When my wife and I became parents almost a decade ago, I understood what so many first-time parents know: Nothing is as memorable and life changing as the arrival of a new person in your family. The tears of labor and the joy of delivery give way to the surreal blur of a newborn’s 24-hour “schedule,” as parents and baby work together to figure it out.
What makes parenting so hard? According to a recent meta-analysis:
- many more opportunities for frustration, worry, and other difficult emotions
- a lack of sleep, especially with younger kids
- physical fatigue from a job that’s nonstop
- less quality time—and more arguing—with one’s partner
- financial strain from paying for kids’ clothes, food, activities, childcare, activities, etc.
Of course, these difficulties seem to come with the mandatory disclaimers that “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” “It’s totally worth it,” and so forth—suggesting some guilt about possibly preferring parts of our pre-parenthood lifestyle.
So when and why does being a parent decrease our happiness? Findings that emerge from research studies confirm my clinical observations and my own experience as a dad: Parenting decreases well-being to the extent that it interferes with our fundamental psychological needs. These needs, based on years of research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, are for:
- Relatedness: having positive and meaningful connections with other people
- Competence: being able to exercise our abilities and feel like we’re good at what we do
- Autonomy: freely choosing our actions
We’re happier, healthier, and more productive when we’re able to satisfy these three needs. How does parenthood affect our ability to satisfy these basic needs?
The new relationship between child and parent can provide a deep connection that’s unlike any other, for the rest of a parent’s life. Having children can also lead to new friendships, as we develop relationships with the parents of our kids’ friends.
Balancing these positive effects of parenthood is the challenge of maintaining one’s prior relationships — first and foremost with one’s partner. Time and energy previously directed toward one another are now channeled into childcare, often with little left over for each other. Add poor sleep and financial strain to the mix and it’s a recipe for less closeness and more conflict.
It can also be a struggle to keep up with other friendships. Friends without kids may have a hard time understanding why you’ve disappeared, or may tire of hearing about our child’s latest milestone (“She clapped!”). Parents’ sleep schedules also tend to accommodate their young children’s early schedules, so when your childless friends are gearing up for dinner, you may be yawning and longing for bed.
We all like to feel like we’re good at what we do, and parenthood provides countless opportunities to practice the new skills needed to keep a little person alive. We might feel a sense of accomplishment after the first few days with our first child as we realize, “I can do this.”
At the same time, we might experience a drop in our sense of competence in other ways. We won’t be able to figure out why a child is crying inconsolably, or how he could possibly still be awake. We’ll realize in hindsight — or even in real time — that we’ve mishandled a conflict with our child. We’ll lose patience. We’ll doubt our instincts about our child’s health. We’ll think we really suck at parenting.
If these inherent challenges weren’t enough, we’ll receive direct or implied criticism about our parenting from our own parents, our friends, and the popular media. There’s no shortage of opinions on the best way to raise kids. It can be easy at times for parents to feel like maybe they aren’t cut out for this parenting business.
Of the three basic psychological needs, autonomy is arguably affected the most. Any relationship restricts our choices in some way — for example, having a partner typically means we can’t date other people, or always pick the shows we want to watch — and the loss of autonomy that comes with a child is profound.
Consider a simple trip to the convenience store to get some milk. Before kids, we could grab a jacket, jump in the car, listen to the radio on the way there, and be in and out in 5 minutes.
When a young child is involved there could be a struggle to find the child’s shoes and jacket, not to mention the emotional and physical strain of trying to get them on an uncooperative kid. Once you manage to get out the door — which can be its own private hell— there’s the car seat, another certain battle.
Finally you’re both in your seats, exhausted and unhappy. (By this time the pre-kid version of you is already back with the milk.) You turn on the radio and hear an intriguing snippet on the news, and then your child says she wants to listen to her music CD. You hear your mom’s voice saying “Pick your battles” and put her music on, reminding yourself to look up the news story later on, which you’ll forget to do.
At the store you breathe through the inevitable 60 seconds that feel like forever as you wait for your child to get out of the car, which she insists on doing herself. Once inside you grab the milk and hurry to the checkout because you have to get dinner started back at home, and you realize she’s way overdue for a snack which means you’re on borrowed toddler time, making a meltdown almost inevitable.
Getting back into the car is a repeat of earlier, and once you’re home and desperately needing to use the bathroom, your child is taking an unbelievably long time to get out of her carseat. Finally, on the verge of wetting your pants, you scoop her up and carry her inside, as she screams and flails in your arms.
