The birth of our second son is drawing ever nearer (there have been many half scares in the last week, but don’t worry the bags are packed and the route to the hospital is ingrained upon my memory so I can do it in the middle of the night when part of me might still be in bed…Shan is also bearing up very well).  As our family is about to change in a massive way I was interested to read in the Irish Times that apparently I will get an “increase of happiness” only one-half of that which I experienced when Thomas (our first son) was born.  Furthermore, apparently by now my happiness that increased after Thomas was born has subsided to “pre-child” levels. Of even more concern is that if we have a third child “the increase in parental happiness” will be “negligible”. 

These are all findings from a new study published in Journal of Demography and written by Mikko Myrskyla (professor of demography at LSE and director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany) and Rachel Margolis (assistant professor from Western University’s Faculty of Social Science). The research is based upon data obtained from the British Household Panel Survey and the German Socio-Economic Panel. It tracked parents for 18 years after the birth of their children.  According to Myrskyla:

“The arrival of a third child is not associated with an increase in the parents’ happiness, but this is not to suggest they are any less loved than their older siblings…

Instead, this may reflect that the experience of parenthood is less novel and exciting by the time the third child is born or that a larger family puts extra pressure on the parents’ resources.”

Apparently there is no difference in the level of happiness for parents before and after having children in the long run.  Further, the level of happiness for parents who have children when they are older is higher and more sustained than for those who have children when they are teenagers. As Margolis comments:

“The fact that among older and better-educated parents, wellbeing increases with childbearing, but the young and less-educated parents have flat or even downward happiness trajectories, may explain why postponing fertility has become so common.”

A couple of thoughts. One, what is counted as happiness? Is it based upon material wellbeing? The feeling at 3am as you try and rock your hysterical child to sleep? The slowly expanding waistline as you no longer exercise? The inability to go out on Friday night and have a good time with your friends? I would think that if you measure these things, then yes children are unlikely to make you happy. But would the answers be different if we ask parents when they are at retirement age and their children are having children? Could we really say that parents would say that there is no difference in their happiness then? And anyway, is happiness the right thing to be measuring? What about joy? I might be supremely unhappy at 3am in the morning but my heart is full of joy at the sight of my son (even if the joy is buried deep down at that particular point in time…) Also, are children to be measured only, or even primarily, on the impact that they have on their parents’ happiness/well being? Or are they something to be treasured despite the fact that they might not make us “happier” than before. (Having seen the comments in the last few years about children as a parents’ “right” then perhaps the “wellbeing” and feelings of the parents do come first for many people.) I think any parent would agree that after you have children, you realise that there are lots of things that you can live without. But having a child adds one thing to a small pile labelled “can’t live without”. No matter how many reports state that they won’t make us “happier” in the long run.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...