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Does having children make us happy?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

This year, my mother wants only one thing for Mother's Day: a baby.

"Grandchildren are God's reward for not killing your own kids," she recently phoned me up to say. "C'mon, kiddo, it'll be fun."

For her, that is. Recent research suggests that for the prospective parent (in this case, me) it might well be the opposite.

Not that my mother cares. Now that I'm in my 30s, Mum figures she is due a sprog in short order. She calls me up fantasizing about pony rides at the farm, and terrorizes my boyfriend with smiled threats like, "You won't disappoint me now, will you?"

Tiresome as this is, I'm not entirely averse. Having children has always been the plan, albeit a fairly vague and distant one.

All my friends are on board or desperately clambering onto the baby train, often at great medical and emotional expense.

But social pressure is no reason to have children. What's the deeper reason for rubbing the old diaper genie? Why, personal fulfilment of course! Children bring meaning and joy to our otherwise narrow, selfish, little lives - or so the theory goes.

Too bad science doesn't back it up.

In a recent overview of social research, Nattavudh Powdthavee of the University of York writes that "parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, marital satisfaction and mental well-being compared with non-parents ... thus suggesting something very controversial - that having children does not bring joy to our lives."

His article, published in The Psychologist, has sparked plenty of coverage in mainstream media.

As Powdthavee points out, the only thing surprising about his findings is the fact that we find them surprising.

My mother never made any bones about the fact that she was deeply ambivalent about motherhood. She got pregnant soon after marrying my father because she hated her job as a bank clerk. As for changing diapers and singing lullabies, "I just wasn't the right personality type," she has often said, with alarming honesty.

She's hardly the first woman to put forward this unpopular view. Helen Kirwan-Taylor's article in the Daily Mail titled "Sorry, but my children bore me to death!" caused a media firestorm back in 2006.

Realistically, however, there is no logical reason that I would enjoy looking after children any more than my mother did. It would interfere with, if not temporarily eradicate, everything I enjoy in life, including work, travel, reading, exercise and adult conversation.

As a test of whether parenthood would suit us, my boyfriend and I have taken to playing a little game. In it, we take whatever situation we happen to be in and add a child to the equation. If you are thinking of starting a family, I don't recommend you try it.

The results are really depressing. Whether we're lingering over dinner at our favourite restaurant or stuck in a traffic jam, adding a small, restless person with limited reasoning skills to the mix is invariably unappealing.

In two years of playing the game, we've found only one situation in which a baby - provided it's a happy, well-behaved one - might improve things a tiny bit, and that's in bed, on a lazy Saturday morning, after a nice long lie-in. But as any new parent will happily tell you, your chances of ever sleeping in after giving birth are unlikely to nil.

I know what you're going to say: When it's your child, it's different. Troublesome as they are, you get attached to the little ankle-biters. There is obviously some truth to this. But my point is that we are being dishonest with ourselves when we imagine that children will bring us happiness in the same way, say, a stable, long-term romantic relationship will. If you don't believe me, try playing the game using an attractive adult companion instead of a child as the variable.

Yet in spite of all this, I cling to the belief that having children will be rewarding and, aside from the obvious drudgery involved, a worthwhile thing to do with my life. In part, I recognize that this impulse must be biological - a hard-wired twitch, not unlike the urge to engage in the very practice that begets babies in the first place.

But it is also the result of social influence, since every parent I know insists that having children was the best decision he or she ever made and implores me to do the same.

Powdthavee says that is because, when we imagine parenthood, most of us instinctively engage in a "focusing illusion," i.e., we imagine the positive aspects (healthy baby gurgling away in her snuggly) and ignore the negative (screaming toddler flinging fecal matter from his crib).

This rosy view transmits itself much more easily through the generations than its opposite, since people who believe that children bring misery are simply less likely to have them. "It is a little bit like Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest," Powdthavee writes. "Only the belief that has the best chance of transmission - even if it is a faulty one - will be passed on."

This explains the curious contradiction I have noticed among parents who tend to regale you with horror stories on the specifics of childrearing (sleeplessness, cracked nipples, etc.) while in the same breath insisting that it's an orgasmically wonderful experience, but only in the vaguest available terms (a love like no other, continuity, fulfilment, etc.)

It also explains why my own mother remains absolutely determined that I should have a baby. The focusing illusion here: that it's my duty to be an obedient girl and produce a grandchild for her to spoil.

Sorry, Mum, better luck next year. This Mother's Day, a card and phone call will have to suffice.

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