The XX Factor

More Kids = More Happiness?

Last month, there was a lively back-and-forth over why exactly we women are so darn unhappy (or so says the research) and what role children play in the mix. Sharon Lerner argued that part of women’s depression can be blamed on the way our society treats mothers , singling out America as a “glaring exception in the developed world and beyond in having no mandatory paid maternity leave, no nationwide childcare system,- [and] few flexible work options.” But Kerry Howley shot back that we can’t make it all about the burdens of motherhood, since not all women are mothers, and emphasized a study that found that children make no difference at all-that both women without children and mothers are similarly happy or unhappy .

Well, fire up your engines, ladies, because now there’s a new bit of research supporting a third conclusion: that being married with children is the key to happiness . In contrast to previous research that indicates an inverse relationship between satisfaction and number of children, this particular study, which tracked 10,000 British households over 15 years, found that the more kids you have, the happier you are. I think that would come as news to those parents who’ve decided to raise a singleton because they also want to have a life of their own.

It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t get exponentially more difficult to maintain a social life with your spouse or carve out “me time” with each additional pregnancy. Recently, one of my closest friends sent me an e-mail kvetching about a typical week taking care of her three kids, which will sound familiar to any of us with multiple young ones underfoot:

Drive 12 carpools.

Pack eight lunches (lucky her, I thought; at our house, we pack 13).

Nurse the baby seven to eight times a day, seven days a week.

Change a million diapers.

Cook a healthy dinner five times a week, and mac and cheese once or twice (while holding a baby in one arm and putting on hair bows and Superman capes with the other).

Even more recently, this same friend complained that she had no energy to lust after her husband. How could she? But an even better question is this: How could having more kids improve the situation?

There’s got to be some Malcolm Gladwellesque tipping point, some reasonable maximum number of kids-maybe four, I’m guessing as a mother of three, and that’s pushing it-at which the happiness stops and the stress takes over. Unfortunately, the study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies , doesn’t shed much light on that; it lumps together anyone with four or more kids, since there were relatively few families in that multi-offspring group.

It turns out that I should be downright beatific as mom to my trio: Although folks with four or more kids have what the happiness researcher, Luis Angeles from the University of Glasgow, called “an important positive happiness effect” in an e-mail to me, the largest “happiness effect” is attributed to people with three children.

Angeles discounts research that has found child-rearing is lots of work and little reward. Unlike previous studies, he has factored in the role of individual characteristics-including marital status, gender, age, income and education-and found that most parents rate kids as the most important or nearly the most important things in their lives. Those who view children negatively are people who are separated, living together but unmarried, or veteran singles who never married.

So, in essence, his research isn’t an ode to kids as much as a shout-out to marriage. Raise a crop of kids alone and they can feel like a burden; do it in tandem and it’s a shared legacy.