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Are Mormon Women Becoming Less Happy?

Ecstasy by Maxwell Parrish

Ecstasy by Maxwell Parrish

by Caroline

In a recent op-ed, Maureen Dowd talks about the phenomenon of women becoming more and more unhappy. This trend is apparently true across all sorts of cultures and classes – married or non-married, kids or no kids, rich or poor, etc. Researchers hypothesize that a major factor in this is that women are simply more stressed out. Rather than just worrying about their kids and homes as they might have done 40 years ago, many are now worried about those things, in addition to their jobs, their grad school, etc.

Conversely, men are becoming happier. Researchers surmise that since many now share with their wives the responsibility of providing for their families, they are feeling less stressed. And as they age men, unlike women, are becoming happier as well.

Perhaps the most striking thing in the op-ed is this sentence about children: ‘“Across the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children,” said Betsey Stevenson, an assistant professor at Wharton who co-wrote a paper called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” “It’s true whether you’re wealthy or poor, if you have kids late or kids early.”‘

Now I wasn’t surprised by the research that indicated that women tend to be more stressed and less happy, with the opposite being true for men. But I was surprised by this statement about children. I’m not a run of the mill Mormon, but to some degree I must have embraced the idea that children make life happier.

I do wonder if that statement is just referring to the years in which one is heavily involved in child-rearing. I can easily imagine most people (inlcuding myself) being less happy with young demanding children, but then at 70 when the kids are all grown, being very pleased and happy to have had children. So maybe the real payoff to having kids comes in one’s later years?

Another interesting tidbit about happiness research comes from my husband, who studies the economics of happiness. According to some researchers, the most unhappy year of a person’s marriage is the year you first have a baby. Happiness slowly creeps up as the child ages, but then it plummets again when the child becomes a teen.

I’m wondering how this happiness research reflects the lived reality of Mormon women and men. I would imagine that most Mormon women would say that they are pretty darn happy – could that be because so many are not subjecting themselves to the stress of both motherhood and careerhood, and feel validated in only sticking to motherhood? And for those of us who are doing both (or only the career), would we say that we are unhappier than we were in other phases of our lives?

I would love to know your thoughts about happiness.  Are you happier with children or without, working or not working? Are you more stressed than the men in your life? How happy are you single Mormon women?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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27 Responses

  1. Keri Brooks says:

    I’m 27, single, and childless. While a part of me wants marriage and children, I’m at peace with and happy about where my life is now. (I’m in law school.)

    I used to be unhappy, and I think it stemmed from inauthenticity. I believed that I was supposed to feel like I was incomplete or missing something, so I made myself unhappy. I had a disconnect between what I wanted and what I thought I was supposed to want. Once I welcomed this stage of my life and allowed myself to name and embrace my desire to have a career, I felt free and happy. (I’m not saying that someone needs a career to be happy, just that someone needs to accept and embrace whatever choice they make, and own that decision.)

    The thing that contributed the most to my happiness is knowing that I’m doing what the Lord wants me to be doing with my life right now. If I own my choice and feel divine confirmation of my choice, then it matters less to me that other people criticize it. (I won’t lie and say that it doesn’t matter at all, but it matters less.)

  2. Melissa says:

    I’m also 27, but married and childless. I have a very rewarding career that I’m just getting started in and I’m very happy in it. I’m pretty sure that I’m generally more stressed than my husband is, partly because I have a more demanding job and partly because I often think about having children in the not-too-distant future and worry about how that will work with the progression of my career. I have a pretty strong feeling that children will NOT up my happiness quotient any time in the near future.

  3. Ziff says:

    Really interesting post and questions, Caroline.

    Regarding this

    the most unhappy year of a person’s marriage is the year you first have a baby

    I read a book once by a well-known sleep researcher (can’t recall his name offhand) and in it he had a cool little figure that showed how, on average, a baby’s sleep patterns settled down from being very fragmented as a newborn to more consolidated longer blocks of sleep by age one. I wonder how much of the unhappiness of new parents is attributable simply to loss of sleep. I’m sure it’s not all of it, but I doubt it’s insignificant.

