Although many parents describe their children as the source of their greatest happiness, raising children can also be demanding, stressful, and downright exhausting. Parenthood clearly brings opportunities for both happiness and unhappiness.  

But, of course, people differ in their reactions to being parents depending on their circumstances. For example, single parenting is quite stressful, and, not surprisingly, single parents report less happiness than single people without children. In a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I asked a related question: Who is generally happier—fathers or mothers? 

In our first two studies, we were interested in differences in general happiness levels—do mothers and fathers differ in how they view their lives more broadly? In these studies, fathers reported greater happiness and lower depression than mothers did, and they were also happier than men who did not have children. Fathers also reported experiencing more positive emotions and feelings of connection to other people.

On the other hand, mothers reported more daily stress than fathers and women without children.  So, not only were dads happier than moms, but dads were also happier than men without kids, and moms were less happy than  women who don’t have children. Men and women appear to react differently to parenthood.

In our third study, we wanted to understand parents’ feelings of happiness throughout the day, especially when they were caring for their children. Using the website, parents were contacted several times each day for 3 weeks and asked what they were doing, who they were with, and how happy they felt at that moment. Then, we compared mothers’ and fathers’ moods when they were taking care of their children with their moods while they were doing other activities.

Fathers reported happier moods than mothers while they were taking care of their children.  In fact, fathers’ happy moods during childcare were higher than their feelings of happiness during all of their other activities during the day. By contrast, mothers felt less happy when they were taking care of their children compared with their other daily activities. Notably, these results were not explained by the fact that mothers tend to spend more time with their children than fathers do.  

Why are fathers happier than mothers? One possibility may be due to how fathers spend time with their children. In our third study, fathers were more likely to report that they were playing with their children as they were taking care of them. Playing with children is likely to be a more positive experience than certain other parental behaviors, such as trying to convince a child to eat their green beans.  

A second possibility is that gender expectations shape parenting experiences. In general, mothers tend to be responsible for a good deal of hidden labor in the household—unseen tasks that are necessary to keep things running smoothly—such as tracking the family calendar, preparing grocery lists, and making sure children’s homework gets finished. Those responsibilities may place extra stress on moms, resulting in lower happiness.    

Opportunities for play and different parental responsibilities are two possible explanations for the happiness gap between mothers and fathers, but they are probably not the only causes. More research is needed to better understand gender differences in parents’ happiness. This research might also point to suggestions for ways that parents can ease the stresses of parenting. 

Finally, if play offers more positive experiences for parents to interact with their children, then a simple recommendation might be for moms to  incorporate more play into their interactions with their kids. But that response is oversimplified and plays right into the problem at hand. Moms are already stressed and overburdened; they don’t need to add something else to their never ending to-do lists. Alternatively, partners and other family members could look for ways they can lighten moms’ loads, freeing up opportunities for moms to enjoy more stress-free time with their children. 

For Further Reading:

Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Killingsworth, M. A., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2019). Parenthood is associated with greater well-being for fathers than mothers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1378-1390. 

Ciciolla, L., & Luthar, S. S. (2019). Invisible household labor and ramifications for adjustment: Mothers as captains of households. Sex Roles, 81, 467-486.

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenthood: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846-895.

Katherine Nelson-Coffey is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South and author of the Psychology Today blog “Living Life Well." She studies how becoming a parent is related to changes in happiness and well-being.