Our actions are no longer autonomous when we have children, as every decision and every activity is affected by them. Simple daily activities like eating, sleeping, exercising, and showering are not entirely in our hands anymore, and having kids can affect big decisions like where we live and what we do for a career. Weekends and vacations that used to be for unwinding and recharging become family adventures that can make work seem like a nice break.
Effects for Mothers vs. Fathers
A highly-publicized research study from 2013 declared that “children are associated with more joy than misery.” Sounds great, right? But the fine print read, “parenthood was associated with increased satisfaction and happiness only among fathers” (emphasis added).
This pattern is a common one in research on parenting. Based on a recent review mothers tend to experience:
- more stress and lower satisfaction with their personal life and family life
- lower satisfaction with being a parent
- fewer positive effects of being a parent
- a greater increase in marital distress and decline in marital quality
- greater depression
- a greater decline in total sleep time (fathers’ did not change significantly)
- fewer positive emotions when interacting with kids, probably in part because dads are more often involved in play while moms tend to be in charge of the less fun activities like getting children dressed and fed
- greater disruption in “social rhythms” — things like wake and sleep times, meal times, etc.
- more time in child-related activities
- not enough time for themselves (nearly 4 out of 5 moms)
- much more financial strain as single parents (about 4 out of 5 mothers vs. 1 out of 5 fathers)
These findings are in line with a groundbreaking book called The Transition to Parenthood by Jay Belsky and John Kelly, which followed couples from pre-children to 3 years post-baby. They noted that there are in fact two transitions to parenthood for most couples: His and hers.
As Belsky and Kelly described, the majority of men fairly quickly reclaim much of their pre-child life: They return to work as before, their sleep improves, they make time for friends and hobbies, they exercise, and so forth.
In contrast, mothers’ lives generally change a lot more, with a fundamental realignment of their time and energy toward caring for the child. Accordingly, fathers are more likely to be getting their psychological needs met, whereas mothers more often sacrifice their needs for those of the child. (Obviously, there are exceptions to these general trends.)
It’s not hard to understand the greater toll parenthood can take on mothers’ needs. A mother who’s working a longer “second shift” (or third) at home will have less time to devote to other relationships.
Stay-at-home mothers might miss the sense of competence they got at work, and discount their current occupation as being “just a mom” (even while recognizing there’s no harder or more important job).
Mothers who work outside the home can feel like they’re letting people down on two fronts, as their bosses and their families both want more time. They’re also more likely to have to call out from work to care for a sick child, leading to greater role conflict.
Hope for Parents’—Especially Moms’—Well-Being?
When we understand what our needs are, we have a better chance of satisfying them. If your sense of relatedness, competence, or autonomy has suffered after having kids, consider trying one of these evidence-based strategies to better meet your needs:
- Play to your parenting strengths. In a recent study, parents identified their top strengths as parents, as well as less well-developed strengths they wanted to work on. They subsequently felt a greater sense of competence as parents.
- Play to your children’s strengths. In the same study, parents who practiced identifying and appreciating their child’s strengths also felt more competent as parents, and experienced more positive emotions.
- Reflect on what you did well. It’s easy to remember times we “failed” as parents, and probably harder to recall our successes. Consider writing down at the end of each day three things you did well as a parent, no matter how large or small. This type of exercise has been shown to be helpful for everyone, including parents.
- Practice mindfulness. Being in the moment with nonjudgmental openness is linked with greater need satisfaction, as well as greater awareness of our needs). No extended meditation sessions are required. By pausing even for a moment now and then and taking an internal inventory of our thoughts and emotions, we lower our stress and give ourselves a chance to identify what our needs are — and possibly ways to fulfill them. You might start with this One-Minute Breath Meditation. In fact, mindfulness practice can require literally zero extra time when we simply focus our attention on whatever we’re doing.
- Challenge your thinking. Our thoughts often lead us astray. For example, we might believe implicitly that “I must always put my child’s needs ahead of my own.” Living in line with this belief will interfere with meeting our own needs and can lead to resentment from sacrificing our own well-being—or guilt if we feel like we’re not doing it perfectly.
- Make a plan. If you recognize that you’re struggling to fulfill any of the three basic psychological needs, brainstorm ways you might fulfill one of your needs this week. If you’re in a relationship, consider involving your partner in the process. Make a specific plan for life-giving activities you want to add to your schedule, and put the plans in your calendar (and protect that time).
For parents who are intimately involved in their children’s lives, parenting will never be an easy or sacrifice-free endeavor — nor should it be. Continuing the chain of life is no small thing. When we’re willing to consider our own needs alongside those of our children, everyone benefits: our partners, ourselves, and even our kids.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.