    Regarding the question of being happier with children or without, I wonder if when we have kids (I do), we put lots of energy and effort into raising them and get less payoff than we expect, but cognitive dissonance kicks in and we decide that they make us happier on balance. When researchers simply ask us, though, about kids and happiness separately, then we don’t think of the connection, so there’s less cognitive dissonance and the truth comes out that people without kids are happier.

    All that being said, my experience is that I’m happy having kids. Of course, my wife does most of the childcare, so maybe I’m just another data point in the trend of men getting happier and women getting unhappier because of inequality of workloads.

  4. mmiles says:

    , I can’t imagine not having children. Truly, I am happier with them than without them–although I do not know how this is at all measurable (I can’t compare not having them at this time in my life to having them–so I don’t see how the study Maureen Dowd could possibly be executed with any kind of integrity).

    The number one contributing factor in Post_partum depression (and the number one factor for recovery) is sleep. You are spot on.
    That being said, I think the first year is a shock to any parent–even without a PPD diagnosis. You can’t really be prepared for such a life changing event. It hits upside the head pretty hard.

    Also, how are we defining happiness? I think in the church we often allow a Mormon culture, and thus what we think God defines as happiness to dictate what “true happiness” is. What is it? I don’t think you can pin it down.

  5. Spiritual Pilgrim says:

    I presented basically the same research on having children and happiness (from a Harvard Professor – Daniel Gilbert) two years ago in Elders Quorum. My goal was to have an open discussion, but I was completely blasted for putting these kinds of ideas forward. People made comments like, “the researcher was an idiot and didn’t know what he was talking about” (although they knew nothing about the researcher or the research methodology).

    As far as the research on happiness and children, I believe it states that there are some very joyous moments with children (highs, if you will), but in terms of overall happiness day in and day out, these high moments are overshadowed by the high demands and behavior issues of children (the daily stress).

    I actually found the happiness research to be intriguing and feel I can relate to it. I also think that as Mormons, we are taught that family and children represent the highest use of our time and the greatest happiness. This is another of many areas where research can contradict and challenge underlying Mormon beliefs, which should empower us to re-examine and potentially update our beliefs.

    Before ever learning about the research, we dug in and have four children. Each of them bring joys and challenges. I would say that my overall happiness with four children is no greater than before I had the children. Mormon culture definitely had an impact on the number of children we have, as well as our own belief system that somehow there is greater joy as a result of the children. Perhaps there may be the eventual happiness boost you suggest as these children leave home and live their own meaningful lives. On the other hand is how the children turn out as adults a factor in this as well?

  6. Starfoxy says:

    I think there is a line to be drawn between our current and past selves. I think that meaningful happiness is more about the current self’s opinion of the past self’s choices. So if I am satisfied with the life choices I have made then I am more likely to be content, regardless of my current situation. So to me happiness is something you can enjoy superficially now, or enjoy meaningfully later.
    Kids are something that I will (in theory) enjoy meaningfully later, even though they aren’t doing much for me right now.
    I would be interested to know if the study made any attempt to define happiness, or draw distinctions between different kinds of happiness with different aspects of one’s life.

  7. ZD Eve says:

    I agree with Starfoxy that we have to take account of different kinds of happiness.

    The discussion of children and happiness makes me think of my mission, which for me was a source of profound spiritual experiences and one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. To say that it was worth it doesn’t even begin to describe how important it was to me; my mission gave me some of the most beautiful, powerful experiences of my life, experiences that continue to anchor my spiritual existence. Yet whenever I’ve had the nerve to crack my mission journals I’m invariably horrified. The daily slog was awful. There was a lot of rejection, a lot of exhaustion and depression, a fair amount of heartbreak. There were some bitter experiences that took me years to overcome.
    I have absolutely no doubt that if anyone had surveyed me at any point in my mission, they would have found that I was more unhappy (in a certain sense) than I had been before.

    Yet even in that unhappiness I was more at peace with myself and with God because I knew I was doing what I knew to be right for me at that time. In my experience, that kind of congruence is priceless, and no other good can suffice in its absence. And my life as a missionary had a depth and a meaning that my life to that point had never had. I have no doubt that something similar is true of having children.

