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  • In a new study, the parental-happiness deficit was larger in the U.S. than in 21 other advanced economies. Tweet This
  • Parental happiness is not just an individual issue—it's also a matter of public concern. Tweet This

Our townhouse was spotless when my husband and I bought it back in 2007. Even more depressing than the fact that housing values in the Washington, D.C. area aren’t quite back to 2007 levels is that our home now looks terrible: crayon marks on the walls, food stains on the carpet, bent metal blinds, holes in fabric blinds, a crack in the ceiling under the bathroom where our most creative daughter distributed water all over the floor to “go ice skating,” plus toys and toothpaste in many places they don’t belong.

When we do have time to clean, it feels more like putting a finger in a dike than making any real progress. I’ve thought a lot about why two married folks who each only work 30 hours a week can’t seem to do much better. I assume many of you reading this might be able to relate to our difficulty until you get to the 30 hours part. After that, you are probably thinking that if you only worked part-time, you would have plenty of time to clean the house.

I want to challenge such thinking based on what actually does fill many working parents’ “free time”: parenting. Parenting demands every bit as much now as it did back when couples commonly had six to eight children because more is invested in each child. In fact, the demands of parenting may be still higher for the substantial share of parents who practice what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation”—a style of childrearing that incorporates organized leisure activities into children’s lives. The result is that parents are under a great deal of pressure to do right by their kids in terms of fostering their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Although this was true in every era, today, the list of things that are considered worth cultivating in children, rather than being allowed to grow naturally, has grown enormously. Thus, parents’ “free time” is often invested in children’s futures (homework supervision, swim team try-outs, and even playdates) rather than scrubbing walls.

In their recent American Journal of Sociology article, Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon, and Matthew Andersson explain that nonparents have been happier than parents since the 1970s. The rise in the demands of parenting alone would have been enough to put more stress on parents without the rise in female labor force participation, but put them together, and we have a modern reality in which both men and women commonly spend many hours away from their children, but still bear the responsibility of cultivating them into healthy, competent, well-adjusted adults.

Glass and her colleagues assumed that parenthood is both fulfilling and stressful, and then investigated whether work-family reconciliation policies can reduce the stress—therefore tipping the balance back toward children augmenting happiness rather than detracting from it. Such policies can take many different forms, and they created a summary measure constructed from paid childbearing leave, paid vacation and sick days, flexibility in work hours and schedule, and child-care assistance. They also investigated each component separately.

In countries with the most comprehensive work-family reconciliation policies, parents were happier than nonparents, but in countries where such policies were extremely limited, non-parents were the happier adults. In fact, they concluded that the national policy context explains up to 100 percent of the parental-happiness disadvantage within nations.

Even though reducing child-care costs augmented the happiness of parents more than the other policies, I find it worth noting that the study showed more generous vacation and sick leave policies also reversed the parental-happiness disadvantage. This is why a labor secretary appointee who criticizes policies like government contractors being able to accrue up to seven days of sick leave a year scares me. Parental happiness is not just an individual issue; it is also a matter of public concern. Glass and her colleagues cite studies suggesting that the lower levels of emotional well-being among parents may have fueled record levels of childlessness throughout the developed world, and also contributed to parents having fewer children than they desire. In short, parental stresses contribute to lower fertility, and this new study shows these stresses are “amenable to public policy solutions that countries can choose to implement or choose to ignore.” I don’t think we should ignore them because small generations of children make it more difficult to maintain future labor force productivity, and it gets harder to finance old-age support when the workers comprise a shrinking share of the population. In this study, the parental happiness deficit was larger in the United States than in 21 other advanced economies. I doubt that we can maintain higher than average fertility for a developed country without stronger work-family reconciliation policies.

I’m not looking for a government policy that will subsidize a maid to scrub my walls or a nanny to socialize my daughters to keep toothpaste in the sink, but I do recognize that the demands of modern parenting are too much for working parents to bear alone. Glass and her colleagues present persuasive evidence that work-family reconciliation policies are in the public good. Not only do these policies augment the happiness of all adults but by benefitting parents more than nonparents, they can also help avoid economic conundrums caused by low fertility.