The XX Factor

Do People Really Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis Before They Have Kids?

Amanda , I get what you’re saying. Maybe people should assess whether kids would make them happier-or if happiness isn’t their first concern. And yep, having kids and then discovering that you’re in way deeper than you could ever have imagined doesn’t sound so great (although I think it’s inevitable, no matter how much you wanted that baby in the first place). But I think you really nailed it with your comment about sexual behavior: People are going to have the kind of sex they want, even if you scold them for it. Similarly, people are going to have the babies they want, even if they know it makes no sense.

Because it doesn’t, of course-if we did a real risk assessment, a real cost-benefit analysis, for many people it would make sense to skip the kids. They’re expensive. They are, at times, difficult to manage. They curtail your movement. And even if you put all of that aside-even if those things are actually what you want-there’s always the very real risk that they will get sick, or fall prey to drug addiction, gangs, or cults. Or die. Or grow up to be Democrats (my dad’s worst fear). All of Emily’s points are true, too-child-raising can bring a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction and provide a deep, enduring joy-but it might not. Plus, those are luxury goods, and technically should be considered only after the physical costs and difficulties. My point is really that most people don’t think about it this way, and they’re not going to . Happiness studies can support a decision you’ve already made, but most of us don’t make our decisions based on happiness studies, if for no other reason than that we all share a deep inner conviction that we’re really not like everyone else.

At times I envy the decision not to have kids. When you’re over here, in the thick weeds, the grass does look pretty green on the other side of the fence. And it’s true that once you’ve got kids, you don’t tend to talk much about the risks of child-rearing, because, after all, there you are. With rare exceptions, you can’t give them back. If your marriage is strained because of child-related disagreements, it makes sense to talk about the disagreements-but not about whether you wouldn’t have these problems if it weren’t for the twins.

But I think there’s a flip side to the happiness studies, too. I think many of us read them and say, wait, that’s not right-my kids make me happy! And even if, in a daily grind kind of way, that’s not strictly true, thinking about the ways our kids do add to our happiness … adds to our happiness. So I guess if you look at a happiness study right, you can win either way.

Photograph of children by Yoshikazu Tsuno/Getty Images.