American parents are miserable: How can we help them?

The Declaration of Independence may guarantee all Americans the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but it turns out that Americans who pursue life in the form of becoming parents are not happy, at least compared to nonparents.  Worse yet, the “happiness gap” between those who have children and those who don’t places American parents as the most miserable in a comparison of 22 similar EU and English-speaking countries, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Sociology.

Before I answer why American parents are the most miserable, what’s causing the general unhappiness of parents? Experts generally point to the “cost of children” hypothesis to explain how the sweetness of raising children curdles when there is too much stress and not enough social support for caregivers. Raising children is associated with many stressors – costs – including increased financial burden, massively increased workload at home, and less time for other things that bring joy to life, such as time with a romantic partner, friends, hobbies, and sleep.

This all makes sense, but given the ubiquity of these stressors for parents the world over, why does parental happiness vary across countries – and research has already shown that it does vary – even among Western countries that are largely similar in terms of economic development? And why is America at the bottom of the misery pile?

The 22 countries study answered these questions, first by comparing reports of self-rated happiness from two large international data sets – the European Social Survey and the International Social Survey Programme – gathered between 2006 and 2008.  The researchers compared the happiness ratings of parents and nonparents within each country and then examined documented policies and laws within each country to ascertain the amount of paid maternal leave, paid vacation and sick leave, work flexibility, public assistance with child care, and other family friendly supports also known as work-life reconciliation policies .

Not surprisingly, the study results indicated that those countries with the most comprehensive family friendly supports — in the form of policies and programs — had virtually eliminated the happiness gap, and in many cases reversed it.

Who were the happiest? Parents from Portugal, Spain, Hungary, and the three Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland — in that order — were among the countries where parents reported greater happiness than nonparents.

Switzerland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Greece, Ireland, and the U.S. — in that order — rounded out the bottom, with American parents reporting by far the greatest “happiness penalty” — 13 percent less happiness than their childless peers. Recall that in America, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the only federal policy to assist parents who work — and FMLA merely guarantees time off without pay, and only for certain types of workers.

A pleasant little sub-finding of the study was that family-friendly policies did not come at the cost of reducing happiness in the childless, and in fact increased the self-reported happiness of all women in those countries that had them – even women without children.

In short, laws and social policies that support parents by mitigating costs and stressors will support America. Children are our future – everyone’s future. It is to all of our benefit if they are raised by happy, healthy parents. 


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