    In other words, I don’t think it’s all about happiness, or (in other words) that all happinesses are created equal. Happiness is not enough; we human beings need our lives to matter, we need the truths, the depths of things that cannot by found in mere comfort. According to our understanding of Isaiah, Christ was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely the Atonement was not an act of happiness; it was an act of sorrow and suffering we can’t comprehend, but one that had a depth and meaning that place it at the center of the gospel and of our lives.

    In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, there’s much more to life than happiness.

  8. mraynes says:

    I read this op-ed too and found the study very interesting but Maureen Dowd’s analysis full of holes.

    As for your questions, I’m not sure I am happier since having children but I definitely feel more loved because I have children, which is a huge net gain in my opinion. From my experience as a working mother and now a stay-at-home mother, I was much happier while working. I think this can mostly be attributed to the fact that there was a much more egalitarian balance of housework and childcare in my marriage before. And yes, this stresses me out much more than being the primary provider does for mr. mraynes.

  9. Madam Curie says:

    I think my husband would argue that the question and goal of happiness is an American ideal. He served his mission in the Ukraine, and they would often try to proselytize on the “Plan of Happiness,” asking, “Do you want to find true happiness?” And people would typically respond by staring dumbfounded at them (usually followed by their saying “No!” and slamming the doors in their face). Happiness just wasn’t an ideal for them worth setting as a goal.

    That said, its difficult for me to answer the question of whether I am happier for having kids. Am I glad that I had my son? Yes, now that he is almost 3. If you had asked me at age 6 months, I may have asked if you were willing to make an offer on him! Having a baby definitely added stress to myself and my marriage. But knowing my son now, as he is an individual… well, I wouldn’t want to give up my parents, for all their quirks. They still form an important part of my life. The same is true of my Midget.

    I guess my point is that what someone calls “happiness” is going to vary greatly from person to person. One might say that because I would choose to have my son again, I am happier for it. But I don’t know that “happy” is the right word. I’m glad for the experiences I have had with him and I have grown a lot. I’m glad the first year is over. And I’m grateful to have his little spirit – crazy, wild, and sassy as he is – in our home.

    The second question goes along with the first – am I happier with children with or without working. I would argue that in terms of day-to-day “happiness” I am “happier” on each individual day with working outside the home. That time away from him makes me “happier” to be with him.

    Sorry if I have thrown your hypothesis for a loop 🙂

  10. Madam Curie says:

    mraynes, I love you.

    Ditto what she said, I feel the same way.

  11. Kay says:

    I think at all stages in my life, single, missionary, student, married with and without children, I have had times when I have both very happy and unhappy. There are many variables. These include health and sleep, personal relationships, also the feeling that I am where I wanted be in my life. Being single in my early 30s was more difficult for me than in my 20s for example. I struggled with it a lot. Although I miss having small children, my youngest is 9, I found it exhausting due to constant demands and lack of sleep. It took a while to get used to being a stay at home mum too. Now I love it and would not give it up for the world, and believe me the world and his dog can see no reason for me to be at home and are fairly critical of this. My marraige has never been happier. I can say that I truly am glad I married and had children, it was what I hoped and prayed for, but I naively never expected it to be such hard work. Happiness changes day to day with our needs and outlook and will not be the same for everyone.

