Motherhood has been placed on a pedestal

It’s disturbing to many people to read research showing that mothers tend to be unhappier than non-mothers. Why? Because we’ve put the concept of being a mother up on a pedestal as a shining example of humanity. Not the mothers themselves, mind you, but the concept of motherhood.

So when actual mothers say “Hey, y’know what? I love my kids but I haven’t slept a full night in 8 years and my house gets messier no matter what I do and I need a vacation,” people are aghast. Or when actual mothers say “JFC, pregnancy was the worst experience of my life and I felt disgusting and I never want to do it again,” people freak out.

And all of this leads to papers like “In Defense of Parenthood.” There are a lot of things that amuse me, but the one that caused me to actually laugh out loud was the title…and the fact that it doesn’t match the results. You see, their analyses found that fathers were happier…not mothers. So how that leads to a defense of parenthood as a whole, I’m not entirely sure.

Parenthood was associated with greater satisfaction (b = 0.36, p < .001) and happiness (b = 0.10, p < .001) only among fathers.

Then a few paragraphs later:

In sum, Study 1 showed that, overall, parents report being happier, more satisfied, and thinking more about meaning than non-parents. Interestingly, these overall relationships remained positive for fathers and parents ages 26-62, but not mothers, young parents, and single parents. Whereas young and single parents were significantly less happy than their childless peers, no difference was detected between mothers and women without children.

So…then your first sentence there would be wrong, yes? Yes. And study 1 was the really big one that I would expect to have the most robust results. Study 2 had around 300 participants, so…not so exciting. But even there:

As in Study 1, parenthood was more consistently linked to higher well-being for men. Fathers scored higher than childless men on all well-being indicators (all ts > 2.30 and rs > .23). Mothers only reported fewer depressive symptoms (t[127] = 2.06, p = .04, r = 0.18) and marginally more daily positive emotion (t[171] = 1.86, p = .065, r = .14) than childless women.

And a few paragraphs later:

Building on Study 1, we found that parents in Study 2 not only showed higher levels of global well-being than non-parents, but also reported more positive emotional experience and meaning moment-to-moment. Thus, across Studies 1 and 2, parents reported relatively greater well-being than their childless peers both when evaluating their lives as a whole and when rating their momentary experience.

Um…no. Fathers did, not mothers. Thank you for playing, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Are you even reading your own writing?

Study 3 was even smaller, 186 people (2/3 women) for whom they “compare[d] how parents felt when they were taking care of their children with how they felt during the rest of their days.”

I was hoping that this study was done with a method that involved people stopping at certain points during the day to report what they were doing and how they felt. Because honestly, I’m not a fan of anything that involves people trying to remember what they were doing and how they felt. Try it right now: In your head, try to remember what you did yesterday and how you felt at the time. How’s that work for you?

Alas, they used the “Day Reconstruction Method” so who the hell knows how valid these results are.

We found that, on average, parents reported more PA (Ms [SDs] = 4.19 [1.20] vs. 3.96 [1.22]; t[176] = 2.16, p = .03, r = .16) and a stronger sense of meaning in life (Ms [SDs] =4.39 [1.20] vs. 3.85 [1.35]; t[184] = 5.30, p < .001, r = .36) during episodes when they were taking care of their children than when they were not (see Figure 1, bottom right). Sex did not significantly moderate these results, but potential sex differences cannot be ruled out given the relatively small sample size of this study.

Even the authors have to admit that they might be stretching to insist that both mothers and fathers were happier.  But in a few paragraphs, they conclude that

parents as a group reported being happier and more satisfied, and thinking more frequently about life meaning than their counterparts without children, although this overall pattern was qualified by several demographic moderators (Study 1). Furthermore, parents reported relatively more positive emotion, and more meaningfulness on a moment-to-moment basis (Study 2). Finally, parents experienced levels of positive affect and meaning during childcare that significantly exceeded their own daily average (Study 3).

Gee, that’s not exactly what I remember from reading your article a few minutes ago. Let me see…oh yeah, that’s fathers, not mothers. But if you’d like to understand why they can’t see that, let me add another quote from a few sentences later:

In short, our results dovetail with emerging evolutionary perspectives that depict parenting as a fundamental human need.

::eyeroll:: I can’t expect better from evolutionary psychologists, I suppose.

To be fair, they do go on to say that oh yeah, um, it was mostly fathers because mothers get a lot more work and stress but…then they ignore that fact and conclude with “people may find solace that parenthood and childcare may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life.”

Really? That’s what you’re going to go with? Great narrative, not backed up by your own facts. But don’t let that keep you from your predetermined conclusion.

Sometimes science even makes me want to cry. At least mediocre science does.


About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
This entry was posted in Parenting, Process of Science, Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Motherhood has been placed on a pedestal

  1. Chris says:

    Le Sigh.

    First off, I know a couple who are dealing with the college age sons of a friend who died a few years ago. They are going through the same trials and tribulations of other parents of young men of that age. (their mother is still alive, but living on one coast while the boys attended their father’s alma mater on the other coast… it is complicated, especially since their mother is from another country)

    I now have three adult children. They are all different, and have provided their own special issues we have had to deal with. The oldest is disabled, and the younger two seem to be normal.

    The youngest who is eighteen years old is upset I am going to force her to learn how to drive. Um, yeah, that is the limit of tension I have with my daughter. I am going to solve the issue of having to drive her to where she needs to go when she misses the bus. Maybe I should be happy that she realizes driving is not actually happy fun time and it actually carries a certain amount of responsibility.

    My dear husband seems to think I am hard on the oldest who is disabled, apparently I criticize him too much. That is until he walked into the young man’s room this evening and found the mess from food he had eaten in that room, despite telling him to not do that. So when I yell at him it is not good, but when dad does it that is okay. This evening the father yelled lots, along with dragging in the vacuum to clean up the crumbs from the Costco chocolate muffins, which I told him multiple times to not buy. (side note: a Costco sized muffin is three times the size of a regular home made muffin, so if you eat two of them that is half a recipe of regular muffins!)

  2. Chris says:

    Oh, crud I forgot the reason I posted, a comment on another blog:

    Despite what you do as a parent, sometimes something bad will happen.

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