In the last post on the new State of Our Unions (SOU) report from the National Marriage Project we read that “the benefits of generosity were particularly pronounced among couples with children”. Parents who were very generous with each other were more likely to be very happy as well. But there’s more. Generosity in having children is also part of the happiness equation.
As Wilcox and Marquardt note in their report, “When Baby Makes Three: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable”, there is a growing media genre of marital misery based on research that finds a couple’s happiness declines once they start having children.
That’s true up to a point, say Wilcox and Marquardt, and that point seems to be when the number of children exceeds the usual one, two or three. They found that, while parents of small families were less happy than childless spouses, husbands and wives with four or more children were just as happy as those who had not had children.
Their figures: about 18 per cent of wives with one to three children are “very happy” in their marriage, compared to 26 per cent of wives with no children or four or more children; the equivalent figures for husbands are 14 per cent and 25 per cent. “This means that the parents of large families are at least 40 per cent more likely to be happily married than the parents of smaller families,” say the SOU authors. (“On average” is understood in all these figures — not every couple with a large family is equally happy.)
These parents may be a minority, but they are significant minority: according to the the SOU report they constitute around 35 per cent of parents in the US.
How do they do it, given the financial, practical and emotional challenges of raising a large family in a country like the US today?
“This finding seems to be largely a ‘selection’ story, in which particular types of couples end up having large numbers of children, remain married to one another, and also enjoy cultural, social, and relational strengths that offset the challenges of parenting a large family.”
Among those strengths are, notably, faith, friends and a sense that family life is meaningful.
On the question of meaning, parents of large families — mothers in particular — are more likely to strongly agree that “my life has an important purpose,” compared to their married peers with smaller families or no children. They are also about twice as likely to attend a religious service weekly or more often, and so are more likely to feel called by God or encouraged by their religious network to have large families.
Religious faith is particularly important in moderating the association between family size and marital happiness for women, the authors note. They found that:
59 percent of wives with large families who attend religious services at least weekly report that they are very happy, compared to 38 percent of childless religious wives, 30 percent of childless wives who are nominally religious or secular, slightly more than 25 percent of religious wives who have one to three children, and about 20 percent of married mothers who are nominally religious or secular.
If you go to the report here and find pages 62 and following the graphs show you the story.