Till Children Do Us Part

This New York Times piece summarises some potentially interesting new research on the effect of having children upon the quality of marriage. I say ‘potentially’ because it’s a rather sketchy summary of a forthcoming paper by two psychologists at Stanford. I haven’t been able to locate the paper itself yet, presumably it really is forthcoming – if anyone finds it, please post a link in comments.

You may already have read about recent research suggesting that having kids has a generally negative impact on our happiness – despite how counter-intuitive that sounds to many of us. This interesting article from the Atlantic contained a pithy summary (sorry, again I cannot find the original source for this – is it perhaps part of the work being done by Dan Gilbert?):

…if you ask people about their greatest happiness in life, more than a third mention their children or grandchildren, but when they use a diary to record their happiness, it turns out that taking care of the kids is a downer—parenting ranks just a bit higher than housework, and falls below sex, socializing with friends, watching TV, praying, eating, and cooking.

After mentioning this idea, the NYT piece suggests that the report by Phil and Carolyn Cowan refines these findings by considering some of the many nuances involved, including the effect of gender roles… (emphasis added)

…most studies finding a large drop in marital quality after childbirth do not consider the very different routes that couples travel toward parenthood.


The Cowans found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.

Marital quality also tends to decline when parents backslide into more traditional gender roles. Once a child arrives, lack of paid parental leave often leads the wife to quit her job and the husband to work more. This produces discontent on both sides. The wife resents her husband’s lack of involvement in child care and housework. The husband resents his wife’s ingratitude for the long hours he works to support the family.

Although this point about gender seems pretty intuitive and obvious to me, it’s nice to see research bears it out. After all, this is clearly an area where our intuitions can lead us astray (the article also suggests the increased amount of time modern parents spend with their kids is detrimental to everyone’s happiness). If future research further supports these findings, it will perhaps lend greater force and effect to an already important strategy for feminists, namely the thought that gender equality makes people (of all genders) happier in their relationships and isn’t everyone in favour of that? Then again, perhaps this is all too sketchy to tell us anything important just yet. What do you think?