  12. Lulubelle says:

    I have 2 kids, age 4 and 9. I work fulltime in a (mostly) demanding job. I am married. So I am always balancing kids needs, work needs, spouse needs, and my needs and feel like I fail and mostly all of them because none of them get my full (or even good chunk) attention. Have kids made me happier? Alas, no. I have to agree with the research. Do I love my kids? Absolutely. More than I’ve loved anything in my life. Are they worth it? Absolutely. Just because something is hard and doesn’t bring fun doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. But let’s face facts here (at least for me): There is no ‘me’ with my kids around. There are days I would sell my soul to work a little late, meet a friend for an early dinner, and then go home to a silent house with no one looking at me for anything. There are days I just want to go for a nice long run at night, not cook anything for dinner, and go to bed early. Instead, there are days I sit in my car looking at my house and dreading going in because I’ve already had a huge day at the office and I know there are 2 kids desperate for my attention, dinner to be made, laundry to be put away, lunches to be made, homework to help with, bathtime, reading time… and the list goes on and on. And then there’s a husband who wants time and attention, too. And I want to enjoy my family and there are many many days that I just don’t. I sometimes long for my single days that were all mine to manage and plan and live with no responsibility or input to or from anyone else. I can’t even fathom how women have more kids and how they can possibly manage that because I am drowning. But I wouldn’t make different choices. I love my kids, they are more important than anything. They are what really matters in life and that’s that. I am close to them, they bring me many laughs (and headaches) every day. They are a great sense of joy, too.

  13. Emily U says:

    Great questions, Caroline.

    That women are getting less happy and men more is just another way life is not fair! Ugh, is it ever better to be a woman?

    My absolute low point in happiness was the first year of my son’s life. Actually, his first two years. It wasn’t all the baby though, I was also miserable because of grad school, finances, and fighting with my husband. In hindsight I think I may have been experiencing clinical anxiety – if feeling a mixture of panic and dread all the time isn’t that, I don’t know what is.

    Now that I’m done with school, working full time, my son is older, and things are better with DH, I am much happier. I think I’d be happiest if I didn’t work but still had an on-call nanny who would come over whenever I wanted her to. Oh well, I can dream.

    Lulubelle – you’re making me dread my future!

  14. Caroline says:

    I love that you’ve found peace in your life by embracing your authentic you. I’m married with small children, and that’s my goal as well. Haven’t achieved it yet…

    Melissa, how fantastic that you’ve found a career you love. I hope you manage to find a way to balance both kids and career some time in the future. Part-time working was fantastic for me – maybe that’s an option you can consider.

    Ziff, great point about sleep. For the first time in two months last night, my baby slept through the night. I feel like a new woman this morning! Sleep must have something to do with that data point. Also, I would guess that the feelings that both partners have about the spouse not doing enough to help with the baby might be a factor in making that first year with baby the hardest of the marriage.

    mmiles, good point about defining happiness. My impression (from my conversations with my husband) is that the researchers allow the individual to define happiness and ask them questions like, ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you? So happiness is self-defined.

  15. LCM says:

    I think it might depend on the child as well. I absolutely loved the first year of my first child’s life. It was an adjustment because dh wasn’t as hands on, I was nursing. But his freedom wasn’t hindered. When we had dd#2, he was much more hands on with dd#1, but #2 made my life miserable.
    I love how my girls have given my life more meaning. I don’t entirely define myself as being a mom, but I do take it seriously as a job and try to hit certain goals with them. And there is nothing I am more proud of than being the caregiver for #2 when she was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s one of those things, as a Mom, I think I did really well.

  16. Caroline says:

    Spiritual P,
    Unfortunate that you got blasted in E.Q. for bringing this up. I think it could have been a great discussion, in which people could get away from the script and really discuss both the benefits and challenges/stresses of parenthood. I do think that how the adult child turns out would be a big factor in happiness later on. In my mind, it’s all about stress. If your 45 year old still needs you to pay her rent, I imagine that could be pretty worrisome and not lead to as much happiness.

    Starfoxy, I love this: “Kids are something that I will (in theory) enjoy meaningfully later, even though they aren’t doing much for me right now.” I often feel like that, though I do admit to feelings of great well-being when I hold my baby and she smiles at me. As for defining happiness, see my comment to mmiles.

    On a related point in regards to defining happiness, here’s another thing I’ve gleaned from talking to my husband. Subjective well-being – what this self-defined happiness stuff is called in economics – is apparently based on two things. 1) your peer group. If you are richer, healthier, etc, than your peers, you report higher well being. 2) your past life. If you are richer, healthier, more friends, etc. than you were/had growing up, then you also report higher well-being.

  17. Caroline says:

    Absolutely, Eve. Like you said, happiness isn’t everything. Meaningfulness, in some sense, is also highly important, even if doesn’t bring happiness.

