Thursday, July 1, 2010

Do more kids mean more happiness?

I hope so since we're expecting our second in January! A debate has broken out in the blogosphere over just that question. You can read a synopsis here. I guess it all depends on one's definition of "happiness." I don't know if becoming a parent has made me happier or not. I do know it's brought more joy and sense of purpose, and it's had a refining effect which (I trust) has made me a better person. If your definition of happiness is being independent and avoiding pain and aggravation then having children won't make you happy. I think this blogger daddy gets it right:

My 17-month-old woke up a few minutes ago and interrupted my writing. She does that kind of thing a lot. Indeed, pretty much every morning. And when she does, I have to stop what I’m doing, usually at an inopportune time. And that makes me unhappy!

Is this momentary inconvenience outweighed by the joy she brings me? Of course.

But having kids means constant diversion from doing what you want to be doing at any given moment. And having multiple children, I’m reliably told, tends to increase that phenomenon geometrically. Indeed, parents the world over agree: Kids are a giant pain in the ass!

Those of us who are reasonably intelligent and had children by conscious decision knew all this going in. Indeed, one of the amusing things about impending first-time fatherhood is the number of people who dispense the advice “It’ll change your life!” But that doesn’t make the sacrifices and trade-offs less real.

While I’m a social scientist by training, I’m not a sociologist, much less steeped in the literature in question here. But I don’t know that it’s possible to develop measures to quantify the thousands of instances of “unhappiness” that come from the annoyances of parenthood and the less frequent but far more potent joys. And I certainly don’t think it’s possible to do it in a way that satisfies an economist’s notion of “happiness.”

I often think of parenting in terms of Dickens' classic line from A Tale of Two Cities -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." For example, having a second child right now is going to cause my wife and I considerable economic pain, but we wouldn't trade this journey for going back to the financial security and comfortable lifestyle we enjoyed before our firstborn came along. Sure, I wish we were well off or lived in a society where raising children was made easier by government and business. Although the funny thing is those societies where it's the easiest (think Western Europe or Japan with their generous healthcare, maternity leave and childcare benefits) are also the places where fertility rates are the lowest on the planet. Maybe the hardship is one of those unquantifiable factors that paradoxically make people want to go through it again. The pain is part and parcel of the joy.

Whatever the case may be I'll go out on a limb and say that in the context of a loving marriage having children is always a good idea. Economic considerations and "happiness quotients" be damned. That's why when people ask me if we're going to have more kids my answer always is . . . "I hope so."

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
the fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.

Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!

Psalm 127

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