What we don't expect when expecting: evidence for heterogeneity in subjective well-being in response to parenthood

J Fam Psychol. 2011 Jun;25(3):384-92. doi: 10.1037/a0023759.


A recent article in New York Magazine echoed what psychological studies of parenthood have consistently demonstrated since the 1970s: "Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so" (Senior, 2010). There is consistent evidence that, as opposed to other life events that cause transient disruptions in life satisfaction, becoming a parent appears to cause harm to individual subjective well-being (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003), and that this harm is sustained over time (Clark, Diener, Georgellis, & Lucas, 2008). The current investigation was predicated on the concern that these findings may be the result of the methodology used to examine them. As the experience of parenthood does not represent a unified phenomenon, we employed a methodological approach that allows for the exploration of heterogeneity as well as its predictors. By modeling heterogeneous trajectories within a prospective design from 4 years prior to 4 years after the birth of a parent's first child, we find that the majority of individuals (84.2%) demonstrate no long-term effects on life satisfaction in response to childbirth. Only a small percentage demonstrate the sustained declines (7.2%), and a significant cohort, previously unobserved in the literature, demonstrate dramatic and sustained improvements in response to parenthood (4.3%), providing compelling evidence for heterogeneity in life satisfaction among parents. Key demographic covariates that distinguish between trajectories of response are also explored.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Socioeconomic Factors