Why do I have to juggle my responsibilities in the office and at home? Why do I experience this kind of conflict as a single parent, seemingly on a daily basis? Research suggests that single mothers are more likely to experience this kind of role conflict, but I suspect that it's really single parents that experience it, it's just that we single dads are a mere blip on the demographic radar screen. So being a single parent creates role conflict, and conflict is not good. Does this mean that single parents are less happy than other demographic categories? Well, yes, sort of. Studies show, for example, that parents are on average less happy, and more likely to experience depression, than non-parents.
But we really must question any notion that raising children is depressing. This simply flies in the face of evolution. I mean, what is the purpose of human existence, you know, the grand principle that seems to guide virtually all life on earth? I'd say it has something to do with reproduction, or more precisely, replicating our genetic material, and having babies is how we humans do it. How could fulfilling our grand purpose possibly be depressing? If anything, our genes would make it more psychologically painful not to reproduce, and there is evidence that women who do not have children are more depressed than women who do, holding many other happiness factors constant.
So raising children must be psychologically rewarding in order for the whole game of evolution to work. There must be other variables at work making parents less happy than childless adults. Let's begin by asking whether some parents are less happy than others. The answer is 'yes'. A closer examination of the research findings reveals that it is primarily single parents and parents living in non-traditional households who are less happy. When it comes to good, old fashioned, married parents living in the same household as their children, there is little or no difference in happiness between parents and non-parents. It's the single parents who are less happy.
So it seems to be the case that divorce and other unusual or unanticipated circumstances can make parenting a real pain in the arse and psyche. Being a single parent does indeed seem to be harder. Why might this be the case? Let's apply the simple economic laws of supply and demand to parenting labour in the household unit. Single parent households have only half the supply of labour hours to devote to raising children compared to married couples.
And as long as we're comparing single and married parents, let's not forget that in other cultures, particularly many Asian countries, extended families are the norm. Mix in some grandparents and a couple of aunts and uncles, and the amount of parenting that has to be done by each adult is divided a number of ways in the household. In economic terms, the supply of parenting labour is far greater in extended families. So, the amount of childcare labour a parent has to do depends very much on the demographics of the specific household.
So what if single mums and dads do more parenting work than other mums and dads? Why should this make them less happy? Aren't kids wonderful? Don't they bring great joy? Well, yes, up to a point. But here the psychological principle of satiation kicks in. No matter how much you like to do something, eventually you get sick of it. You want to switch to something else. Think of any activity you choose to engage in when you have a period of "free" time. It could be a hobby, reading a good book, spending time with a romantic partner or family or friends. No matter what it is, you eventually change activities. If this were not the case, each of us would pursue our favourite activity all the time! But we don't. When we get bored or tired, we switch to something else. Variety is the spice of life as they say.
But what if you were forced to persist? To keep going long after you became bored with the activity? The activity would become unenjoyable. Playing a musical instrument might initially be a fun hobby, unless you are made to take lessons 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, in which case it might become drudgery. Many a budding musician or athlete has eventually become turned off by their instrument or sport for exactly this reason – too much practice! Well, parenting has an activity is no different. It is wonderful, perhaps the ultimate enjoyable pastime, but like any other activity, only up to a point. Pushed beyond that point, a parent no longer finds it enjoyable. And this is far more likely to happen for single parents because of the shortage of childcare labour in the household.
Put another way, we humans may not be perfectly cut out for the nuclear family as a childcare arrangement, and single parent homes may be a particularly bad option. The extended family, with its large pool of adults available to take on short shifts of parenting duties may be more consistent with our evolutionary history as primates travelling in multi-family social groups. Consistent with this explanation, research shows that mothers in extended families are relatively happy compared to their childless counterparts. Also, mothers in nuclear families who have frequent contact with adult relatives are less prone to symptoms of depression. So, whether it is an actual extended family, or a quasi-extended family where adult relatives in separate households help out from time to time, parents, and particularly mothers, seem to benefit psychologically.
Also consistent with this explanation is the obvious fact that raising human offspring is really, really hard, compared to damn near every other living species. The demand for human parenting labour is simply higher to start with. A direct comparison of humans with other species indicates that we've adopted a "quality over quantity" strategy for reproduction. Instead of fertilizing thousands of eggs and hoping that some small percentage survives to reproductive age, we humans do things basically one at a time.
Even compared to other primates, humans still emphasize quality over quantity. Fewer offspring are born to women than to female bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, howler monkeys, and, well, you get the picture. And the nurturing period for human offspring is longer than for any other primate. In short, raising a single human from birth to adulthood takes a hell of a lot of time and effort.
But the pay-off is obvious. Adolescent humans are excellent little survival machines, and with good parenting they are far more likely to survive to adulthood. For non-primate mammals, roughly 10% of offspring survive to adulthood. For non-human primates, the percentage increases to 25%. For primitive hunting and gathering societies, the figure jumps to over 50%.In developing countries, the figure moves to 70-95%, and in post-industrial Western countries it exceeds 99%.
So, in an evolutionary sense, all the effort that goes into parenting appears to pay off, and if anything, the investment in nurturing is increasing. Two of the most interesting trends in rich, Western countries are fewer children per household and the increasingly older age at which children leave their parents' household. The idea of a thirty-something only child still living with her parents is not the anomaly it would have been 30 years ago. Here is the quality over quantity strategy taken to its ultimate extreme – you raise one child your entire life! The point being that any culture that "invents" the two-parent nuclear family, faces an obvious risk of putting a great deal of pressure on those two parents, And a culture that invents the no fault divorce, and all the resulting single parent households, is creating a serious parenting burden. From this perspective, single parents seem positively heroic. Funny I don't always feel that way.