I had my first child when I was 32 years old. And sometimes, on those days when I just feel too drained to parent anymore, I wonder….would I have been a better mom if I was younger? When I was fitter and had more energy to parent? Would having more money, a house, being further along in my career, a.k.a. the things that came along in my 30s, compare to the time and energy I had in my 20s?
Maybe not, as researcher Rachel Margolis notes in her study with co-author Mikko Myrskylä called “A Global Perspective on Happiness and Fertility.” The study, which appeared in the March issue of Population and Development Review, examined information from 201,988 participants around the world to examine, amongst other things, how age affected the happiness of parents. Here’s what Margolis had to say about parents and happiness.
Q: Your study noted that younger parents are less happy and that older parents are happier than their childless peers—why?
A: We found the differences in happiness differs by the stage in the life cycle. At younger ages (15-29), people with children are less happy than the childless. The association becomes neutral in the 30s, and those older than 40 years with children are happier than those without. The age group in which parents are happier than non-parents is those ages 50 and above.
When parents and children are older, the positive aspects of parenting, and perhaps grand-parenting, are most clear in our analysis. Other research suggests that the fact that parents are happier than non-parents at older ages may be due to improved relationship quality between couples, children leaving the parental home, and access to grandchildren.
Q: Your study extended to 86 countries. What were the geographic differences?
A: We find the relationship between parenthood and happiness differs by context. We hypothesized that countries with greater support for parenthood and the combination of work and family, the differences in happiness between parents and non-parents at younger ages would be less than in places with limited policies for work-family balance. This is what we found–the lower levels of happiness between parents than non-parents was far smaller in continental European or Scandinavian countries than in countries with less welfare support.
Also, we thought that older parents would be much happier than those without children in places where parents rely on children for old age support, rather than rely on a pension system. Indeed, we found greater happiness of parents than non-parents at older ages is greatest in the former socialist states of Eastern Europe, where children often act as insurance in older age.
Q: What would be some of the take away thoughts for our readers?
A: We find that parents are less unhappy than non-parents during prime childbearing years in countries with high public support for families. The places where parents at older ages are much happier than the childless are those in places where old-age support depends mostly on the family. It seems that in those places, children are the strongest long-term investment in well-being.
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