The question of how having children affects parents’ wellbeing has been debated by social scientists and the public for decades. While research studies on this topic have found varied results—in part depending on who is being studied and how wellbeing is defined—some areas of consensus have emerged. First, when people are asked to reflect on their overall happiness or general satisfaction with life, parents tend to report lower life satisfaction than non-parents. This is especially true in the U.S. Second, and somewhat at odds with the findings on life satisfaction, when reporting their experience of positive and negative emotions during regular daily activities, parents tend to report more positive emotions than non-parents. Third, the impact of parenting on wellbeing is gendered: fathers experience a greater increase in positive emotional experiences during daily activities than mothers do.
So why might the day-to-day experience of parenting be more favorable for fathers than for mothers? Researchers have proposed various explanations, including that mothers suffer from insufficient sleep and leisure time, that mothers multi-task more and find multi-tasking more stressful, and that fathers enjoy parenting more because they are more playful in their interactions with children. In our recent study, we focused on how, when, and where parents undertake childcare as a potential explanation for gender differences in parents’ reported emotions. Caring for children involves many different types of activities undertaken in many different circumstances including, for example, taking a family trip to the playground, bringing children to and from school, and changing an infant’s diaper in the middle of the night. There is a substantial body of research on gender and parenting that shows that not only do mothers continue to do more daily childcare than fathers, but that mothers and fathers differ in terms of what activities they do for children and the circumstances in which those activities take place. Our study sought to bridge research on the emotional experience of parenting with research on gender differences in caregiving. In other words, we wanted to know if the context surrounding caregiving activities contributed to gender differences in the emotional rewards of parenting.
First we looked at parents’ reported emotions during childcare. We examined how happy, stressed, and tired parents were when caring for their children as well as how meaningful they found the activity. Consistent with other research, we found that parents generally experience childcare as happy and meaningful but that fathers are happier, less stressed and less tired than mothers when caring for children. Next, we developed the concept of the ‘care context’ as a way to measure how one childcare activity can be different from another. To develop the care context, we considered not only the type of activity parents were doing, but also when and where the activity took place, who else was present, and how much care was involved. We found substantial differences in the care context by parent gender. For example, fathers’ activities were more likely to be recreational (e.g. play) and to take place on the weekends. Meanwhile, mothers’ activities were more likely to be ‘solo’ parenting—parenting without a partner present—and to involve an infant. We also found evidence of mothers’ time fragmentation: although mothers’ childcare activities were typically shorter than fathers’ activities, mothers tended to have spent more cumulative time in childcare each day. We discovered multiple links between the care context and parents’ emotions while caring for their children. Indeed, all aspects of the care context—the type of activity, when and where it took place, who was present and how much care was involved—were related to parents’ reported emotions, often in complex ways. For example, parents reported more happiness and meaning when caring for an infant, but also higher levels of tiredness.
Finally, we tested whether gender differences in the care context helped to explain why fathers are happier, less tired and less stressed than mothers during childcare. We found that once we accounted for the care context, the gender difference in happiness disappeared and the difference in stress was reduced. However, the gap in tiredness was not reduced. So, overall, we concluded that differences in parents’ emotions during childcare result partly from general differences between mothers and fathers (i.e. that mothers are generally more tired and more stressed than fathers) and partly because, on average, fathers’ childcare activities are different than mothers’ childcare activities. Using the data that we have on reported emotions during specific activities, we can’t say why parents’ engagement with their children is gendered in a way that produces more emotional rewards for fathers. What’s clear from our analysis, though, is that gender differences in parents’ wellbeing are partly due to differences in how, when, and where mothers and fathers care for their children.
Cadhla McDonnell is a CAROLINE Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin. Reach her at email@example.com. Nancy Luke is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Demography at The Pennsylvania State University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan E. Short is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Reach her at email@example.com.