That parents are no happier than non-parents is, among scholars, an uncontroversial and accepted fact—but the specific and contradictory effects of having children on an individual's life satisfaction are less well understood.
In a new article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, German sociologist Matthias Pollmann-Schult used longitudinal data from a German panel study to investigate that topic more deeply. Building on other researchers' hypothesis that parenting has minimal effects on happiness because its rewards and burdens effectively cancel each other out, he examined several factors underlying the impact of becoming a parent on individuals' life satisfaction. Here's what he found.
Controlling for participants' age and health status, Pollmann-Schult found that parents and non-parents reported similar levels of life satisfaction throughout the observation period (1994-2010). However, when he accounted for parents' different use of time---compared to their pre-parenthood days, they spend less time on leisure relative to the time they spend on housework, errands, and child care---and for their increased financial strain, he confirmed a common-sense observation: the "positive effects of children on life satisfaction are suppressed to a certain extent by changes in time use during the transition to parenthood" and more significantly "by the economic burden associated with parenthood." That is, becoming a parent would lead to an increase in life satisfaction if only raising children didn't take so much time and money.
Given that the demands of parenthood seem to decrease as children grow older, are parents of older children happier than parents of younger children? The answer seems to be no: although "fathers and mothers of children of all age groups showed significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than childless men and women" when financial and time costs are held constant, parents of children under age two seem to derive the most satisfaction from parenting, and experience a decline in satisfaction as their first (or only) child grows up. Pollmann-Schult says that "might be due to a decrease in the emotional benefits of parenthood."
Becoming a parent would lead to an increase in life satisfaction if only raising children didn’t take so much time and money.
Less surprisingly, a comparison of divorced and widowed parents to cohabiting and married parents shows that single parenting is even harder than parenting with a partner. Divorced and widowed parents have lower levels of life satisfaction than other parents even when their differing parenthood-related financial and time costs are accounted for.
The last factor Pollmann-Schult studied was parents' varying employment arrangements. He found that, controlling again for time and financial costs, "a positive effect of parenthood on life satisfaction emerged for male-breadwinner couples, but not for dual-earner couples," and "female homemakers with one child were significantly more satisfied than their counterparts working full time." Dual-earner parents experienced less financial strain than other parents, but were no happier overall than non-parents, presumably because of greater psychosocial stress. In other words, male-breadwinner parents' satisfaction is offset by financial strain, while dual-earner parents' satisfaction is most likely offset by higher stress levels.
Pollmann-Schult offers some fitting cautions about interpreting his findings: the United States, he points out, is culturally very different from Germany, and its relatively weak safety net may mean American parents experience more financial strain and thus less life satisfaction than German parents. Furthermore, he did not measure the "psychosocial stress and strain" of parenting, another factor that may counteract the psychological rewards of parenting. As the scholarly commonplace goes, more research is needed. Still, his findings are highly suggestive, and may help would-be parents adopt more realistic expectations about the joys and the burdens they can expect a new child to bring.