Why Parents In The U.S. Have The Biggest 'Happiness Gap'

Parents here pay a steeper happiness penalty than elsewhere in the world.
The happiness gap between parents and non-parents is bigger in the U.S. than elsewhere. 
The happiness gap between parents and non-parents is bigger in the U.S. than elsewhere. 

Social research has long pointed to a parenting "happiness gap" -- that is, the idea that parents are not as happy as adults without children -- which can be a depressing bit of information to try and make sense of when you're already in the throes of raising a small person.

Now, new research has moved the discussion beyond simply "are parents unhappy?" -- asking instead whether parents elsewhere in the industrialized world pay as steep a happiness penalty as they do here in the United States.

The answer? They don't.

In the study, slated for publication in the American Journal of Sociology in September, a team of researchers with Baylor University, the University of Texas at Austin and Wake Forest University found that the U.S. has by far the largest parenting happiness gap when compared to 21 other industrialized nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Even Ireland, the country closest to the U.S. in terms of the disparity between parents' and non-parents' had a parental happiness gap that was 20 percent smaller than ours, meaning the disparity here in the U.S. was particularly pronounced. And in some countries, including Russia, France, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Hungary and Portugal, parents reported being as happy or happier than non-parents. Most members of the OECD are high-income countries, though there are "emerging countries," such as Mexico, Chile and Turkey.

So why is the parenting happiness gap in the U.S. so pronounced?

The relative lack of social policies supporting mothers and fathers is a major factor, the researchers say -- and many OECD countries have far more robust policies supporting parents.

"We wanted to see whether policies around paid leave, paid vacation, flexibility in work schedules, and childcare assistance explain the smaller gaps in happiness in societies that provide these benefits," said Robin Simon, a professor of sociology with Wake Forest University and an author on the study. "And indeed we found that these policies -- particularly childcare assistance and flexibility of work hours -- explain the parenthood happiness gap in the U.S."

That isn't to say that other policies, such as paid parental leave (which the U.S. lacks), don't affect parents, she said; rather that in this study, flexible work arrangements and subsidized childcare seemed to have the most profound effect on parental happiness.

None of this, of course, will come as much of a shock to parents in the U.S., where the annual cost of full-time childcare now surpasses the average price of in-state college tuition throughout much of the country, and where nearly 40 percent of working parents say they always (always!) feel rushed. But it will, perhaps, provide some comfort that it is not necessarily parenting itself -- with its intense highs and lows -- that appears to take a toll on happiness; it's the lack of public policies supporting caregivers.

"Parents in the U.S. are not as happy as non-parents in part because we have no social supports for them," said Simon. "We do nothing to help ease the demands and challenges of parenting."

And can that change? Absolutely.

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