Last Thursday morning I worked from home as usual, but that day I also had the company of three children who were home from school for the second day in a row, courtesy of polar vortex weather.
As I tried to read about a new study finding that fathers are happier than mothers, the children came in and out of my office, arguing, yelling and even crying about pancakes for a full 15 minutes.
Eventually I was able to get some quiet time to digest the study, which was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
University of California-Riverside psychologists analysed three studies - which together covered 18000 people - and determined that fathers experienced more well-being from parenting than mothers did.
One possible explanation for this was that fathers reported playing more with their children, the study’s authors said, and they suggested that all parents might benefit from more play.
I have to admit my first reaction to the news that I should make myself happier by adding more play to the long list of things I already do for and with my children was not a good one, especially while my statistically- likelier-to-be-happy husband was at his office not being interrupted by bickering children.
There had to be more to this, I decided. So I called Katherine Nelson-Coffey, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, to get the full story.
I wanted to know why her team thought moms should play more with their children and whether there might be other reasons dads are happier.
She explained that her paper reported on three studies for which she and her team collected and/or analysed data. The first two studies found that parents generally report greater well-being than non-parents, with fathers reporting greater well-being than moms based on measures including experiences of positive emotions, depressive symptoms and daily hassles.
The third study was designed to dig a little deeper: How do moms and dads feel when they are doing various things for or with their children? Participants downloaded an app on their phones and three times a day they entered what they were doing right then (from a menu of options), whether they were talking or interacting with anyone, and how they felt.
Moms and dads both reported being happier when they were talking or interacting with their child (versus other interactions or activities), but the effect was greater for fathers. The dad happiness advantage was most dramatic for childcare.
Nelson-Coffey said: “Fathers reported greater happiness during childcare than for anything else they did that day, whereas mothers reported lower happiness during childcare than for other activities during the day.”
What could explain the difference? Maybe the answer was play, thought the team.
In the study, dads were more likely to report playing with their children at the same time they were interacting with or taking care of them.
Isn’t it possible, I asked, that dads play more because they are happier, and therefore feeling more playful? Yes, she agreed. The study can tell us that dads are happier, but not exactly why. “It’s certainly plausible that fathers who are feeling happy are more likely to initiate play with their children,” she said.
“I would expect it would become a kind of feedback loop where fathers are feeling happy, so they might initiate more play, and that might make them feel happy, and it becomes kind of an upward spiral.”
And couldn’t there be other reasons for the happiness difference, I continued, such as the fact that moms labour more at home and in childcare?
Once again, Nelson-Coffey agreed that time and labour could be factors, and that other research “tends to find that mothers are more responsible for child care in general, and they also have more emotional and invisible labour such as keeping the household running, managing schedules, worrying about their children’s emotions. All these things are possibilities that could explain why mothers are less happy".
Nelson-Coffey said other studies had found that play “could offer opportunities for positive emotions, to build connections with the child and to generally feel good". So, even if we don’t feel like playing, it’s possible that we moms can fake it till we make it - that trying to be playful might actually help us to feel happier.
That doesn’t mean that “play with children” needs to become yet another burden on moms, adding to the endless to-do list, she said. Instead, we can try to inject a little playfulness into what we are already doing. That play might be as simple as singing a nursery rhyme or tickling the baby’s toes.
“We can’t stop taking care of our children. We have to do those things,” said Nelson-Coffey. “But if we can introduce play into those moments, hopefully it will make those moments feel a little better.”
We can blast music while we clean the kitchen, play cards or I Spy while we wait for the doctor, or make up silly rhymes about the cat while we eat lunch. As Nelson-Coffey said, it can’t hurt.