Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parenthood, Childlessness, and Well-Being: A Life Course Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parenthood, Childlessness, and Well-Being: A Life Course Perspective

Article excerpt

This article reviews recent research (1999-2009) on the effects of parenthood on well-being. We use a life course framework to consider how parenting and childlessness influence well-being throughout the adult life course. We place particular emphasis on social contexts and how the impact of parenthood on well-being depends on marital status, gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We also consider how recent demographic shifts lead to new family arrangements that have implications for parenthood and well-being. These include stepparenting, parenting of grandchildren, and childlessness across the life course.

Key Words: childlessness, life course, parenthood, well-being.

Parenthood is a transformative experience - imposing a unique mix of stress and rewards for those who enter (Nomaguchi & Milkie, 2003). At least since McLanahan and Adam's (1987) review, social scientists have generally concluded that, at least when children are young, the costs appear to outweigh the benefits in terms of effects on parents' well-being. At the same time, research on later life families has generally concluded that adult children tend to have positive effects on parents' well-being. Individuals who remain childless typically serve as a comparison group for those with minor and adult children but, given their growing numbers, childlessness has become an important research destination on its own right. Over the 2000s, research on the effects of parenthood on well-being has evolved in new directions - with greater theoretical nuance, attention to diversity, and the use of valuable longitudinal and qualitative data sets. We use a life course framework to organize a review of studies on parenthood and well-being that were published over the past decade and to suggest future directions for research on parenthood and well-being.

Given the long-standing view that parenthood carries both costs and benefits for parents' well-being, a significant advance over the past decade is the inclusion of measures that tap into various dimensions of well-being. This is particularly important because it appears that parenthood and parenting may be more relevant to some dimensions of well-being than others at different points in the life course. Over the 2000s, the majority of studies on parenthood and well-being included a general measure of psychological distress or well-being, but studies have assessed other aspects of well-being including a sense of meaning and purpose in life, self-efficacy, loneliness, health behaviors, and physical health. In this review, we define well-being broadly in order to capture possible costs and benefits of parenthood for well-being across social groups and over the life course. We use the term "parenthood," to refer to being a parent versus remaining childless. "Parenting" and "parental status" refer to different types of parents or parenting situations (e.g., based on age or living arrangements of children). "Contexts" refers to socially structured contexts of parenthood as shaped by gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity.


Research on parenthood, parenting, and well-being is comprised of two largely separate literatures, one focusing on the effects of parenthood and young children on well-being during early to middle adulthood and the other focusing on the effects of parenthood and adult children on well-being during middle to late adulthood. We suggest that a life course perspective be used to integrate these two bodies of work. These literatures can inform one another in ways that advance future research and theory on parenthood and well-being. Early parenting experiences do not become irrelevant to parents' well-being after children grow up. Rather, early life course experiences have long-term implications for well-being throughout middle and later life (Ha, Hong, Seltzer, & Greenberg, 2008). A life course perspective directs attention to continuity and change in well-being over the life course and suggests how parenthood and the "linked lives" of parents and children influence trajectories of change in well-being over time (Milkie, Bierman, & Schieman, 2008). …

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