Monday, November 3, 2014

Will A Third Child Make You Happier?

Last week I was contacted by a Yahoo journalist seeking a comment on some new research from the London School of Economics and Western University, Canada suggesting that having a third child won’t make you happier. Due to her deadline, and my being across the globe and in a completely unfriendly time zone, I never got to make that comment.

But her piece has been followed in recent days by plenty of other people commenting on the third-child-won’t-make-you-happy syndrome. I am a researcher by training so I know that you can often find whatever results you want within the myriad data you collect (you can find a summary of the results here). 

But without looking deep into their research methods, I am pretty sure that that the results are accurate. Did having my third child make me happier? Ah… no. But did having my first or second baby actually make me happy? Uh, can’t remember, probably not.

What the hell does ‘happy’ mean anyway?  The Oxford Dictionary says it means ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment’. Merriam-Webster says happy means ‘feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation etc’.

You know what I think of those words?

Let’s talk about the real words that describe how we feel when we have kids: 

I certainly never considered that I would be ‘happier’ after having children. That’s not why I did it, and certainly not why I had Number Three.

Who’s to say that the parents who registered as being less happy when baby three arrived weren’t overwhelmed by other factors – the physical toll on their inevitably older body, the emotional pull between partners and children, older kids causing grief either as toddlers or tweens, losing older kids to friends and school, less time with your partner, giving up work, having less money etc.

If ‘happy’ means all those words I listed before, then I am definitely more ‘happy’ with three kids. I feel more stable and grounded (even if on a minute-to-minute basis I might appear more flummoxed.) I felt pretty good with two but if I had been completely, 100% happy, then I doubt I would have chosen to have Baby Number Three.

Three for me feels more like the whole package, we are more self-contained. If two kids are fighting, there’s still another to fill the gap. At any point in time there is at least one of them not pissing me off (hopefully). And if some of them are at school or having a sleepover, then having the remaining one or two is easy, almost like a holiday. But, as I have come to realise, it’s not as easy as having three because that’s how our family was meant to be. And every family is going to be different

But I don’t agree with the basic premise of the research because it implies that we have children to make us happy: that our personal happiness is an actual factor in the decision to breed. I actually can’t remember why I decided to have children: it may have just been because it was assumed that’s what we would do. I may have felt a strong biological urge. Perhaps a less strong psychological curiosity. But it’s irrelevant now.

I am also concerned that their finding that baby number 1 and 2 only ‘briefly’ increases our happiness, before returning to pre-baby levels of happiness. Who are these poor, sad souls that were interviewed for the research?

I can categorically say that I am much more relieved-overjoyed-overawed-content-terrified-joyful-intimidated-fortunate- ecstatic-fulfilled -passionate now than before I had children. I think I am a better, more well-rounded, appreciative, empathetic and involved person for having them.

And if that doesn’t make me happy, then I don’t know what will.

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