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December 21, 2005

Feeling the Holiday Blues? Then You Must Have Children

Sociological study finds parenthood does not make people happier

Washington, DC—Parenthood is not associated with enhanced mental health, and, in fact, is more likely to be associated with symptoms of depression, according to recently published sociological research.  The research finds that parents of all types report more symptoms of depression than nonparents.  In addition, the research confirms that certain types of parenthood are associated with more depression than others.

Unlike other major adult social roles in the United States, parenthood does not appear to present a mental health advantage for individuals, find sociologists Ranae J. Evenson, Vanderbilt University, and Robin W. Simon, Florida State University.  Their article, “Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression,” appears in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, published by the 100-year-old American Sociological Association.

Their analyses are from the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households, which was based a national probability sample of 13,000 U.S. adults. They oversampled blacks and Hispanics, single and recently married persons, and single and stepparents. Using 12 items from the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, the researchers went beyond looking at emotional well-being and researched the relationship between parenthood and symptoms of depression.    

“People with minor children at home, noncustodial children, adult children at home, and nonresidential stepchildren all report significantly more symptoms of depression than nonparents when controlling for sociodemographic factors,” say Evenson and Robin.  “In fact, there is no type of parent in this national sample that reports less symptoms of depression than nonparents.”

The researchers did find variation in symptoms of depression among the different types of parents.  Evenson and Simon find that married parents residing with their own minor children (under the age of 18) actually report less depression than many other types of parents.

Similarly, the researchers note that people with minor stepchildren in the household do not significantly differ from childless persons.  Counterintuitive to cultural beliefs that stepparenthood leads to greater stress, Evenson and Simon find very little relative differences from nonparents.  They conjecture that those with better mental health and better coping mechanisms may select their role as stepparents.

Although persons residing with minor stepchildren do not significantly differ from people living with their own minor children, parents who have noncustodial children, adult children at home, nonresidential adult children, and nonresidential adult stepchildren all report significantly higher symptom levels, say Evenson and Simon.
Also, in contrast to some prior studies, empty-nest parents are not less distressed than their childless counterparts with respect to depression.

While Evenson and Simon find marital status differences among parents, they find no gender differences in the association between parenthood and depression.  These findings are inconsistent with earlier studies and with the assumption that parenthood is more consequential for women than men.

“Our finding that no gender differences exist in the associations between parenthood and depression symptoms contradicts the assumption that parenthood is more taxing on the emotional well-being of women,” say Evenson and Simon.  “Although we did not find gender differences, our findings clearly show that certain types of parenthood are predominately male, such as noncustodial parents, whereas other types of parents are predominately female, such as single parents.”

Additional analyses reveal marital status differences in the association between parenthood and depression.  The research finds depression differences between married and cohabiting persons are evident only among a few types of parents; while all single parents report more symptoms than all married parents.  The differences between married and cohabiting parents are evident only among persons residing with their own minor children.  The researchers suggest that the emotional benefits of marriage relative to cohabitation only apply to persons living with their dependent children.

In conclusion, the researchers note that while parenthood is currently not associated with enhanced mental health, there are there are types of parenthood with different consequences.  According to Evenson and Simon, their “analyses clearly indicate that certain types of parenthood—particularly married parents with minor children in the household—are associated with less depression than other types of parenthood.”

For more information, Dr. Evenson can be reached at (919) 942-1958 or ranae.j.evenson@vanderbilt.edu and Dr. Simon can be reached at (850) 644-6416 or robinwsimon@yahoo.com .  A copy of the Evenson and Simon article, "Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression," may be obtained by contacting Johanna Olexy at (202) 247-9871 or pubinfo@asanet.org.

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The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a medical sociology journal that publishes articles that apply sociological concepts and methods to the understanding of health and illness and the organization of medicine and health care.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.