PHOTO Credit: Marcin Jozwiak/Unsplash

Even though more and more families stop after having one child, many debate having second, third or more children. The decision tends to be based on practical factors–finances, career goals, living space—with a modicum of focus on how children affect your happiness.

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.”

It’s easy to be influenced by what friends and family may be doing in the family size arena. 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 Dr. 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.”

One child seems to bring parents the greatest happiness gain, according to Hans-Peter Kohler, professor of professor of sociology and demography at the University of Pennsylvania. 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 and others note, more children appear to make them less happy. For dads, additional children had no effect on their well-being in his study.

Convincing evidence that having another 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.  

Will another baby make you happier?

Those with only children may wonder 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 parent? Answering these questions may help you clarify what decision will make you happy for the long haul:

  • How will my life change if I have another child?
  • Can I afford to expand my family? How will more children change our life-style or hoped for life-style?
  • Will a second maternity leave impact my work life? Will I be able to meet my goals or will I be penalized?
  • Mentally review your pregnancy experience and the early year(s) with your child. What was it like, and is it something you want repeat?
  • Will my partner be helpful? Was he or she supportive with our first baby?
  • What support—childcare, financial, emotional—can I on count on?
  • How will another child affect my relationship with my partner?

Keep in mind Dr. Santos’s words as you deliberate how children affect happiness: “Natural selection is about getting our genes into babies, but we should prioritize our individual joy and contentment. That’s under our control.”