Did you know that past studies found parents to be less satisfied with life than non-parents? This is known as the ‘parental happiness gap’.
The parental happiness gap might have been a result of ‘bad’ decision-making due to social pressure and limited knowledge about one’s future situation as a parent. But, whatever may have been true in the past, our forthcoming Gender & Society article “Closing the happiness gap” suggests that the happiness gap has virtually disappeared in the 21st century, at least in Germany.
The decision whether or not to have children is influenced by social circumstance and rational consideration. It can be a conscious decision based on knowledge about sex, reproduction, and pregnancy, as well as the anticipated social and financial consequences of parenthood. But if parenthood is generally what people desire and choose, why should there be a parental happiness gap?
Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, whose studies on “regretting motherhood” have gained widespread attention, suggests that women do not seem to be as free in their decision to have children as we like to think. Motherhood tends to be presented as a blessing, the way to female happiness and fulfillment. Alternative accounts are far and few between, even if reality often falls short of these excessively high expectations. To speak freely of the negative aspects of motherhood – or parenthood, more generally – was in fact taboo until very recently.
The mothers in Donath’s study spoke of stress, boredom, a lack of time to themselves, changes to their body, limited professional opportunities, and financial strain. In public, however, the focus has been firmly and almost exclusively on the bliss of motherhood. Children seem to come with a promise of happiness – reality, however, is often a different story.
We wondered if the happiness gap still existed in Germany because mothers have made substantial gains in terms of professional and social opportunities there in recent decades. Women today can more easily opt out of motherhood and enjoy greater freedom in motherhood – to pursue a career, use professional childcare and take parental leave, for example. These choices should, in theory, result in more people living the lives they truly want for themselves –with or without children.
Indeed, we found in our study that the levels of life satisfaction of mothers and childless women have converged, as have those of mothers and father. We analyzed a data sample from the German Socio-Economic Panel (GSOEP) consisting of more than 18,000 women and almost 12,000 men aged 16 to 55 and over 2000 transitions to parenthood between 1984 and 2015.
A series of hybrid panel regression models show a closing parental happiness gap, which we interpret to be the result of increasing equality among parents and non-parents in terms of education, occupation, and standard of living We find that the political and cultural climate plays a significant role as well, as family-friendly policies and the erosion of normative societal pressure have given rise to an increasing variety of lifestyles.
In Germany, where conservative family values were dominant throughout the 20th century, studies reported a happiness gap and decreased maternal life satisfaction. However, over the past three decades, the strictly gendered parenthood roles of homemaker and provider have been replaced by a much greater variety of family arrangements, and our research shows that German parents are now just as happy with their lives as those without children
We believe our findings reflect the new cultural acceptance of frank conversations about the realities of having children as well as the decline of gendered parenthood norms. In Germany today, having children is truly becoming a matter of choice, and egalitarian parenting is becoming the new ideal.
Today, people no longer have children simply because they are expected to, but rather because, having heard it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly, they desire to be parents. They are also able to select the family arrangements that best suit their needs.
The decline of normative gender expectations in heterosexual couples leads to a measurable gain in individual freedom and a significant increase in life satisfaction for parents and non-parents alike.
Klaus Preisner studied social sciences at the HU Berlin and obtained a doctorate and habilitation at the University of Zurich. Klaus’ research is on family, generations, life course and the welfare state.
Franz Neuberger studied sociology at the LMU Munich, doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2015, Franz has been a scientific consultant at the German Youth Institute. Research focus: Social inequality, family sociology, quality of life research, quantitative methods.
Ariane Bertogg studied sociology at the University of Zurich and the Stockholm University, had received a doctorate at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Ariane has done a post-doc at the University of Konstanz with research focused on life course, family sociology, welfare states, quantitative methods.
Julia M. Schaub studied Education at PHZH (Switzerland) and Queen’s University (Canada), and Sociology at the University of Zurich. Since 2017, Julia has been an undergraduate research assistant at the UZH Institute of Sociology.