I’ve just returned from a weekend the major point of which was to be away from three children for two nights. For the first time in perhaps 7 years I slept for more than 10 hours twice in a row.
Chris Dillow, usefully, quotes some new research on the subject:
Having children is negatively related to subjective well-being. Conditioning on individual characteristics shows that the effect of parenthood on well-being is positive and significant only for widowers, older and highly educated individuals…On the basis of a purely economic approach, the optimal number of children for a rational agent is zero.
Chris goes on to point out that other research finds that married couples are made happier by children. The reason for the pattern is that children are expensive. If you can afford them, then they make you happy. But I am surprised that the ‘time factor’ is not mentioned. This is the major shock for new parent – more than the crap, the toys, the dreadful TV – and the reason, perhaps, that they cannot possibly anticipate the drop in superficial life enjoyment. Not since first attending school at the age of 4 do you experience such a remorseless assault on your free time.
Having money doesn’t entirely fix the time thing, and though the nanny etc may help, the ability to have a nanny tends to go with other characteristics, like a mad desire for violin and ballet lessons, that suck time away in other ways.
The other issue that Chris misses, IMHO, is that the rationality one needs to explain the persistent need to have kids, despite the unhappiness it causes people, is evolutionary rationality. In other words, it may not suit the mother or father’s lifestyle choice to have a screaming brat, but it sure suits their genes in their remoresless quest for immortaility. Every parent knows that the parent-child relationship is the most asymmetric: we will spend a lifetime thinking of ours, and they will barely spare us a thought in 20 years. We are somehow programmed not to care.
Finally, this last point morphs into something more sentimental. Subjective wellbeing is no longer the measure of all things when you become a parent. Your ‘self’ is enlarged. Your children’s happiness doesn’t matter just because it makes you happy: it matters, full stop. You identify with them, so that your own self is no longer the repository of the answer. The question is not logically the same as asking whether having an iPod or 50 extra TV channels makes you happier: one of the options changes the subject of the question itself. The question to ask is: does becoming a parent increase the wellbeing of you and your kids as they come to exist? And the answer is always yes.