Babies! What's not to love about them? Don't they make you so happy you could just scream? No, but seriously: Some babies really do make you want to scream — and it's not just babies, either. Fret not moms, this is not all in your heads. There is plenty of science to explain how a mom's happiness changes throughout raising a child. In fact, there's even a whole body of scientific research devoted to studying something researchers have dubbed the "parental happiness gap."
Oh how I wish it referred to a boutique version of the Baby Gap store, but sadly, it does not. Science has been studying how parents' happiness levels compare to non-parents since the 1980s, and found that there's a big gap between the two groups. Numerous studies have examined how having children can affect moms' and dads' wellbeing, as well as various factors that might affect parental happiness, such as the age of the parents, the age of their children, and how many children they have. The general scientific consensus: Parents aren't happy, or they're lying. Isn't that swell? *sobs*
Much like the whole "is red wine good or bad for you" debate, you'll find parenting research with two completely different findings for the same question. Case in point: In 2005, a study from the University of Pennsylvania found that parents of only children were happier than parents with more than one child. Almost 10 years later, a study from the London School of Economics found parents of two children are the happiest. Super helpful, science!
Even so, let's take a look at happiness by children's age groups, because it can't all be bad, right?
When Children Are Youngest: The Hazing Years
A 2015 Norwegian study offers little hope for new parents. The study found the birth of a first child impacted parental satisfaction worse than divorce, unemployment, or even the death of a spouse within the child's first year, as reported by The Washington Post. Yikes. But if you take a look at the findings just in relation to new moms, it shouldn't seem that surprising. Nearly one-third of first-time moms experience postpartum depression, according to a 2014 study out of Australia.
When Kids Start Going To School: It Gets Better
Once you manage to survive round-the-clock feedings, diapering, and general lack of communication that comes with the newborn months, things start to get a little easier. And when children are finally going to school, there's even fewer demands on parents for a good chunk of the day. As a result, parental happiness tends to increase the easier it is to care for their children.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and author of The Myths of Happiness, told NPR in 2013 that the hardest ages are when children are under 5 and over 13: "When you have children under five and when your children are teenagers, that's when you have the most kind of negative emotions and negative experiences with them."
The Teenage Years: Good Luck!
Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman, the husband and wife founders of parenting website Babble.com, gave a particularly refreshing TED Talk confronting parental taboos in 2010. In it, they talk about parental happiness, but they also showed a chart from Daniel Gilbert's 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness. Griscom and Volkman called Gilbert's chart "The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for a New Parent" — and that's not an exaggeration. Gilbert looked at four independent studies of parental happiness by child's age, and all four studies showed a frightening all-time low point of happiness for parents: The teenage years.
Yeah, sorry folks. There's just no getting around the teenage years. They basically suck for everyone, parents and teens alike.
Bottom Line: Moms, Don't Feel Pressured To Be Happy All The Time
When you take a step back and look at all the research on parental happiness, the picture might look grim. But the truth is, every parent is different. Every child is different. Every family experience is going to be different, and you can't always predict when things are about to get a whole lot tougher. Science — and basically anyone who's ever taken care of a child ever — says that at some point during your child's development, it's not going to be happy fun times. As one parenting researcher put it, "Children may be a long-term investment in happiness."
But it's not all doom and gloom, as Griscom noted in his TED Talk: "Average happiness is, of course, inadequate, because it doesn't speak to the moment-by-moment experience." Because ultimately, it's not some quantified measure of Total Happiness that matters: A single moment of happiness change impact and shape an entire lifetime — for parent and child.
And it's OK not to be happy. It's impossible to be happy all the time, and actually being happy all the time isn't good for you, anyway. Just remember: This too shall pass, and if it isn't, don't be afraid to ask for help. You got this, mom — and there are plenty of people willing to get you through the joyous madness that is parenting, through all its peaks and valleys.