Time by Sean McEntee / vic Flickr Commons
Time by Sean McEntee / vic Flickr Commons

This summer, the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) reported on research by sociologists Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon, and Matthew Andersson finding that parents in the United States were less happy than their non-parent counterparts, and also less happy than parents in other countries. Reporters cynically titled their headlines with statements such as, “If You’re a Happy Parent in America, You’re a Unicorn.”

CCF scholar Kelly Musick and researchers Ann Meier and Sarah Flood show that parents in the United States aren’t always unhappy, even though on average, parents are less happy than non-parents. Their new research, How Parents Fare: Mothers’ and Fathers’ Subjective Well-Being in Time with Children, featured in the American Sociological Review, answers questions about the conditions under which mothers and fathers in the United States are happy and unhappy, and how their daily activities impact broader measures of parental well-being.

Musick, Meier, and Flood analyzed data in the form of self-reported well-being (happiness, sadness, stress, fatigue, and sense of meaningfulness) during 36,063 specific market and non-market work, care work, and leisure activities reported by 12,163 parents in the nationally representative 2010, 2012, and 2013 American Time Use Surveys.

The researchers highlight important findings regarding parenting and well-being:

Parent well-being is not static: parents tended to have higher measures of well-being when they were with their children as compared to without their children. Though recent studies have shown parents to be less happy than non-parents, it was not the case that children caused parents to be unhappy. Parents felt a greater sense of meaning and were happier, less sad and stressed, but just as tired, when they were with their children as compared to when they were not with them. The authors suggested that “positive feelings in time with children may thus reflect feeling rushed or guilty in time away from children.”

Mothers’ well-being was greater with than without children, but still not quite as high as fathers’ well-being with children. Specifically, mothers were more tired and stressed when with their children than were fathers. These differences in well-being were not because of the children, but because of the different activities in which mothers and fathers engaged. Mothers were more likely to do “routine” child-rearing tasks (“basic childcare” and “childcare management”) than fathers, but both parents were equally likely to do fun activities like “playing with” and “teaching” children. Mothers were more likely to engage in “solo-parenting,” meaning that they spent time with their children under age 18 without another adult present. Mothers also spent less time on average than fathers in their own leisure activity and had lower-quality sleep. When the “gendered patterns” of moms’ versus dads’ activities were considered, accounting for the greater share of care work and lower quality and quantity of “restorative” activity engaged by mothers, moms fared just as well in terms of well-being as fathers.

Parents, to varying degrees, have higher subjective well-being when they are spending time with their children than when they are not. Mothers, however, have slightly lower well-being than fathers. What does all this mean from a policy perspective? CCF reports point to evidence-based solutions. Affordable childcare and work-family policies should be implemented so that parents can meet the many demands made of them, whether those demands are caring for children and parents, working, or taking time to relax. These policies should be similar for men and women, because when fathers take paternity leave, they spend more time on childcare in the long run; by the logic of “How Parents Fare,” this could eliminate gender disparities in parental well-being. Here’s hoping that the calls for these policies—that have been around for a while—will be heeded at last following our current political season.

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.