One Child, Two Child, Three Child…oh.

I recently read this article in the Irish Times, which declares that having a third child doesn’t make parents any happier. The headline made it sound so negative; as if it was declaring that a third child was a bad move, that it wouldn’t be the happy experience that was the first and second child. The mother in me can see reasons for this, the economics graduate in me sees the reasoning behind the research; both are different reasonings but can be considered equally as valid. However, sensationalist headlines negate the good behind the research, which is a shame really. As much as I’d like an excuse to tease my littlest brother (the 3rd child) about being unloved (Ha, the favourite more like), that isn’t what the article was saying. Unfortunately it seems from the backlash I’ve seen online that most people haven’t looked into the research and just seem to be going on the headline. 

The backlash, seen in comments and other retorts I’ve noticed online, seems to be going along the vein of “Oh my god, this is so wrong, every child should be loved, this is rubbish”. They’re not wrong – every child should be loved, and in an ideal world every child would bring unmeasurable extra love to parents – they do – its just the extra, extra amount, that’s what starts to fade away.

The former economist in me knows where this research is coming from, its simple economic theory, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. The more you have of a certain object, it will eventually get to a point where having more of it adds no extra enjoyment, or utility, to you. In Leaving Cert, the example was done in chocolate terms; the more you eat, the more enjoyment you get, but eventually you will start to gain no extra enjoyment from each extra piece. That isn’t to say that you gain no enjoyment; rather it’s just not an extra amount, the amount extra diminishes over time. In chocolate terms, it was stated that you start feeling less pleasure (and also a slight bit sick, the more you eat). I can definitely see this applying to parenting – and not in the negative spin which some articles have put on this research. New babies are wonderful, they are a source of joy, of wonderment and discovery. They’re also a hell of a lot of hard work; they need you for everything and don’t respect boundaries of space, sleep or time. It makes sense that the extra enjoyment you get from the process would lessen  as the amount of children you have grows – that is not to say you gain less enjoyment from them, or that you love them any less, that certainly isn’t the case. It is more a case of the novelty wearing off. The first everything is very magical the first time. There is a reason that it’s considered the Precious First Born – everything is new, everything has to be perfect. By the third time around, it is more likely that your expectations have become more reasonable, more realistic and the shiny novelty has fallen off a lot of things (especially the icky things). While I’m not speaking from experience here (still coming from the land of precious first born), it is something I’ve seen time and time again from other parents in real life and online.

From an economic standpoint; everything stands against having children. In a second year lecture on elasticity of demand, we were shown how children actually display a negative elasticity when you consider Income Elasticity of Demand – the more you earn, the less children you are likely to have. This seems certainly to be true in the first world; if you are higher earning (and thus, most likely more career driven), you are likely to have less children. From a practical point of view, I can see reasoning behind that in Ireland lying in childcare (though there is a rant on glass ceilings and childcare reserved for another day). Crippling costs of childcare in Ireland are showing time and time again that if you wish to have more children, it grows more likely that it will be necessary for one parent to drop out of the career they are in, or lessen their role, in order to become more flexible to the children while they are young – quite frankly, it starts to not pay you to work. The increase in use of contraception by those in well developed societies to control their child bearing years, as well as a delay in starting a family due to various reasons (finding the right partner, career, lack of readiness) all plays into this. As well as this, he research has shown time and time again that childless adults seem to live happier lives. Maybe its down to being able to guilt free further their careers, maybe its down to having full nights of sleep, maybe its down to the lack of Mammy guilt about absolutely everything. The surveys don’t seem to count the moments of pure joy which you can experience as a parent into the overall picture, and so it seems that the research isn’t everything. Data can be flawed, sample pools can be biased and different things work for different people. I am certainly happier for becoming a parent; that is not to say it is a picnic, and most certainly doesn’t mean that I am sure that I would not be obtaining these levels of happiness had I not had my son when I did – it is possible that progression in career or other life choices which have been put on hold temporarily, or priorities which have changed, would have added the same level of satisfaction or more to my life. There is no magic mirror or sliding doors situation where that theory can be tested, and in some ways I am glad of that fact – my life is the way it is due to choices I made along the way, and as it stands at the moment I’m very happy with it. It’s not perfect, I experience the Mammy guilt for working but know that for my son to have a happy, healthy mother who can afford him the lifestyle she wishes him to grow up in that it is for the best. I’ve battled my way through the starting of Post Natal depression which I wouldn’t wish on anyone – but I’ve got a smiling boy, currently dressed in a Superman sleep suit, complete with cape, who makes me smile every single day and who I couldn’t be without.

So yes, the third child won’t add extra utility, if you believe the research. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just life – it’s up to us not to focus on the lack of novelty, and just enjoy the moments as they happen instead – some things just aren’t surveyable.






  1. Some parents don’t look at statistics when deciding to have a child. This parent didn’t even plan her children. My third child is a different experience from the first two, mainly because we are so much older. We are truly blessed with each one, each in a different (yet similar) way.

    1. Oh absolutely I agree – the stats were definitely not something I took into account, nor do I think its something the vast majority of people do. I just found it the much more interesting type of Econ when I was studying it, and the article this week does make sense, when you’re looking at the data – but parenting is so much more than what is surveyable.

  2. Great article! I did see lots of “I love my third child just as much as my first and second” comments, and without having read the original article, it already sounded like a misunderstanding. I remember reading that having children does not make people happier full stop – people who do not have kids are just as happy or happier (of course, if it is by choice) I think it makes sense – my kids make me laugh and make me feel fulfilled but I doubt that day to day I’m a happier person. Ooh that’s depressing!

    1. Thank you! I think happiness is relative; none of us can know for certain how much happier we would or would not be had we not made certain choices in life, whether that is what career we went into, how many (if any) children we had – there is no way of testing the grass is greener theory with parenting. Honestly I think a lot of it – the EXTRA utility is based on novelty factor – while everything a baby does for the first time is wonderful and exciting, the novelty would wear off a bit by round three, this isn’t to mean that you love them any less, but theres also a lot more going on so theres less time to throw the “Oh yay theres a smile” party.

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