Last Thursday morning I worked from home as usual, but that day I also had the company of three kids who were home from school for the second day in a row, courtesy of polar vortex weather. As I tried to read about a new study finding that fathers are happier than mothers, the children came in and out of my office, arguing, yelling and even crying about pancakes for a full 15 minutes.
At last, I was able to get some quiet minutes to digest the study, recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. University of California-Riverside psychologists analyzed three studies — which together covered 18,000 people — and determined that fathers experience more well-being from parenting than mothers do. One possible explanation for this, said the study’s authors, was that fathers reported playing more with their children, and they suggested that all parents might benefit from more play.
I have to admit: My first reaction to the news that I should make myself happier by adding more play to the long, long list of things I already do for and with my children was not a good one. Especially while my statistically-likelier-to-be-happy husband was at his office not being interrupted by bickering children.
There had to be more to this, I decided. So I called Katherine Nelson-Coffey, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, to get the full story. I wanted to know why her team thought moms should play more with their kids, and whether there might be other reasons dads are happier.
First, we talked about the research. She explained that her paper reported on three studies for which she and her team collected and/or analyzed data: The first two studies found that parents generally report greater well-being than non-parents, with fathers reporting greater well-being than moms based on measures including experiences of positive emotions, depressive symptoms and daily hassles.
The third study was designed to dig a little deeper: How do moms and dads feel when they are doing various things for or with their kids? Participants downloaded an app on their phones, and three times a day they entered what they were doing right then (from a menu of options), whether they were talking or interacting with anyone, and how they felt.
Moms and dads both reported being happier when they were talking or interacting with their child (versus other interactions or activities), but the effect was greater for fathers. The dad happiness advantage was most dramatic for child care. “Fathers reported greater happiness during child care than for anything else they did that day, whereas mothers reported lower happiness during child care than for other activities during the day,” says Nelson-Coffey.
What could explain the difference? Maybe, thought the team, the answer was play. In the study, dads were more likely to report playing with their children at the same time they were interacting with or taking care of them.
Here’s where I pressed Nelson-Coffey. Isn’t it possible, I asked, that dads play more because they’re happier, and therefore feeling more playful? Yes, she agreed. The study can tell us that dads are happier, but not exactly why. “It’s certainly plausible that fathers who are feeling happy are more likely to initiate play with their children,” she says. “I would expect it would become a kind of feedback loop where fathers are feeling happy, so they might initiate more play, and that might make them feel happy, and it becomes kind of an upward spiral.”
And couldn’t there be other reasons for the happiness difference, I continued, like the fact that moms do far more labor at home and in child care? (You could call this the grandparent effect: It’s more fun to be a grandparent than a parent. You enjoy the kids, and then they go away.) Once again, Nelson-Coffey agreed that time and labor could be factors, and that other research “tends to find that mothers are more responsible for child care in general, and they also have more emotional and invisible labor such as keeping the household running, managing schedules, worrying about their children’s emotions. All of these things are possibilities that could explain why mothers are less happy.”
Absolutely, I think to myself, and do not mention the fact that U.S. public policy provides little maternity, postpartum and child care support, a reality that disproportionately disadvantages mothers versus fathers. We have no national consensus that motherhood is hard or deserves any sort of collective support.
Of course, individual families can do little about these big questions, and there’s clearly more scientific research to be done to explain the happiness gulf. Meanwhile, can play help?
Maybe. Nelson-Coffey says that other studies have found that play “could offer opportunities for positive emotions, to build connections with the child and to generally feel good.” So, even if we don’t feel like playing, it’s possible that we moms can fake it till we make it — that trying to be playful might actually help us to feel happier.
That doesn’t mean that “play with kids” needs to become yet another burden on moms, adding to the endless to-do list, she says. Instead, we can try to inject a little playfulness into what we’re already doing.
“I don’t think it hurts for parents to try to incorporate play into mundane tasks. So instead of just focusing on changing my child’s diaper, I might try to bring some play into that moment to make it a little bit more joyful for everyone involved,” says Nelson-Coffey. That play might be as simple as singing a nursery rhyme or tickling the baby’s toes.
“We can’t stop taking care of our children. We have to do those things,” says Nelson-Coffey. “But if we can introduce play into those moments, hopefully it will make those moments feel a little bit better.”
While I can’t say I made the playful most of my children’s workday interruptions, I can say that I’ll take this with me into parenting. We can blast music while we clean the kitchen, play cards or I Spy while we wait for the doctor, or make up silly rhymes about the cat while we eat lunch. As Nelson-Coffey says, it can’t hurt.
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