than people who don't have kids. Raising kids is often pegged as one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life, a marker of true accomplishment for a "complete" life.

But research over the last several decades tells a different story. Many studies have shown parents actually tend to be less happy, less satisfied with their marriages, and have lower mental well-being than nonparents, a phenomenon some social psychologists refer to as the parental "happiness gap," or the "happiness penalty." The effect has been particularly strong for women, who traditionally have faced much more pressure to have kids, have taken on the lion's share of the child care, and tend to suffer economically because of the expectations that they reduce employment to focus on mothering responsibilities.

Here's the good news: A new study recently published in the Gender & Society journal has found the parental happiness gap does seem to be closing in recent years, in large part thanks to gendered parenting norms fading away.

Why erasing gender norms around parenting makes for happier parents. 

Researchers analyzed data on more than 18,000 women and 12,000 men surveyed between 1984 and 2015 about how satisfied they feel with their lives as well as their adherence to gendered norms around parenthood (i.e., how much they agreed that "it is much better for everyone concerned if the man goes to work and the woman stays at home looking after the house and children").

The findings showed that as gendered parenthood norms have relaxed, both mothers and fathers are now significantly more satisfied with their lives. For women, in particular, as strict gender norms have weakened and lost support between the 1980s and 2015, the difference in life satisfaction between mothers and non-mothers essentially vanishes. 

"With the increasing freedom to choose whether or not to have a child and to shape parenthood more individually, the 'maternal happiness gap' has closed. Today we no longer find a difference in the life satisfaction of mothers and of women without children," Klaus Preisner, sociologist and lead researcher behind the study, said in a news release. He adds that fathers are also enjoying increased life satisfaction as well: "Fathers who step up to meet the new expectations placed on them are increasingly rewarded with public praise for their commitment."

In the paper on their findings, Preisner and his fellow researchers say the rise of egalitarian norms and the converging expectations for motherhood and fatherhood (i.e., there's no difference between what's expected of a mom and what's expected of a dad) have allowed both men and women to actually enjoy parenthood without all of the social pressures, unequal domestic labor, and unequal access to fulfilling work.

Plenty of past research has shown dividing up child care responsibilities equally improves women's emotional well-being and makes for happier relationships.

Choosing parenthood because you want to—not because you're "supposed to." 

Additionally, the researchers point out that more people these days are choosing to become parents with better knowledge of what it entails.

Traditionally, getting married and having kids was just what you did—it's been so expected and normalized that choosing not to have kids has often been met with skepticism and questioning, particularly for women. That pressure to become a parent meant many people likely had kids without truly weighing what it might mean for their lives, their finances, their personal freedom, and their bodies and whether that sacrifice actually makes sense for them.

"Strong social norms…come with side effects," the researchers write. "They nurture and reproduce taboos. For example, pronatalist norms entail the taboo of expressing dissatisfaction with one's role as a parent and mourning one's loss of freedom after the transition to parenthood, which creates and sustains an overly positive public image of parenthood. By silencing critical views of parenthood, taboos systematically bias information and conceal its 'true' costs."

Israeli sociologist Orna Donath's recent research on motherhood has shown the consequences of that overly positive portrayal of parenthood: women who go on to have kids because they feel pressured to do so, and then regret it, and then subsequently get shamed for not enjoying it.

Thankfully, norms have been changing in many parts of the world, and slowly we've finally begun to recognize parenthood as a choice rather than an obligation—and that there are plenty of equally fulfilling life options other than parenthood. As such, those who do choose parenthood these days are actually reaping real satisfaction from it because they're able to choose to have kids out of an earnest desire rather than just because they feel like they "should."

Indeed, this study shows that as we've cleared out all the taboos around not having kids, men and women both with and without children now "all report very similar levels of life satisfaction."

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