Reassessing Happiness Research: Are New Parents Really That Miserable?

Reassessing Happiness Research: Are New Parents Really That Miserable?

Welcome to the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting!   Our second carnival topic is New Parenthood. 

A couple weeks after my son was born, new parenthood became an overwhelming reality for my husband and me.  Both sets of our parents had returned to their homes.  We were alone with a screaming infant who demanded constant feeding, changing, and burping.  The effects of endless sleep deprivation were starting to hit us.  Neither of us showered, ate properly, cooked, or was able to keep our clothes clean for more than five minutes.  Laundry piled up.  We argued constantly, nearly delirious with fatigue, our arguments illogical and fierce.

A dear friend of mine from my university came over to our apartment one Friday after work.  She took one look at us — the bags under our eyes, our dirty clothes — and our apartment and its explosion of baby paraphernalia.

“Wow, this place really has that ‘new parent’ glow,” she said sarcastically.  She stayed just long enough to hear a few minutes of my son’s nightly scream fest that began around 7 p.m.  And then left in her cute, sporty car to watch movies, drink wine, read thick novels, and sleep in until 10 a.m. all weekend.

As I watched my unmarried, childless friend drive away, I sat by the window, weepy, and pleaded for her to hear my unspoken thoughts, Take me with you.  Please.  I want my old life back.  I was once like you.

But those thoughts disappeared within the same hour as I watched my beautiful, perfect baby sleep, swaddled and content in his bassinet.  I felt happier than I had been in my life.

My newborn son and me
My newborn son and me

Was this time — and the early years of parenting — going to be the most joyous of my life?  Or would new parenthood — my son just turned two — made me miserable?  What is “happiness” in the first place for new parents?  And how in the world do you measure it — and the love, joy, frustration, and fear that goes along with the chubby baby cheeks, the sweet baby smell, and the cooing?

Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with the research on parental happiness should not be blamed for being confused.  For years it’s been conventional wisdom in the media and in academia that parents are unhappier than non-parents.  The media establishment, such as the widely dissected New York magazine article “Why Parents Hate Parenting,” frequently reports on the disastrous accounts of parenting on marital satisfaction, mental health, and life satisfaction.

By the time my son was born I had read enough of these doomsday articles to prepare myself mentally for the fact that parenthood would probably make me a bit anxious, depressed, stressed, exhausted, and, well, unhappy a lot of the time.  This would be the lowest point of my marriage.  I would weep a lot.  I got it.  Message received.  Parenthood sucks a lot of the time.

But would I really be that unhappy?

It turns out there have been some serious flaws in previous parenting research on satisfaction and happiness.  One of the most widely cited articles on parental misery is a 2004 article by economist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues.  They surveyed more than 900 working women in Texas, asking them to reconstruct the previous day’s activities  and to describe their levels of happiness during each activity.  Not surprisingly to anyone who has taken care of small children for hours at a time, child-care associated tasks did not get described as the most fun.  (In fact, child care was rated lower than vacuuming.  Is anyone surprised that parents were having less fun changing diapers than watching TV?)

What’s wrong with this study, and others like it that have been used to describe children as parasites of life satisfaction, gradually sucking the joy from our lives?

First, most of these studies did not directly compare parents to non-parents; rather, these studies would control for many complex demographic factors, often using sample data that was many decades old.  For instance, many older studies did not account for how parenting satisfaction changes during each stage of parenting, from the newborn years to late adolescence and early adulthood.

Recent articles actually report on combined series of studies that use complementary methodological approaches to “triangulate” the data to better capture how parenting affects different groups of parents, the individual experience of one parent or family, and variations in perceptions across the lifespan.

Here are a few findings from that research that complicate the “parenthood is misery” picture:

1.  The “happiness” of new parents actually spikes in the months before the birth of a child — as new parents wait, prepare and get excited — and then drops precipitously in the first year.  Thus, comparing the happiness levels of parents pre-baby and post-baby is not a valid measure.

2.  Older parents — particularly in their 40s and beyond — are actually quite happy.  People who become parents at young ages have lower levels of satisfaction than older parents.  This finding is thought to be associated with greater levels of socioeconomic security and emotional support.

3.  Parents may feel differently after the birth of additional children.  They report being happiest after the birth of the first child, slightly less happy after the second, and then describe no changes in happiness after the third child.

4.  Parents overall are happier than their socioeconomically paired peers with no children.

5.  Parenthood is best of all for dads Fathers are happier than mothers, expressing higher levels of positive emotions and happiness than mothers, whose happiness presumably could be tempered by the biological changes of new motherhood and the increased responsibility in caretaking that women generally take on, compared to men.

For me, looking through this research, I’m more bewildered than ever.  I’m not actually sure if this is an area where research studies can ever adequately ever capture the full range of experience and complexity of factors that impact a parent’s feelings about parenthood — or how that experience of parenting interacts with other areas of one’s life.

