Having A Happy Baby Doesn't Make Moms Happier, Study Says, But Here's What Does

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Although well-behaved babies certainly make all moms happy, they aren't necessarily the key to happiness, new research finds. According to the study, "Ups and Downs in the Joy of Motherhood: Maternal Well-Being as a Function of Psychological Needs, Personality and Infant Temperament," published in Springer's Journal of Happiness Studies, working moms' well-being depends more on whether their psychological needs are met than on the temperament of their babies. In fact, a baby's temperament actually has little to no influence on their happiness.

Rather, a working mom is feeling her best when she feels competent in interacting with her children, is afforded freedom and choice in her actions and cultivates a warm and affectionate relationship with her baby. A happy working mom is also not too hard on herself with regards to how she's faring as a mother.

But despite the wealth of research demonstrating the importance of the psychological needs for individuals’ general well-being, research investigating the importance of the basic psychological needs during parenthood is limited, writes lead researcher Katrijn Brenning of the University of Ghent in Belgium.

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Brenning and her team therefore investigated the factors that affect a working mother's sense of well-being. They analyzed five days of diary entries from 126 mothers after their maternity leave ended and they had to leave their babies at day-care facilities for the first time. This can be a particularly anxiety-inducing time for working mothers as it is often the first time that they are separated from their children, and it's when they usually start grappling with how to find a work-family balance.

The researchers found that, on days when mothers experience "need satisfaction" (i.e., feelings of autonomy, relatedness and competence), they display greater well-being. A mother's sense of well-being drops, however, when she experiences "need frustration," which means that she feels inadequate, under pressure, or alienated from her social circle because she's trying to strike a balance between her career and being a good parent.

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This study follows previously contradicting research that suggests parenthood is associated with more happiness and, at the same time, parents (compared to childless adults) experience lower well-being. In 2014, a comprehensive study titled "The Pains and Pleasures of Parenting: When, Why and How is Parenthood Associated with More or Less Well-Being?" concluded that, simply, the correlation between parenthood and well-being is incredibly nuanced. It called for a number of psychological variables like parents and child characteristics to be investigated in order to explain why some mothers adjust to parenthood better than others.

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Brenning's study does just that, though she does note that the findings point to a "complex interplay between parent and child characteristics in the prediction of maternal well-being."

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"More positive perceptions of the child's temperament were found to buffer to some extent against the affective difficulties associated with a lack of need satisfaction, high need frustration and maternal self-criticism," she said, according to the study, explaining that extroverted children may help their mothers stay more positive about parenting and be less hard on themselves.

Of course, the need for parents to be less hard on themselves is increasingly dire as mothers, and especially working mothers, are relentlessly shamed for their choices regarding everything from whether they choose to breastfeed to what they feed their children to how they manage parenting with a career. "Mom guilt" is real, and working mothers are reportedly tired of people asking them why they won't just quit their jobs, why they had children in the first place, why they pay for daycare instead of staying home, and more.

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But while we can't necessarily stop others from mom-shaming, we can protect ourselves from self-inflicted judgement. In the conclusion of her study, Brenning suggests that, mothers should seek out experiences that also help to satisfy their own daily psychological needs while interacting with their children. She also says that clinical counselors should inform female patients about the importance of ensuring that they meet their own psychological needs.

For especially self-critical mothers who tend to feel depressed, she says intervention strategies should be in place; such measures would help women cope with their first few months of parenthood, a time when upwards of 20 percent of women experience postpartum depression.

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