If You're a Happy Parent in America, You're a Unicorn

A new report finds American parents are not as happy as moms and dads in 22 other Western nations.
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I'm happier now that I'm a parent. Life just has more meaning for me, and having children just puts so many things into perspective. As in, I just can't worry about whether my outfit is in keeping with the latest trends, or that another mom at the preschool doesn't seem to like me very much.

Because I'm so happy being a mom, I wasn't surprised that a recent study foundparents are happier than non-parents in 22 European and English-speaking countries. What did surprise me is that here in the U.S., I'm in the minority of contented parents. The reason American moms and dads aren't as happy as their foreign counterparts? According to the Council of Contemporary Families briefing paper, a so-called 'happiness penalty,' which makes some moms and dads feel suffocated and overwhelmed by their kids, isn't the norm for many Europeans like it is for Americans. 

So, American parents aren't so thrilled with spending weekends at kid's birthday parties, and having to come home from a night out by 10 p.m. because the babysitter is only 15? Actually, no, annoying parties and curfews aren't what is making us unhappy. But the weighty responsibilities that come along with having children does make many U.S. moms and dads less content than their free-to-do-what-they-want counterparts.

So why exactly are parents in Norway and Hungary skipping down the streets grinning while most American parents are sighing deeply as they suffer through another episode of Doc McStuffins when the baseball game is on? Okay, not really, but why are we less content?

According to Time.com, Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin, says the happiness gap is likely due to the sky high cost of childcare and too-few sick days many companies offer in this country. "Unlike its economically developed counterparts, the U.S. has done little to offset the costs of raising children and ameliorate the incompatibility between employment and child care," the report says.

Inadequate family leave policies also play a role in why American parents can't turn their frown upside down, but to a lesser extent, says Glass: "It's something you need at the very beginning of parenthood. It can set you on a trajectory in which your career isn't ruined, but it can't really sustain happiness."

If the U.S. adopts policies that are more supportive of parents, everyone stands to benefit, according to the report. When Glass explains why, it makes total sense. "My hunch is that countries that do a good job of supporting parents who are employed by providing high quality childcare at a reasonable price in that zero through five period end up with kids who are better socialized," she said, adding, "They are better workers. They have fewer problems with delinquency and crime later on. They have a population with higher educational credentials. Those are externalities that affect everybody whether a parent or not."

There's no doubt the cost of quality childcare in this country is maddening, and that given the policies of many employers, striking a healthy balance between work and family is near-impossible. But it's my opinion that being happy is a choice. You do your best with what you've got. And if you are unhappy now, chances are you'll find something else to gripe about if one particular problem is solved.

But hey, maybe if I'd ever parented in Europe, I'd realize the truth is, I'm miserable by comparison here!

What is your take?

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

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