Curious Parents

The Parenting Happiness Gap Is Real, But Your Kids Aren't to Blame

You've probably heard that people who don't have kids are happier than people who do. We hate to break it to you, parents, but the research bears this out — at least, in some countries. A study suggests that parents aren't actually doomed to a life of unhappiness. That's because parental happiness isn't linked to kids; it's linked to government policy.

"What We Found Was Astonishing"

In 2016, researchers led by Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas published a study in the American Journal of Sociology that examined social surveys from 22 European and English-speaking countries. They found that contrary to popular belief, what some might call the parenting happiness gap and what they called the parental "happiness penalty" between parents and nonparents actually varies from country to country. Parents in the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia are less happy than the childfree, but in places like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, parents are actually happier than nonparents.

That's surprising enough, but the researchers wanted to find out more. What could cause these stark differences? Is it because some countries have more unplanned pregnancies, or perhaps bigger families? The data said no. Instead, the team looked at government policy, specifically "the duration and generosity of paid parenting leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the cost of child care for the average two-year old as a percent of median wages, and the extent of work schedule flexibility offered to parents of dependent children."

"What we found was astonishing," writes Glass in a research brief for the Council on Contemporary Families. When they controlled for GDP and fertility rate — making sure they weren't just comparing the effects of living in a rich country versus a poor one — they found that those policies explained 100 percent of the difference in parental happiness among different countries. Unhappiness isn't caused by having kids; it's caused by having kids in a country that doesn't support parents.

Who Has It Worst?

The country with the largest happiness gap between parents and non-parents is...drumroll please...the good old U.S. of A. The gap for American parents is significantly larger than that of British and Australian parents, and much, much larger than every other country studied.

Why? According to Glass, the two biggest factors in the gap for every country came down to the cost of caring for the average 2-year-old as a percent of income, and the total number of paid sick and vacation days. The data shows that the U.S. is laughably behind other countries in paid days off, and a recent study found that childcare costs were higher than rent in 500 of 618 areas of the U.S. In fact, when compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks last in every measure of family policy, according to The Washington Post. When you realize how little help they get compared to parents in other parts of the world, it's no wonder that American parents are less happy than their childless peers.

Why Are Parents So Much Less Happy?

Written by Ashley Hamer March 19, 2017

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