Parenting is hard, really hard.  It can give your life tremendous meaning and joy but also drain you like nothing else.  Let the researchers figure out the appropriate statistical modeling, but I want to say to new parents, you are not doomed to decades of toil, boredom, and misery.   Life — with children, without them — is just so much more complicated than that.  Maybe philosophers can provide us with better answers.

Has parenthood made your happier?  Why or why not? 

If you’re a new mom, we’d love to find out more about your experience.  We invite you to take our new motherhood survey and tell us about how parenthood changed you.

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Here’s a quick list of our contributors for  this second edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:

The Transition to New Motherhood (Momma, PhD)

Bonding in Early Motherhood:  When Angels Don’t Sing and the Earth Doesn’t Stand Still (Red Wine and Applesauce)

The Connection Between Poor Labour, Analgesia, and PTSD (The Adequate Mother)

For Love or Money:  What Makes Men Ready for New Fatherhood (Matt Shipman)

What the Science Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Breastfeeding Issues, Postpartum Adjustment, and Bonding (Fearless Formula Feeder)

No, Swaddling  Will Not Kill Your Baby (Melinda Wenner Moyer,  Slate)

Sleep Deprivation:  The Dark Side of Parenting (Science of Mom)

The Parenting Media and You (Momma Data)

Reassessing Happiness Research:  Are New Parents Really That Miserable? (Jessica Smock)

40 Long Days and Nights (Six Forty Nine)


You can also “like” the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting on Facebook.  Check out our Facebook page, and connect with all of us there!



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  1. Jen says:

    I agree with your feelings about the research. The fact is the whole idea of parenting and happiness are completely subjective. I can actually be miserable and happy at the same time. The stress of being a parent is very real, the feeling when I look at my son is pure love, no matter what. That is the happiness that I bank on.

  2. Jessica, you said it perfectly; there are days where I look longingly at photographs of my friends and I in college, but then my kids do something that just melts my heart and I can’t remember being anything other than their mom. I think it’s pretty normal to go through those kinds of “mood swings.” At least, I hope it’s normal 😉

    GREAT research–thanks for this! And so timely, no?! 😉

    • I do feel like it’s mood swings, and that’s what some of the researchers are describing as “happiness.” How do you compare moment to moment annoyance or dissatisfaction with the joy of raising a child?

  3. This is an incredible post, I can’t wait to share it. I was one of those who expected depression but all I found was happiness. It was difficult and tiring but that’s not the same as unhappiness. I know a lot of people suffer from PPD and I’m not minimizing that at all, but I just wasn’t one of those people. The first year of my son’s life I was the happiest I’ve been in a long, long while.

    • Thank you, Deb! In some ways, parenthood made me happier than I expected, and in some ways it didn’t. I don’t think it helps anyone to be talking constantly about how new parenthood will make everyone miserable! As you point,everyone’s experience is so individual.

  4. Sara says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you questioned whether traditional research could really study parental happiness! How do you adequately describe or quantify the exhausted/exhilarated/bursting with happiness/frustrated/about to cry/sure you’re failing feeling that comes with being a new mother? There are times I long for some of the joys of being childless – sleeping in being chief in that list! – but nothing about those days compares to the happiness I feel as a parent. The experiences of joy, happiness, etc. are so much richer and fuller when it comes from parenting. Perhaps it’s because we experience the lows of being parents that we get the highs.

    • Yes, I think maybe that’s right: the time, investment, (and sometimes tears) invested in your childhood do make all the love and joys so much more sweet! That’s a great way of putting it!

  5. Johnny Knox says:

    Fathers might be happier parents but they cannot beat the special relationship a child has with its mother due to the fact that she gave birth 🙂

    • EK says:

      Both parents have a special relationship with their children. Animals give birth too but that doesn’t mean that their relationship status with their offspring is more special. For humans, it’s the love the parents give to their children after the birth. Over 40 years of research shows that the children of single mothers don’t on average don’t do as well in life as the children of committed mothers and fathers. In fact, the children of single fathers tend to have fewer problems on average than the children of single mothers. Father’s are necessary after all.

  6. Supermouse says:

    My husband and I have identical twin boys.

    We very much wanted children, but when we realized we had a fertility struggle ahead of us, I would say that my overall happiness decreased. After a year of treatments, the IVF worked. We didn’t want multiples, so we agreed with the doctor who suggested we have only one embryo transferred. As mentioned above, we got twins anyway, when that one embryo split.

    We found out very early that there were twins, and my immediate response was overwhelming fear. I cried all that day, and not tears of joy. They call it “twin-shock.” Over the next weeks, I came to terms with our situation and though nervous, became generally ok with it. I had no control over it, after all.

