I read the big “Having Kids Makes You Less Happy” article in New York magazine when it first came out in the summer of 2010. Since then I’ve read a veritable ton of articles discussing it. Many of them include my first reactions to the article. As parents we automatically begin to argue with the findings and justify our choices. Among the most popular responses:
- The few moments of joy we experience in a sea of aggravation are so sharp and poignant that they are worth it. This is the number one most off repeated response.
- Children are an investment in happiness. You might be miserable for a few years, but you’ll be happier in the end when your kids require less drudgery and give satisfaction as they become your best pals and the parents of your grandchildren.
- The religious angle: Sure it sucks on earth, but parenting is essential to your eternal happiness.
- Parenting is about more than happiness. We’re not doing this to make us happy. Happiness is not the biggest deal.
Hold it. Happiness is not the biggest deal? Happiness is the only deal. Happiness is the ultimate goal of every human choice and endeavor. Mankind’s sole purpose is joy. Okay, back to the issues.
Despite the mounting evidence that one child has little or no effect on happiness, but that happiness declines with every child thereafter, people still want to have kids. Even though twinfancy has drained the life force right out of me, I still go through phases of wanting another baby. I even read that one of the lead scientists on a “parenting doesn’t bring more happiness” study still wants to try to have kids. He wants one boy and one girl. Why?
Again a couple of theories:
- Optimism bias. We’re sure that though parenting destroys other people’s marital satisfaction and zest for life, it will probably only enhance ours. “Sure having that second baby drove us to the very brink of psychological breakdown, but we’re pretty sure having a third will be a baby-powder-scented dream of tender fulfillment and delight.”
- Hormones. This is one I really identify with. Women who have had that incredible rush of oxytocin and prolactin nursing a newborn baby will be addicts all their lives. What other than hormones can explain the fact that in the very deepest depths of sleep-deprived, post-partum desperation we feel the strongest desire to do this again. I remember during the first several months of the boys’ lives—keep in mind they were both exclusively breastfed so I had a heavy oxytocin/prolactin habit—having the conflicting convictions that if I don’t manage to kill myself on Wednesday, I absolutely MUST get pregnant again on Thursday.
- Biological imperative. What chance does logic or even solid evidence of the cons we’ll experience as individual parents stand against millions of years of evolution that throbs in our veins telling us to procreate?
- The religious angle. Because my religion places such importance on having children, I will have a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction in parenting than all those other miserable mothers. This argument works best if you ignore the fact that most parents are religious.
- Joy of connecting. Popular psychology has been ranting at us for decades to spend more time on our relationships since they are the greatest source of joy and satisfaction. Family relationships will satisfy us, right? While this is true, our time and energy remain constant whether we have just a spouse or a family of 10. The more family members we introduce, the smaller share of time and energy each one will receive. This phenomenon gets the lion’s share of the blame for the fact that marital satisfaction declines steadily with each child added to a family.
And yet, and yet.
Reading all of this, and even writing it, this baby-junkie still looks over at my little people in their gingerbread flannel PJ’s and thinks, “Somebody forgot to carry the one. The data cannot be right. These people make me happy.” We’re almost certainly done at three, but even typing that last phrase, I wrote “four” three separate times and had to correct it. Sigh.