Parenting brings fathers more joy than it does mothers, according to a new large study. And the reasons why will surprise precisely no one - well, not mums anyway.
The research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examined three studies involving more than 18,000 participants. Across all three, parenthood was associated with more positive wellbeing outcomes for dads than mums.
So why are fathers happier than mothers? "Fathers may fare better than mothers in part due to how they spend their time with their children," said lead author Katherine Nelson-Coffey. In one study, the authors note that dads were more likely to endorse "playing" as an additional activity both when caring for their kids and spending time with their kids. "Playing with their children likely offers parents opportunities to experience positive emotions and cultivate closeness with their child," they say.
Fathers also fared better than men without kids, reporting greater happiness, life satisfaction, and fewer depressive symptoms, as well as greater connectedness and autonomy. For mums, however, compared to women without children, the results weren't quite as positive. Mums reported greater autonomy, but also "greater hassles" and fewer positive emotions.
Mums reported happier moods while interacting with their kids, compared to other experiences, but not while engaging directly in childcare. "This discrepancy suggests that how mothers and fathers spend time with their children might have important implications for their well-being," the authors write. " Of course, parents cannot forego providing care for their children, but creating more opportunities for play in the midst of childcare (eg. playing peek-a-boo while changing a diaper) may render those moments more joyful."
Obviously increasing happiness and overall wellbeing isn't as simple as adding a bit of peek-a-book at change time. As such, the authors note that mums may be less happy than dads because they're more likely to have higher expectations about parenthood and therefore are more likely to be "let down" by the experience.
But there's another explanation too.
"Alternatively, mothers may be harmed more by declines in relationship satisfaction that coincide with becoming a parent," the authors write, adding that mothers' lower wellbeing may be related to unhappiness with their partner, rather than with being a parent per se.
Of course the elephant in the room, an elephant that the authors do eventually get to, is the fact that the differences may well be due to an "uneven allocation" of labour when it comes to work and home. "Although many men and women endorse egalitarian ideals in sharing labor inside and outside the home unequal divisions of labor persist for many heterosexual couples, with women devoting more time to childcare and household tasks," they write.
What might be happening is that mums, but not dads, perceive the uneven divisions of labor in their homes as unfair, which in turn results in reduced well-being.
The authors temper the findings with a rather large and important caveat: "As with any study of parenthood, these findings cannot conclusively determine whether having children causes mothers and fathers to feel more or less happy."
And look, it really depends on the moment, doesn't it? Ask a mum when her child is face down on the supermarket floor having a tanty if she's happy and she'll probably swipe you with a loaf of bread. But ask her again when her kids are sleeping/being adorable and she'll probably tell you it's the best thing she's ever done.