    Then came the pregnancy complications–I spent 3weeks on home bedrest, and a month on hospital bedrest. The children were born at 36wk, healthy. I did not feel that overwhelming rush of love that some women describe upon seeing their newborns for the first time. I was too exhausted to feel anything more than responsibility. The first two months were all about damage control: keeping the babies on the “content” setting as much as possible. When they started smiling at me, around 2mos old, that’s when the rush of love hit.

    Again, we were lucky–they weren’t especially difficult babies, they put themselves on the same schedule and really didn’t cry much. Like all newborns, they didn’t sleep all night though, and they continued to have at least one night waking to eat until around 6mos old. The sleep deprivation wrecked me. I went to my OB crying, asking if I had PPD. She said no, just exhaustion. Things did improve slightly after 6mos when they were sleeping all night.

    I thought we were doing well…both husband and I work, and we were managing. We were balancing work and child-rearing, and the childcare was (and still is) shared pretty equally between us. But, I was on a slow slide down into clinical depression. I am not sure it would be considered PPD, as it wasn’t diagnosed until the boys were 18mos old, but our busy life didn’t allow for much in the way of breaks. Either we were working or caring for babies….our families helped when they could, which we were and are grateful for.

    Anyway, I got treated for depression. It took a while, but I finally realized I WAS happy again. In the meantime, the depression took a toll on our marriage, which we have made huge efforts and have largely repaired at this point. It took over a year to feel like our marriage was on an even keel again. The depression took a toll on my relationship with my sons. I didn’t enjoy being with them. I loved them and I cared for them properly, but I wished I enjoyed it more. After I recovered, that relationship also improved. Now the boys are 4, and I DO enjoy being with them. They are interactive and fun. At this point, and for the last year and a half, I think I could say I was truly happy—happy in general, happy in my marriage and happy in spending time with my children. So, from shortly before they were born, to when they were 2.5yr old, I was not happy.

    I would never say that all new parents will feel like that, or that all parents of multiples will feel like that. I was already predisposed to depression before I even got married, let alone pregnant. But, that’s my story…the ugly truth. I’m not ashamed, but I am sorry that I missed so much of my sons’ babyhood due to the fog of depression. Luckily, they don’t remember it.

    • I think so many women can relate to your story! Thank you for sharing it! So many women experience postpartum depression or other mood disorders — and even men sometimes do! — that I wonder how any happiness research could account for those challenges.

  7. Rachel says:

    So interesting! I really enjoyed learning about all of this. And it made my heart skip a beat to think of my husband being a happy daddy. Personally, I really struggled with being a new mom and had a great deal of shame about feeling this way (and it wasn’t post-partum depression). I just felt really overwhelmed and had a hard time with the new responsibility with no directions. I love being a mom to my two year old!

    • Well, two year olds are challenging too! (At least my son is….) But in a completely different way. And I think that by the time that your kid is two or three, you’ve gained enough confidence in your parenting — as well as your own realization that your feelings are normal and not permanent — that it usually seems less overwhelming.

  8. diana says:

    I love your article!
    I’m a mother of 6 m.o. and i totally agree with you. At the moments i feel frustrated, and next moment i’m in love with this small creature 🙂
    Also, you start to enjoy things you haven’t thought about before.
    There are three paths to happiness: pleasant life (hedonistic), through engagement (flow) and meaningful life (see Authentic happiness – Seligman, 2002). With parenthood, hedonistic lifestyle ends, but our life gains new meaning and because of that quality of life raises 🙂

    • I have read Seligman! I took a class in graduate school on positive psychology. It would be so interesting to apply some of the concepts (such as “flow”) more directly to the study of parenting. Thank you for reminding me about this research! Hmmm… I’m thinking of this as a possible future post….?

  9. Sara says:

    My husband and I really appreciated your post. We both love evidence-based decision making (I am a pharmacist and he is a software developer). While we don’t have children at the moment, we are certainly considering it in the near future. The information presented prompted us to discuss Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics research. Based on this, we value experiences because they are hard (translated to children in that we value the experience of raising them and love them disproportionately because of the difficulty involved, but others do not rationally understand because it’s not an objective evaluation).

  10. Celeste says:

    I cannot share this article fast enough, or with as many people as I’d like. The simultaneous desperation and Christmas wonder is really hard to articulate to non parents. I complain about my parenting responsibilities all the time, but marvel as my children even more than I have cause to complain.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for a great article. I have a few new and newish moms in my circle of friends, and I can’t wait to send this to each and every one of them. 🙂
    Celeste recently posted…Please don’t leave meMy Profile

    • Thank you, Celeste! Glad you liked it. I’m constantly either gushing about how wonderful, smart, and perfect my son is — or complaining about how difficult and tiring he is the next second. I think that’s why parental happiness is nearly impossible to measure!

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