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Are Mothers Happier With One Child or Two?

... and does the benefit only kick in when kids move out?

Key points

  • Natural selection is about getting our genes into babies.
  • The boost in happiness dissipates a few years after having a child.
  • Time pressures associated with second births explain the worsening mental health of mothers; fathers don’t suffer that fate.
  • Parents are happiest when their children leave home.
Hybrid-upg/Unsplash
Source: Hybrid-upg/Unsplash

Recently, I wrote about the practical implications of having a second child—the impact it has on careers and finances as well as the need for childcare support. Family size arguably affects just about every aspect of a parent’s life, including happiness. Maybe you believe that a second child will make you happy, but that’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict.

Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, explained the problem of figuring out what makes us happy: “We are bad at forecasting our happiness over time and especially in light of social pressure. Most of us make social comparisons, and we are very good at selecting the one comparison that makes us feel terrible."

For instance, you may focus on your best friend or neighbor, with two or three children, who appears to have her life in control, managing her job and her family effortlessly—or so it looks to you. “Even when we get what we want or think we want, we are not necessarily as happy as we thought we would be,” says Santos. “Our minds trick us. Natural selection is about getting our genes into babies, but we should prioritize our individual joy and contentment. That’s under our control if we apply some effort.”

Making the effort means weighing your reference points—your job or career, your home life and support system, and the lifestyle you prefer. Another child is not necessarily your ticket to bliss.

Children Affect Happiness

In terms of happiness, a compelling argument for having an only child comes from science that strongly indicates that mothers with one child are happiest. You may be asking yourself if it’s selfish to have one child? Where do you draw the line between being selfish and being realistic, having a life that allows you to be a content, happy person or parent?

Hans-Peter Kohler, professor of sociology and demography at the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to see the effect of adding children to the family after a firstborn. His research question: Do marriage and children make you happier? He found that if you want to be happy, that is, enhance your well-being, you should stop after one child. Child number two or three doesn’t make a parent happier. And, for mothers, he found, more children appear to make them less happy—although they are happier than childless women. For dads, additional children had no effect on their well-being in his study.

Kohler speculates that “couples will go on to have a second for reasons other than their own well-being, such as providing a companion for their first-born. Presumably many will also blithely plan a second because of the happiness the first brought.” Kohler’s takeaway: One child seems to be the essential element that delivers a happiness gain.

That gain diminishes over time. “People typically experience boosts in happiness after becoming parents, but this extra happiness tends to dissipate within a couple of years,” according to a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that reviewed 188 related studies.

Convincing evidence that having a second child may not be the nirvana you seek comes from Leah Ruppanner, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne. She and her colleagues reviewed data collected from about 20,000 Australian families over a period of 16 years with participants entering the study when the children were 1-year-old.

In addition to finding that having a second child affects parents’ mental health, Ruppanner found: “Prior to childbirth, mothers and fathers report similar levels of time pressure. Once the first child is born, time pressure increases for both parents. Yet this effect is substantially larger for mothers than for fathers. Second children double parents’ time pressure, further widening the gap between mothers and fathers.” Ruppanner and her colleagues concluded that “The increased time pressure associated with second births explains mothers' worse mental health.” Those time constraints hold into adolescence.

When Children Leave Home

Even without hard evidence, we know intuitively that children add strain to most marriages. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of the book, Stumbling on Happiness, reviewed studies on marital satisfaction and reported that satisfaction improves once the last child leaves home.

More recent related research analysis by Christoph Becker, Isadora Kirchmaier, and Stefan T. Trautmann confirm Gilbert’s point. They looked at parents over age 50 and found that for the most part, children in general “are positively correlated with well-being and lack of depressive symptoms” but that positive aspect comes after the kids have moved out.

I return to Hans-Peter Kohler at the University of Pennsylvania who said, “If you want to maximize your subjective well-being, you should stop after the first kid.” One child can provide life satisfaction, meaning, and purpose—the key elements of happiness. It’s something to weigh in your only child-happiness debate.

Copyright @2022 by Susan Newman

Facebook image: TommyStockProject/Shutterstock

References

Santos, Laurie. “In Pursuit of Happiness: A Live Virtual Event” Presentation (2021). Atlantic Magazine. May 13.

Becker, C., Kirchmaier I and Trautmann ST (2019) “Marriage, parenthood and social network: Subjective well-being and mental health in old age.” PloS ONE 14(7).

Ruppanner, Leah, Francisco Perales, Janeen Baxter. (2018).“Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood, Time Pressure, and Mental Health.Journal of Marriage and Family. October 19.

Luhmann, M., Hofmann, W., Eid, M., & Lucas, R. E. (2012). “Subjective well-being and adaptation to life events: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(3), 592–615.

Gilbert, Daniel. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Knopf, pp. 220-221.

Kohler, Hans-Peter, Jere R. Behrman and Axel Skytthe (2005). “Partner + children = happiness? An assessment of the effect of fertility and partnerships on subjective well-being in Danish twins.” Population and Development Review, 31(3): 407–445.

Will I Regret Not Giving My Only Child a Sibling? Only One!? The Pressure Is Off Parents to Have More Children: Antiquated myths have lost their power to label only children or persuade people to have more children.

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