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?

9 thoughts on “Till Children Do Us Part

  1. A small thought. Am slightly dubious about use of diary to register happiness, and assumption that a life’s happiness (or a period of life’s happiness) is reducible to the daily instances of happiness. I consider my writing, e.g., to be one of the most rewarding things I do. I consider it to greatly contribute to the quality of my life. But if I were to keep a diary, the entries about my daily writing would be one unending expression of frustration, angst, and boredom. One would be forgiven for thinking that it was the one thing that greatly detracted from the quality of my life. But I don’t think I’m deluded about it’s importance to my well-being. Instead, I think happiness and reward isn’t all about instant gratification. Anyhow, I haven’t read either of the articles you link to – I intend to do so when I have a minute because they both sound very interesting.

  2. Monkey’s point seems likely to be right and important to me. Many things can be frustrating when looked at in bits but great when looked at in larger perspective. (Or maybe we’re just fooling ourselves with the larger perspective, though I tend to think not.) This bit also sounded interesting and likely to be right to me:

    “the increased amount of time modern parents spend with their kids is detrimental to everyone’s happiness”

    Of course, I largely like it because it fits with the idea I already believed, that parents managing their children’s lives too closely and letting them play, walk to school, etc. on their own much less is bad both for the parents and the kids. But it does strike me as likely to be important and true.

  3. 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).

    I am in particular disagreement with this suggestion. In fact, the modern family does not spend nearly enough time together. First, we are all working far too many hours to allow for valuable family time. Even when families share the same home, too often they are all engaged in separate activities. Spending time in front of the television together or acting as a taxi driver ferrying children back and forth to different activities is NOT spending time together as a family. It is these kinds of actions that lead to disconnect and dissatisfaction. It is easy to feel burnt out or taken advantage of, if there is no close relationship between parent and child.

    I know that we are happier when we are truly interacting with each other rather than sharing a space. This may mean keeping a close eye on my guys when we play monopoly because they have a tendency to cheat, or throwing an impromptu dance party because we all happen to like the same song, or cuddling in front of the fire to roast marshmallows or going karoke as a family. These events make us all happy and bring us closer together.

    I think part of the dissatisfaction is not so much family life but what we consider family life to be. Too many parents are far too busy and the very fact that we refuse to slow down is what causes a problem. Life does not always have to be a rush to see whose kid can collect the most trophies. I know one thing as sure as I know anything else, the best times in my life are because my unhusband and my children were with me.

  4. Renee – I think that’s a really important point. And perhaps not in conflict with Matt’s thought that it’s bad for parents to mollycoddle their children. I wonder if the study took different kinds of time into account? I really must read it…

  5. Biology does us no favors. People have children too young, when they have too many other priorities: careers, studies, a super sex life, etc. If people had children when they reach the age of the average grandparent, say, over age 55, they would enjoy being with their children more.

  6. From a recent interview with a co-author of “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” study:

    The example I give to demonstrate the limits of happiness data is that people with children are less happy than equivalent people without children. The only explanation that I can think of is that parents are more stressed and harried so when they’re asked about happiness or life satisfaction, they’re not quite as joyous or satisfied as people without kids. But it’s hard for me to imagine that they’re all making a mistake by having children. If we were to take it too literally, what we would really want to maximize the welfare of the living population is an anti-natalist policy. Alternatively, it may be that utility is a broader concept than happiness, and utility goes up as you have children.

    A shame, in my opinion, she so readily dismisses antinatalism and the notion that a lot of people are making a mistake in having children.

  7. I think it is recognized that current “happiness studies” work often has an ill-defined grasp of happiness. Monkey’s comment about writing in effect points to the problem: something might be essential to my happiness, but not to moment by moment happiness. One useful (and actually fairly obvious, at least as a starting point) distinction is in this abstract from the Journal of Happiness Studies:

    Hedonia (seeking pleasure and comfort) and eudaimonia (seeking to use and develop the best in oneself) are often seen as opposing pursuits, yet each may contribute to well-being in different ways. We conducted four studies (two correlational, one experience-sampling, and one intervention study) to determine outcomes associated with activities motivated by hedonic and eudaimonic aims. Overall, results indicated that: between persons (at the trait level) and within persons (at the momentary state level), hedonic pursuits related more to positive affect and carefreeness, while eudaimonic pursuits related more to meaning; between persons, eudaimonia related more to elevating experience (awe, inspiration, and sense of connection with a greater whole); within persons, hedonia related more negatively to negative affect; between and within persons, both pursuits related equally to vitality; and both pursuits showed some links with life satisfaction, though hedonia’s links were more frequent. People whose lives were high in both eudaimonia and hedonia had: higher degrees of most well-being variables than people whose lives were low in both pursuits (but did not differ in negative affect or carefreeness); higher positive affect and carefreeness than predominantly eudaimonic individuals; and higher meaning, elevating experience, and vitality than predominantly hedonic individuals. In the intervention study, hedonia produced more well-being benefits at short-term follow-up, while eudaimonia produced more at 3-month follow-up. The findings show that hedonia and eudaimonia occupy both overlapping and distinct niches within a complete picture of well-being, and their combination may be associated with the greatest well-being.

  8. I don’t mean to suggest BTW that I quite get what they’re doing, but rather that we see one kind of unresolved issue in the field.

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