“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
“You are … irritating and unbearable, and I consider it most difficult to live with you.” So wrote Johanna Schopenhauer in a 1807 letter to her 19-year-old son Arthur. “No one can tolerate being reproved by you, who also still show so many weaknesses yourself, least of all in your adverse manner, which in oracular tones, proclaims this is so and so, without ever supposing an objection. If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.”
The two-century-old letter amazes not just for its mix of archaic diction and sick burns, but also because it violates some of humanity’s most basic assumptions about how mothers feel about their children. Motherhood is supposed to bring unparalleled happiness. The Bible, for example, is full of stories of women—Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth—who go from sorrow to joy when God grants them an unexpected child.
In real life, the relationship between happiness and motherhood is more complicated. Raising small children is far from unmitigated bliss. Year after year, surveys that ask mothers what they most want for Mother’s Day find that their No. 1 answer is time alone. As children grow up, mothers’ mixed feelings seem to stick around. Research suggests that plenty of mothers, while perhaps not as up-front as Johanna, feel some resentment toward their adult progeny, especially when the relationship feels unequal. Thankfully, social science also offers clues to how adult children can patch things up and make their moms happier.
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The happiness stage is set early on in motherhood, depending on how much help a mom has. Researchers have found that even after correcting for socioeconomic circumstances, single, non-cohabiting mothers are generally less happy than married mothers, which is not surprising given the financial and time pressures single mothers face. Of course, all of this depends on the quality of a partnership. Having a supportive partner significantly affects a mother’s health, mood, satisfaction, and more.
The size of a brood is also important. Using the 2018 General Social Survey collected by NORC at the University of Chicago, I statistically modeled mothers’ reported happiness against the number of children they have, and found that well-being increases as a woman has her first, second, and third child. The fourth child and beyond are associated with falling happiness. (To be precise, the optimal happiness point occurs at 3.14 kids, but getting that .14 of a child is a bit tricky.)
The aspects of motherhood that lower happiness are obvious and specific, from meltdowns in the supermarket to calls from the principal’s office. The benefits to well-being are more diffuse, and centered on a sense of purpose and meaning. As one team of scholars summarizes the evidence, “When compared with nonparents, parents with children in the home have low levels of affective well-being … and high levels of life-meaning.”
Logically, then, a mother’s overall well-being should rise as kids grow up, because the pressures of raising young kids decrease, while the sense of meaning that adult children bring their mothers stays high. But the opposite appears to be true. In 2016, three social scientists looked at the life satisfaction of women with and without kids. They found that during childbearing years, mothers and mothers-to-be were happier than non-mothers. However, by age 40 and beyond, mothers’ life-satisfaction levels were generally a bit lower than their childless counterparts.
Researchers studying mothers have also found that almost 54 percent said their relationship with their adult child or children was ‘‘intimate but also restrictive,” that they had “mixed feelings” about the relationship, or some other ambivalent statement. The strongest predictor of ambivalence toward an adult child was whether their mother continued to financially support them. And the biggest predictor of interpersonal stress between adult child and mother was her affirmative answer to the question ‘‘Do you feel that you give more than you receive in this relationship?’’
Clearly, many mothers experience less unmitigated joy from their adult children than they let on to their families. The good news is that the research also suggests ways to make Mom happier by making sure she gets as much out of the relationship as she puts in:
1. Get off the family plan.
At the most obvious level, adult children can lower their mother’s resentment and stress by decreasing their financial dependence, which has been repeatedly found to be a significant source of family conflict. Some researchers estimate that adult children are nearly four times as likely to receive financial support from their parents as vice versa. In many cases, independence is simply not possible, especially given unstable job markets and the skyrocketing costs of city life. If nothing else is feasible, start with a small gesture, like taking your cellphone off the family plan. At the very least, don’t let Mom’s financial support go unacknowledged.
2. Host a holiday at your place.
In the Jewish faith, the Friday-night Sabbath dinner traditionally includes a reading of Proverbs 31, extolling the virtues of the wife and mother in a family. “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family,” goes the verse. And then, “Her children arise and call her blessed.” I have to wonder what goes through many mothers’ minds as they listen to this proverb in the presence of their families. Perhaps, “I’d be even more blessed if Junior did his own laundry now and then.”
If you had close friends with whom you spent the holidays each year, who would do the preparation and planning? Probably not the same person, year after year. Yet plenty of people happily assume that their mothers delight in acting as unpaid logisticians, organizing every get-together only to field the complaints when things aren’t perfect. After reviewing the research, you now know that Mom might not be so pleased with that arrangement. This year, you might volunteer to plan and execute Thanksgiving at your place.
3. Ask about her day.
Unilateral relationships aren’t only about money and event planning. For your mother’s well-being, emotional support should be a two-way street as well. This truth is especially elusive for families that find themselves stuck in the roles they established when their children were young and relatively helpless. Mom seems more or less like an ATM of love and help when we are little, but a mature relationship must develop beyond this. One way to start to develop reciprocity is to listen more to your mother, the way you would to a friend.
The next time you call your mother—and make it today—ask her about something going on in her life that doesn’t involve you at all but that you know is important to her. Ask for details, listen, and then offer your thoughts. It might feel odd at first for both of you, but you’ll get used to it, and your mom will like it.
Arthur Schopenhauer grew up to become one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century, but he never figured out how to make his mom happy. “The door that you slammed so loudly yesterday, after you had conducted yourself extremely improperly toward your mother, closed forever between you and me,” Johanna wrote to him after an especially bad argument in 1813. By all accounts they never saw each other again.
This kind of schism is mercifully rare—both Arthur and Johanna were allegedly pieces of work. Even if you, like Arthur, are an annoying, selfish freeloader, your mother is unlikely to cut you off completely. But why test her? You can almost certainly improve your relationship and her happiness by taking the advice above: Don’t take her for granted, and treat her with the attentive love she deserves.