    “I’m not sure I am happier since having children but I definitely feel more loved.” I feel similarly. For me, I feel more needed and I’m forging these connections with my children that will be hugely important throughout the rest of my life. That connectedness is big for me.

    madam curie, great point about the cultural differences that come in to play here. And this is great. “I am “happier” on each individual day with working outside the home. That time away from him makes me “happier” to be with him.” I totally felt the same way when I was working. I enjoyed my son and appreciated him so much more for having had some time away from him.

    Kay, I agree with your points about the ups and downs every time of life has, and about how individual happiness is. And I’m glad you’ve found it at this point in your life.

    lulubelle, it sounds like you are pretty much representative of the type of woman Maureen Dowd was talking about in her piece. When a person doesn’t have time to do anything really well and it’s a constant frenetic juggling – well that often leads to feelings of discontent. But like the researchers said in the piece, just because having kids is hard doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t do it all over again. They absolutely would.

    By the way, I found your statement about sitting in the car and dreading going into your house very powerful. What an image. I can relate.

    Emily U, you ask: “Is it ever better to be a woman?” I’m not sure, but I will say this. For me, I love the fact that as a woman I have choice. Choice to stay at home, choice to work, choice to do both. I think that American/Mormon culture is much, much harder on men who choose to not work full time, than it is on mothers who do choose to work (or not work). Oh, and I want that on-call nanny too!

  18. Mindy says:

    This discussion reminds me of a young women’s lesson I had way back when. The teacher had two columns on the board, the first was for things that make us happy, and the second was for what brings us joy. The ideas was that it was more important to sacrifice happy things to ultimately have joy. On one level I totally get this. The happiness I get from, say, getting a pedicure is not in any way equal to the overall joy of motherhood, being connected to God, etc.

    On the other hand, I don’t think the happiness an joy are mutually exclusive. While our priorities should be towards the things that bring us the most overall joy in life, we should also be doing things that make us happy on a regular basis. I don’t see how a life of misery is going to work out to overall joy in the long run. When I take time to do things that make me happier (assuming these things don’t consume me to the point where I have no time for anyone but myself) I am a better mom, wife, friend, etc.

    So…I think that when I get to places in my life where I’m in survival mode, thinking, I’ll be happy when…than it’s time to make some changes. Easier said than done.

    One thing that works for me as a mom of two (almost 3) young children is to make sure that my family does fun things together so it’s not all work and the same old routines when it comes to my kids. Balancing fun with kids and fun by myself (playing sports, girls nights with friends, etc.) is huge for my own happiness.

  19. D'Arcy says:

    Caroline, this is very interesting. My parents had five children together, and I can see that much of their lives have been highly stressed and unhappy because of the decisions their children have made. My brother is currently in his fourth drug rehab program and my entire family is stressed. I guess since I don’t have kids I can’t look at it that way, but I do have siblings.

    My siblings have caused great joy at times and great sadness at others, but in the end, I guess that’s just part of being in the human race and now that they are in my life I wouldn’t trade any of it.

    However, do I feel happy that I can travel and do and be anything without worrying about any children, yes, I’m very happy about that. Would I be just as happy raising three kids and making it work with them? I think so, because I am a happy person and I’m responsible for my decisions.

    It’s an interesting article though, and I think I can see a lot of truth about it reflected in daily life.

  20. Jessawhy says:

    I’ve been talking about Dowd’s article since I read it Sunday. Eve’s comments are right on, there is more to life than happiness, which isn’t really addressed in the article.

    My next thought, though, is how the LDS church promotes the Gospel as the Plan of Happiness. While this is a catchy phrase, I don’t think it gets to the center of the purpose of our lives on earth as well as Eve’s thoughtful comment. In fact, searching for happiness may be misleading and prevent some people from actually finding the most meaning in their lives (children may be one example).

    Thanks for this post, Caroline. It’s very interesting, and I’m glad we can have this conversation here, as it wouldn’t fly very well in our RS lessons.

  21. suzy says:

    I like what the person said who mentioned, “why happiness?”–

    I mean, where did the idea come from that we are ‘supposed’ to be ‘happy’–and what is happiness?

