Are parents happier than their childless peers?
For the last five years or so, I’ve answered that question with a resounding “no.” Statistics (not to mention anecdotal evidence) led me to believe that parents tend to be more stressed and less happy.
In some ways, this seems understandable, even obvious. Folks without kids can go to yoga or hang out with friends without having to find a babysitter (or negotiate with a spouse). Childless people don’t panic over stranding their kids at school when a meeting runs late, or lay awake at night worrying about how to keep the kids’ health insurance, or feel overwhelmed by mountains of laundry and plastic toys and permission slips.
But now three new studies throw a wrench in the previous research. The studies, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, find that parents report higher levels of happiness and positive emotion and have more “thoughts about meaning in life.”
Some parents, that is.
Young parents and single parents don’t fare as well: Unmarried parents are unhappier than people without kids, as are parents under 26 years old. (Parents over age 63 don’t differ from their childless peers.)
Then there’s the gender gap. While it’s true that parents on average report greater happiness and satisfaction with their lives than their childless peers, this is actually because fathers are driving the averages up. Mothers don’t show a big uptick in happiness by having kids. It’s really the dads that are happier.
Parenthood, it turns out, is only associated with greater life satisfaction and happiness among fathers.
As a feminist mother, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a tad resentful about this.
Anyone who has looked at the statistics on household division of labor knows that moms typically bear the brunt of the unfun housework that comes with child-rearing, not to mention the logistical backflips of the highly-scheduled childhood.
I’m not saying that men don’t do housework, because they do. And, on average, they are doing more than they have in past generations. But every day, mothers are doing housework and caring for family members for nearly four hours, compared to dads’ three hours.
What’s more, housework in the U.S. is still very gendered: Women do more laundry and dishes and cleaning; men do more yardwork. I know I find gardening on the weekends more fun than battling the dishes in my sink morning, noon and night. So perhaps that extra hour of work, and the different type of work, makes moms less happy than dads.
But my resentment will buy me nothing in the happiness department. Focusing on happiness as a zero-sum game gets us nowhere in our fight for equality.
Here’s why. First, we all presumably have the same goals; namely, to raise happy and healthy kids, and to find happiness ourselves. And a happy father is, generally speaking, a good father. We know that positive emotions make us better parents – when we are feeling good, we are more likely to be better listeners, warmer caregivers and to be more consistent in our discipline.
Second, it is better for our own well-being and the well-being of our children if we are cultivating (and modeling) what Buddhists call mudita rather than cultivating and modeling resentment. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes mudita as “vicarious joy,” or “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.” Experiencing another person’s happiness vicariously really can bring us great happiness; happiness is very contagious. In fact, happiness generally spreads three degrees, affecting not just our friends, but our friend’s friend’s friend’s.
For example, my own dad is about the happiest father imaginable. He takes my daughters to the dentist, volunteers at their swim meets and takes them out for ice cream once a week. The pride, pleasure and great meaning that he gets from his fathering activities is obvious, contagious and moving. When I watch him with my children, I feel a deep contentment that is hard to come by in other ways.
I’m not suggesting that structural and cultural changes aren’t in order to correct the happiness gender gap among parents, or that it is okay if dads’ happiness comes at the expense of moms’. I am suggesting that this Father’s Day, we should celebrate the fact that fathers tend to be happier than their childless peers, as this bodes well for everyone, not the least of whom are mothers and children.
Maybe your happiness on Father’s Day will come from a moment of reflection, as a dad, about the ways parenting is satisfying. Or, maybe your happiness on Sunday will come vicariously, through the fathers in your life. Either way, Happy Father’s Day.
Fathers: What is it about being a dad brings you the most happiness and life satisfaction?
Mothers and others: How do you derive vicarious joy from watching the happy dads in your life?
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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The Secret Meaning of Loving Feelings
June 3, 2012 by Mark Brady
Decades ago the Righteous Brothers pined forlornly about the sorry state of affairs that come calling when you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, especially after you’ve had a love, a love you don’t find every day. What the Righteous Brothers never really offered listeners though, is a hypothesis about where that lovin’ feeling actually went … and how we might investigate ways to bring it back. Me and my brain are here at this late date to offer one possible explanation … and a plan of action.
Essentially, every time I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling it became buried under one or more of the Dirty Dozen Defense Mechanisms. Those mechanisms invariably fired up limbic structures in my brain, structures like the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Once triggered, the parts that make up the HPA axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) began secreting stress hormones into my blood stream. Those hormones produce the exact opposite feelings that oxytocin and endorphins produce, leaving me sad and forlorn and singing along with Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers … Bye-Bye Love.
