First, the good news: Parents are not doomed to be unhappier than people who aren't parents, as some past news stories might suggest.
Now for the not-so-good news: According to a study by the Council on Contemporary Families, plenty of parents do pay a “happiness penalty,” and when compared to other European and English-speaking countries, American parents pay the biggest penalty. (Meanwhile, moms and dads in countries like Norway and Hungary actually report being happier than child-free folks!)
So what’s going on in the U.S. that being a parent means happiness plummets? Researchers considered a number of possibilities including family size and unplanned births in the participating countries, but neither of these played a significant role.
Next they looked at “specific government policies that we thought would make a difference in the lives of employed parents,” including the length and generosity of paid parenting leave and the cost of child care for the average 2-year-old.
What they found was, as they say, astonishing: “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,” wrote the researchers.
What’s more, the policies that made the most impact were the ones that also benefited non-parents, such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days.
The researchers also noted that “giving money to parents in the form of child allowances or monthly payments [as happens in many European countries] had less effect on parental happiness than giving them the tools to combine employment with parenting.”
Instead, the bottom line: The most important predictor of parents’ happiness was the presence of policies that make being a working mom or dad both less costly and less stressful. Fortunately, the U.S. seems to be moving in the right direction in that regard, albeit far behind our European counterparts.