    I have always been ‘happier’ in a ‘conventional’ way–as in . . . feeling lighter and more enjoyment . . .

    when I’ve been very me-centered–

    but I didn’t grow much in those years–

    and I like growing–

    death and illness and depression and wayward children and martial struggles and failing economies and war and perplexities aren’t . . . happy–

    I wonder why we think we can ‘possess’ *happiness*–

    how arrogant are we? and ethnocentric–

    as long as there are children and old people dying in other parts of the world because of evil and conspiring men (and women)–

    I don’t want to think about how “happy” I am; I want to do good–

    even if I don’t sleep at night, because I lay awake praying for those who are suffering–

    if I suffer, I am alive–

    if I suffer, I grow; I know; I am real–

    so . . . I came here to grow–

    I have experienced huge loss in my life (I am past middle age); I have experienced deep disappointment–

    but I have come to know God, and, frankly, I think that’s worth it–

    my Pollyanna years of plenty and prosperity and . . . pleasure–

    I was thin of heart and narrow of mind . . . one-dimensional, and I don’t look back on that person with pride . . . or happiness–

  22. Katie M. says:

    The problem with the study that Dowd is riffing on is that the results were very “massaged” in order to get a headline grabbing result. Many have criticized the conclusions. Here’s an example:

    Also, all the studies that have shown that happiness goes down after having children had a serious flaw-they did not account for whether or not the couple wanted to have kids in the first place. A new study, that does take this factor into consideration, found that “couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.”


    (There’s probably a better link, but this is what I found in my searching)

  23. Kelly Ann says:

    I know I get stressed in my quest for perfection in whatever it is that I am doing. I think many women succomb to this. I am happy but sometimes I wish I was more at ease.

  24. mellifera says:

    My husband and I are both in doctoral programs and we have an almost-one-year-old, plus he has a pretty heavy calling. I would definitely say we’re in survival mode- it’s a lot of work and we’re tired all the time.

    But you know, there are worse things than work. Existential void is one of them! (I was never one of those baby-loving women, but once we felt like it was time to have children, I’d feel all funny and, yes, existential void-y being married and childless by choice once we’d felt that way.) She’s so much work, but the fun parts are a lot more memorable than boring drag parts. So at the end of the day that’s what you remember.

    Not to mention that if it weren’t for DD, it would be just DH, me, grad school, and That @#*! Calling. I swear I’d never smile or laugh.

  25. Caroline says:

    I’m finally making my way back to this thread.

    LCM, I love what you said about thinking about raising your kids as a job with goals to achieve, etc. I need to do that more, rather than just devise ways to make the time go by.

    Mindy, I get trapped in that, “I’ll be happy when” mind frame. Definitely something to try to avoid.

    D’Arcy, I’ve heard it said that a parent is only as happy as his/her least happy child. Sounds like your parents might have experienced some of that. If that statement has any truth to it, it’s rather terrifying – that so much of one’s happiness lies in the hands of another.

    Jess, glad we can talk about such things here! I don’t think it would fly in my RS either.

    Suzy, I love the way you express yourself. It’s almost poetry.

    Katie M.,
    Thanks for the links. Very interesting. It’s always good to get a different take on a topic.

    Kelly Ann, me too. Happy but stressed is a good way to describe me a lot of the time as well.

    Mellifera, great point about existential void. I would far rather feel stressed than to feel like my existence is pointless.

  26. jasonlynnchristine says:

    This is a very old post but I wanted to comment. You say “I would imagine that most Mormon women would say that they are pretty darn happy – could that be because so many are not subjecting themselves to the stress of both motherhood and careerhood, and feel validated in only sticking to motherhood?” – Laughable – Mormon women are the some of the unhappiest subset of women world wide. Mormon women are statistically far more likely to be unhappy than happy. Look it up. Your perception that being given “permission” from the church to focus only on marriage and kids makes women happy is bogus. The validation you say women receive is an illusion because women should find validation within in themselves. Furthermore, a stay at home mom has a much higher chance of an unhappy marriage and depression. Do your research.

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