Feeling love means I’m running soft, safe, undefended, expansive energy, as opposed to loss or fear, which most often show up as hard, constrictive, defensive, protective energy attempting to safeguard my body and brain. One of the reasons I can so often unconditionally love babies and pets is that they rarely trigger defensive reactions in me. On the other hand, one big life challenge is to be able to continue running, soft, safe, undefended expansive energy in the face of someone I’ve become disenchanted with, or around someone who has become disenchanted with me. But I can tell you from personal experience, that while it’s not necessarily easy, it’s not impossible.
Given this state of affairs, it’s useful for me to think of emotional reactions as early warning signals surfacing from down below the neck and also from the depths of the right brain primarily (in actuality, thoughts and feelings are probably widely distributed across many neurophysiological nodal points). Emotions are early warning signals because almost all of the (only) 40 conscious pieces of the 11 million data bits we take in at any moment are often apprehended by the Bully Interpreter brain. And the Interpreter is constantly distorting things conservatively, i.e. negatively and apprehensively.
Why I Write Listening Books
David Augsburger, a professor of pastoral care at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of Caring Enough to Confront, has noticed that “being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.” It’s also a great way to combat my Bully Interpreter’s distortions. Turns out I’ve never lost that loving feeling in response to someone earnestly and undistractedly attempting to hear and deeply understand me. So, I think David’s right. One partial reason is that being listened to helps us discharge the increased levels of neurotoxic glucocorticoids that Big Emotion often generates in the wake of a grand HPA axis activation. We begin to feel less fear. Which means we generate fewer stress response neurotoxins. Which means our brains are freed up to process more energy and information as a result of make increasing connections (even with our heart, perhaps).
But also, deep listening, much like love, is radically seditious. It goes toe to toe with our culture of distraction
. It promotes the cultivation of radicalness and rebellion, fearlessness and defenselessness. Both listening and love live to go beyond themselves. Not only does our safety lie in fearless defenselessness, but therein also lies a pathway back to Rumi’s field out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing. It’s in that field that we can each begin to breathe out and tell tender truths that permit Defense Mechanisms to dissolve. When we are able to do this successfully, we come back face to face with Rumi’s other great awareness: love is the default condition, the primary, subtle, driving creative energy of the universe. It’s the energy that grows flowers and trees and baby’s brains and children’s hearts.
Learning to listen skillfully is however, a VERY difficult practice. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t find Bully Interpreter trying to convince me and others about the rightness and righteousness of what it believes. And not only is it adamant in its beliefs, it’s often inflexible in its ability to consider alternative possibilities. Not a great way to invoke and sustain loving feelings, unfortunately.
The Benefits of Reclaiming Love
Using listening skills as a contemplative spiritual practice invariably seems to work to soften mental and physical structures inside me. Tensions I’m holding in body, mind and brain begin to ease, allowing the Bully Interpreter to relax. With such release I often find myself opening to the possibility of increasingly creative responses. As Neil Gaiman offers in this inspiring commencement address given recently to the graduating class at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, listening practice begins to foment not only a deep desire to “make good art,” but a conviction that I really can. And in my experience much of the good art in the world springs from … love. People who love who they are and what they do rarely lose that lovin’ feeling.
Although many fathers today spend more time with children than was the case in the past, physical care of young children remains primarily mothers’ work. Yet some fathers claim that they do work traditionally seen as the “mother’s job” every day. Using subsample data from the male respondent file of the National Survey of Family Growth 2002 (n = 613), this study examines factors associated with married or cohabiting fathers’ daily involvement in physical care of children under age 5 years. Logistic regression results show that daily involvement is more likely if fathers were raised by their biological fathers, received more education, have employed wives or partners, have a young male child, or receive public assistance; it is less likely if they have school-age children. This study suggests that paternal involvement in physical care of young children is shaped by multiple factors including childhood experiences, education, economic conditions, and current family context.
Ron Huxley Remembers: I was one of those very involved fathers who attended the child birth classes, got up for the bottle feedings at 2 a.m. and changed diapers. Many dad’s don’t, even in modern society. It still seems to remain largely the mothers role to take care of new babies. Dad’s who do diapers depend on several factors, according to this research, including how they were raised, their temperament, and their economic status.
How involved was your father or the father of your children in the care taking of your children? Click reply below or post on our Facebook page your response: http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox
“American mothers are multitasking for 48.3 hours each week, compared to 38.9 hours working fathers put in, researchers from Michigan State University reported in American Sociological Review. They add that women find multitasking a negative experience, compared to fathers who say that for them the experience is a positive one.”
