How does having children or not having them affect a woman's happiness in later life? A new study examining nearly 6,000 women provides an unexpected answer —it's not so much whether you have children as when you have them.
But even more important than when you become a mother is whether you have anyone else to love in your life.
"Whether a woman has had children or not isn’t likely to affect her psychological well-being in later life," said University of Michigan sociologist Amy Pienta. "What is more important is whether or not she has a husband, a significant other or close social relationships in her life as she ages."
Pienta, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research, is co-author of a study analyzing the implications of childlessness, birth timing and marital status on women's psychological well-being in late midlife. University of Florida researcher Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox is lead author of the study and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduate student in Sociology Tyson Brown is a co-author of the study.
For the study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Aging and Human Development, the researchers analyzed data on women between the ages of 51 and 61 from two different national surveys. These women were young adults in the 1950s, a time when most women married early and had first births between the ages of 19 and 24.
"These surveys included several widely used measures of psychological well-being," Pienta said. "The women were asked about their levels of happiness, their depressive symptoms and loneliness, and about their satisfaction with family life and life in general."
"If you just look at women who had kids compared to those who didn't, childless women reported being somewhat less happy and more depressed," Pienta said. "But when we factored in socioeconomic characteristics and marital status, there was no difference between the two groups."
Instead of just comparing childless women and mothers, the researchers examined how the late-life well-being of childless women compared to that of three different groups of mothers who had their first children at different times—women who became mothers early (before age 19), "on-time" (between 19 and 24) or late (age 25 or later).
When they compared each group and controlled for sociodemographic factors as well, a more complex picture emerged that suggests how much the timing of motherhood matters.
Early mothers were the least satisfied and most depressed of all four groups, while delayed or late mothers were the most satisfied with their lives and the happiest. All other things being equal, the childless women were about as satisfied and happy with their lives as the on-time mothers.
"In mid-life, being married or having a partner has a greater impact on a woman's well-being than whether or not she has children," Pienta said.
Early mothers were the most likely to be single and to have lower incomes—factors that largely explained their lower psychological well-being. Delayed mothers tended to have more education and higher economic status than other groups, and were much more likely than early mothers to be married.
"Most studies have shown that psychological well-being tends to decline when people have kids," Pienta said. "And it only rebounds much later, when the children have left home. So it was surprising to find the highest level of well-being among the group that was most likely to have children still living at home or still in college. It suggests that delaying motherhood may have some benefits for women—probably related to being more career focused and having higher social standing."
Today's younger women are opting to remain childless at much higher rates than young women of the 1950s, Pienta said. "Rates of childlessness among women in their 40s doubled between 1980 and 1998 from 10 percent to 19 percent," she said. This study suggests that the outlook for psychological well-being later in life for today's childless women is quite good.
Today’s women are also getting married and having children later, changes that.
Pienta’s research suggests may benefit women’s psychological health in later life. Her personal experience suggests that there may be earlier benefits as well. "My mom was 40 when I was born and my father was 45," Pienta said. "As a consequence, I received Social Security benefits in high school, as a dependent of parents who were receiving Social Security. I enjoyed being a late-life child."
Pienta, 38, married at age 30, a little later than today’s norm, after finishing her doctoral degree. "We decided to have children as soon as possible after marrying, but by the time my first daughter was born I was in my mid 30s. We have two little girls, ages 2 and 4. My parents feel much younger than their same-age peers. They are enjoying being grandparents to preschoolers when most of their friends have grandchildren in college. And living in a college town like Ann Arbor, I see a lot of other late mothers. As long as you beat the biological clock, waiting to have children has a lot of advantages."
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