“The happiest, healthiest couples are the ones who genuinely co-parent and share the workload and the responsibilities.” – Helen Rimington.
While research shows that having children can have a mixed effect on the wellbeing of parents, one thing is for sure: “Parenthood is life turned up to 11, both for good or bad,” says Luke Benedictus, director of The Father Hood, a media company aimed at Australian dads.
“But in my experience, life’s most fulfilling things aren’t easy to achieve, whether it’s running a marathon, finishing a PhD or writing a book. Parenthood is a bit like that. My personal view is that being a dad is the ‘Champions League of Manhood’ because suddenly you’re forced to find these new reserves of patience, selflessness and energy. So being a parent is hard, but it’s also more satisfying than any other experience.”
Let’s explore how.
Happiness levels increase for men
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, created in partnership with Deakin University and studying the wellbeing and life satisfaction of Australian adults for more than 20 years, found fathers tend to be subjectively happier than men without children, scoring 75.64 on the Personal Wellbeing Index (PWI) versus 73.13. Meanwhile, women’s wellbeing is similar whether they have kids or not – a PWI of 76.89 compared to 76.04.
There are a few reasons for the increased wellbeing benefits, according to Helen Rimington, a leading mental health trainer and special projects officer at Drummond Street Services, a welfare organisation that offers a range of sources to support parents. Having children gives parents focus and extra motivation to have a good life. Parents learn to be less selfish and more giving. It gives people routine. All of which, Helen says, is “better for mental health, generally”.
Becoming a parent is also an “automatic community machine generator”, says Luke. After interviewing hundreds of dads, from well-known men like David Beckham to parenting experts, it was this description from Australian comedian James McCann that resonated with him.
“The one strange thing that happened to James when he had kids was that he found it so much easier to connect to people who weren’t of his generation. He was like, ‘Now I’m a dad, I have something in common with a 72-year-old man,’ or, he might see a woman holding a crying baby in a supermarket and he’d have this real immediate sense of kinship with them as another parent,” says Luke. “That’s what I’ve found as well.”
The downsides are mostly felt by women
Why is it that women only experience a minimal boost in wellbeing when having children? Helen says this may be explained by the fact mums “are still doing the lion’s share of the housework and what we call the ‘mental load’”.
“The ‘mental load’ is the sense of who looks ahead and plans things on the calendar, who makes sure you don't forget birthdays, who books the holidays, who makes sure the kids get to the dentist,” she says. “It’s all the tiny little things that make up a family life, and when you're doing that as well as working, cooking and cleaning, then that can just feel like, ‘God, it’s all on me’.”
Financial wellbeing is another area where men tend to gain more than women after becoming a parent. “There’s a study from the US called The Fatherhood Bonus and The Motherhood Penalty, which shows that men typically earn 6 percent more when they have a child, while women sadly earn 4 percent less for every child they have,” says Luke.
Researchers of a similar Cornell University study concluded working mothers might be penalised because “cultural ideas of motherhood are seen as pretty incompatible with cultural ideas of the workplace. Since fatherhood is not seen as incompatible with the workplace, employers do not hold fathers to a harsher performance standard”.
These are issues Luke says society needs to address as a whole. “Until it’s unremarkable for men to play an equal role in family life, it will remain remarkable for women to have an equal role in the workforce. So if men are getting more involved in the nitty-gritty of raising their children, it will help to unshackle women even more from that domestic role.”
Helen adds: “The happiest, healthiest couples are the ones who genuinely co-parent and share the workload and the responsibilities.”
But for everyone, children force us to prioritise our own wellbeing
Previous generations may have focused on “self-sacrifice” as the ultimate act of parenthood – “but that doesn’t necessarily work,” says Helen. “Often parents who have depression and anxiety are not valuing their own happiness and wellbeing. They don’t realise that if you want happy and healthy kids, your number-one job is to be happy and healthy yourself.”
Luke had a similar realisation. “I went through a stage at first where I wasn’t looking after myself, but what I've found is that for me to be a good dad, or for anyone to be a good parent, you’ve got to look after yourself too.”
For Luke, it’s meant allocating time to working out. “When I exercise, it makes me calmer. It’s good for my mental health and energy levels,” he says. “It’s easy to feel that taking that time away from the family is an indulgence but, by looking after myself, when I am with my wife and my children it makes me be a better father and husband.”
As for women who have put their own wellbeing last in order to deal with the seemingly never-ending list of to-dos, Helen has this advice: “Don’t try to be perfect.”
“Make time for yourself. Self-care is incredibly important; it’s not an indulgence. It’s saying, ‘I need half an hour to lay down in the sun and read a book,’ rather than spend that half hour desperately cleaning,” she says. “You need to put some fuel into your tank as well.”
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.