Photo by Nicu Buculei, Flickr CC

Breaking news: parenting can be stressful. And while emotional closeness with others has been found to increase happiness, the same does not always hold true with parenting. Factors like sleep deprivation, work-family balance, and managing child-related expenses can all have negative impacts on overall happiness. In fact, these factors are often strong enough to make parents less happy than non-parents. However, a study by Jennifer Glass, Matthew A. Andersson, and Robin W. Simon explains how work-family policy at the national level can lessen, or even reverse, the negative impacts of parenting on happiness.

In many nations, family and parenting must be balanced with hectic employment environments, often with less social support than in generations past.  In a study of 22 Western, industrialized countries, the researchers tested the impact of national policy decisions on parental happiness. Using surveys, interviews, and national-level data, they conducted cross-country comparisons to analyze the influence of national-level policies regarding paid vacation and sick leave, work flexibility, child care costs, and options for long-term leaves. The team found that these policies (especially vacation time and sick days) were powerful enough to reverse the effects of parenting on happiness — while parents in nations that did not prioritize such policies were less happy than non-parents, the opposite generally held true in countries that placed a policy emphasis on parenting support. Additionally, the study found that national parenting policies could decrease problematic gender gaps — most policies tended to have greater effects on mothers than fathers, but by reducing the stress surrounding parenting, fathers were more likely to play an increasingly central role.

The negative effect of parenting was the strongest in the United States, and the researchers point to the nation’s high cost of parenting compared to other countries, as well as the almost complete lack of support for parents at the level of national policy. The United States only has one federal-level policy in place to specifically reduce parenting stress (the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act). Combined with the ways that the job market is more likely to provide family benefits to men, young, single, poor women are more likely to be neglected in these work policies. However, this study indicates that a shift in policy could have incredibly beneficial effects for parents, and perhaps help reduce gender inequities in parenting and support.