Ron Huxley’s Reaction: A recent journal article reported that mom’s multitask more than dad’s and they find the entire experience more negative than do fathers. This could be because they do most of the work around the home, as the article implies, than do dad’s. I wouldn’t like it either if I was the one doing all the work either! The article gives some very simple advice: Dad’s need to help out more. Unfortunately, like most simple advice there is more complexity behind it, like social rewards or more flexible work hours. In our home it was do whatever you could whenever you could and this way, no one got resentful that the other parent wasn’t doing their part.
How do you divide the parenting/household responsibilities? Are dad’s really just slackers when it comes to parenting duties? Share your thoughts by clicking the reply button.
In one study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2005, researchers from Yale University looked at the attitudes of our culture at large towards traditional and non-traditional families. The researchers defined traditional as a family with a working father and stay-at-home mother, and non-traditional families as families with a working mother and a stay-at-home father. The results of these studies were quite interesting, and they just go to show what some of the common reactions to stay-at-home dads are.
The researchers in this study found that people liked traditional families more, and that they expressed negative attitudes – usually very openly! – towards non-traditional families. Stay-at-home dads were somehow viewed as less-than by other people, and working mothers were not well-respected or well-liked unless they were working because of financial necessity rather than for personal fulfillment.
If you’re already a stay-at-home dad or have talked with people about the possibility of becoming one, this all probably seems like a no-brainer to you! It’s not at all uncommon for people to have a distinctly negative, know-it-all attitude towards stay-at-home dads. But then, of course, there’s the opposite extreme of those who paint you to be a hero just because you stay home with your kids. What’s a guy to do? Here are a few of the most common reactions to being a stay-at-home dad and what you can do about them:
The Hateful Reaction
When it comes to parenting, you simply can’t please everyone, nor should you try to. While every parenting decision from whether or not to breastfeed a child to whether or not to spank a child can come with hateful reactions from certain quarters, nothing seems to draw so many of these reactions as being a stay-at-home dad. (At least, that’s how you probably feel when you tell people that this is what you do!) Some people just don’t get it and never will agree with your decision.
The best way to react to this one is to ignore it! You don’t owe anyone else (not even your own mother-in-law!) a justification about why you’ve decided to stay home with your kids. If you’re getting a hateful reaction from someone you don’t even know, just walk away. In touchier situations – like when you’re dealing with family members – perhaps you can come up with a one-liner such as, “It just works better for us this way,” that you can throw in before you pointedly change the direction of the conversation.
The Effusive Reaction
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have those very liberal people who think that being a stay-at-home dad makes you a hero. While it can be nice to be praised rather than vilified for your current career choice, it can also be quite annoying because you know you’re just doing what’s best for your family and yourself at this particular moment in your history.
Dealing with those who think you’re a total hero for taking care of your kids can be tricky. Of course, you don’t want to offend them purposefully, but you might also want to just change the subject yet again. Again, having just a little something to say about your role as a stay-at-home dad and then changing the subject can be helpful.
The Advice-Giving Reaction
Part of the problem with our world’s perception of the roles of men and women is that people assume dads don’t understand how to take care of children by virtue of the fact that they are male. This is, of course, no true. Some men are just as much “naturals” at caring for kids as some women are, and every parent has at least a little bit of learning curve, no matter what their gender!
Just because men can’t give birth or breastfeed certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t competent enough to care for a child.
With that said, as a stay-at-home dad, be prepared for more than your fair share of parenting advice. It will come from moms at the playground, your family members, people you know a little, and complete strangers in the grocery store. There are a myriad of ways to handle the advice-giving reaction to your role as a dad, and the option you choose depends on your personality, how well you know the advice giver, and your mood on that particular day.
You could, for instance, just let the advice roll off your back with a polite, “Thanks for the advice” and, of course, a quick change of subject if you’re stuck in an actual conversation with the advice-giver. You could also become a little sarcastic, which is especially fun when you’re dealing with those who have much less parenting experience than you (or, in many cases, who aren’t parents at all and just happen to be of the female gender). Of course, if the person you’re speaking with has a similar parenting style to your own and is genuinely trying to help, it can be helpful to listen and learn! It might eat at your pride a little to take unasked-for advice, but sometimes you really will learn something helpful!
Reactions to being a stay-at-home dad can be difficult to get used to and to deal with at first, and if your career had previously been a big part of your identity, things can be even more difficult. However, learning to deal with these common reactions in a way that is helpful for you and for the people involved otherwise is a good way to make your time as a stay-at-home dad more successful.
