Kids: why bother?

Tara Parker-Pope at the NYT Well blog writes:

One of the more surprising trends in marriage during the past 20 years is the fact that most couples no longer view children as essential to a happy relationship.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released a survey called “What Makes Marriage Work?” Not surprisingly, fidelity ranked at the top of the nine-item list — 93 percent of respondents said faithfulness was essential to a good marriage.

But what about children? As an ingredient to a happy marriage, kids were far from essential, ranking eighth behind good sex, sharing chores, adequate income and a nice house, among other things. Only 41 percent of respondents said children were important to a happy marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990. The only thing less important to a happy marriage than children, the survey found, was whether a couple agreed on politics.

Parker-Pope suggests that people rank children lower because marriages are becoming more adult-centered. Maybe, maybe not. Another interpretation is that maybe people are just wising up.

My colleagues and I have documented that for most (though not all) couples, relationship satisfaction goes down after children enter the picture. And Sara Gorchoff and others have shown that marital satisfaction goes up when the kids leave. (Obligatory note: there are still unresolved questions about the causality behind these trends.)

Parker-Pope’s explanation might make contemporary couples sound more selfish (“we want to be happy, and kids will ruin it!”). But I can see it the opposite way. Maybe contemporary couples (who, after all, are still procreating) realize that there are other reasons to have kids besides enhancing the quality of their marital relationship.