By Daniela Baker
Daniela blogs at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison site. She blogs about family finance and as a mother of two, she firmly believes in the idea of having a bit of an emergency fund saved up just in case.
Ron Huxley’s Reaction: I love this post by DIY Father.com as it addresses some very common reactions to stay at home dads. I have known several families where the wife makes more money and has a more stable dad and this was the logical conclusion for their family. It seemed to work for them. I think it would drive me crazy.
One of the most magical moments of my life was being at the birth of my child. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I remember watching him squirm and cry as he met the world. I remember how he paused to listen to my voice as I whispered my love for him and commitment to him. To this day, spending time with my kids continues to be one of my favorite activities. To not spend time with my children is unfathomable.
For many fathers, this isn’t the case. They sit in hospital waiting rooms, clapping each other on the back and congratulating one another on a job well done, while their child enters the world without their father next to them. The day after the delivery and every day after are filled with missed opportunities to bond with their child and influence the directions they will take in life. They rationalize that they are sacrificing for their family by working long hours and justify their emotional distance as modeling how to survive in the “cold, cruel world.” Food on the table and a roof over head is nice but nothing makes up for loving, nurturing relationships with one’s father. How do fathers build this bond? What barriers stand in the way? And, what are some practical tools to help fathers strengthen their children intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically?
To help me answer these questions, I asked for advice from dad’s who have a close bond with their children. How do I know they have a close bond? I asked their wives! How do you bond with your child? In response to this question, all of the fathers answered alike. They stated that the best way to bond was simply to spend time with a child. What you do is not as important as doing something.
They divided activities up into four main areas: Physical, Intellectual, Social, and Spiritual. A balance of these four areas would result in a child having a happier, healthier life.
Physical activities are the most familiar to fathers and include working around the house together, sharing a hobby, coaching an athletic team, exercising together, and going places together.
Intellectual activities focus on being involved in a child’s academics, participating in school related activities, encouraging hard work, and modeling yourself as a their primary teacher of life.
Social activities centered on talking with children, sharing feelings and thoughts, demonstrating appropriate affection and manners, and getting to know your child’s friends.
Spiritual activities are used the least by dad’s but have the most power to influence a child. These activities incorporate reading spiritual stories together, going to church or the synagogue, praying with children, establishing rules and order, being consistent and available, and exploring the mysteries of nature.
What is difference between the father/child bond and the mother/child bond? It was quickly apparent from the surveys that dad’s have a different approach or style to bonding than mom’s. Dad’s have a more rough and tumble approach to physical interaction or may spend time in more physical activities such as play or working on a project together. Competition was also seen more in father/child bonding and was considered healthy if used in small doses and with sensitivity to a child’s temperament and abilities. Sportsmanship but not necessary sports activities, was regarded as an essential ingredient in the development of a child’s characters. While the approach may differ, the need for bonding with mom and dad is equally significant. One dad joked that other than a couple of biological differences (e.g., giving birth or breastfeeding) he couldn’t see one as more important than the other.
What barriers prevent fathers from achieving a bond with their child? All of the fathers agreed that work and the mismanagement of time were the biggest robbers of relationships with children. No one discounted a father’s responsibility to provide for his family, but all of them maintained that a healthy balance is needed between work and family. They felt that society makes it easy to use one’s career as an escape. Social influences tend to value the bond a child has with mom to be more important than with dad. But none of the dad’s questioned felt this barrier to be insurmountable.
Eliminating barriers in society begins in the home. Dads must demonstrate that being involved in the home is important to them before society will start treating dads as important to the home. Dads need to take the initiative to change a diaper, clean up after dinner, give the kids their bath, and do the laundry. The collective effect of these “small” acts will ripple out into society to create “bigger” change. Can a father bond with a child if they did not have a father growing up? The entire group affirmed that not having a father would make it more difficult but not impossible to bond with a child. According to one dad, bonding is more of an innate need or spiritual drive than simply a learned behavior. Therefore, fatherless fathers are not doomed to repeat their own childhood experiences. Another dad suggested “getting excited” by the little things that make a child excited or happy. Getting down on the child’s level, regressing to those early moments in life when you were a child, and sharing simple pleasures with your child will foster the bonding missed the first time around. In summary, it is clear that the bond between a father and a child is an important one.
Barriers, such as social values and absent fathers make bonding with children difficult but not impossible. Children need the unique style of bonding that fathers can provide and fathers can build that bond by spending time engaging in physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual activities.