The radio today reminded me about happiness studies that consistently show that having kids reduces your happiness. This raises an important question: why bother having kids? It's expensive, for starters. It's inconvenient. If it also, to top it off, makes you less happy, then why do it at all?
I think the answer most parents - myself included - would give is that having kids fulfills a need that can't be met by any other means. There's probably some neurological trigger at work here; there's no need to mysticize it. But that makes it no less real. And it raises another important question: is life really about maximizing happiness?
Most religious people would easily answer no to this question. So let's address it to the non-religious, again like myself. I do not believe that maximizing happiness is the goal of life (as evidence of my belief I offer the fact that I consciously chose to have children). The goal seems to be to have a posterity, to leave something behind after we die. For all of us do at some point come to a realization that we are going to die. That fact is difficult to grasp, but the tragedy is eased by the knowledge that something will succeed us, that we are a part of some larger tapestry. Otherwise, we are simply here for a brief few moments of time and then are gone forever.
There are, of course, other ways to join the tapestry of the world than having children: one can become famous, one can make great friends who will carry our memories, etc. But children are the most reliable route, and the one most accessible to the average person. After all, if everyone were famous, no one would be; by definition this route is accessible only to a very few (particularly when we restrict our view to those who are famous enough to be truly remembered a generation after their deaths; this is a very exclusive club indeed).
Consider two people: One, the pure individual, not necessarily nihilistic, but one focused purely on happiness. He is not necessarily a bad person, or selfish, but by definition is self-centered. Two, the family member, one who has a tightly-knit family, with all its trials and tribulations. Picture in your mind's eye both of their lives at the age of, say, 40 years old. The individual is traveling in Europe with his girlfriend, sampling the best that life has to offer. The family man is rushing home after work because his wife has an outing planned that evening and it is his night to prepare dinner for the kids and put them to bed. Which is happier? We can't see into their heads, of course, but it's easy to imagine that the individual is.
Let us cast our view forward twenty years. Now both men are near retirement. The individual has mastered his golf game and has toured all the major courses. He regales his friends with stories of his travels and adventures. He is the life of every party. The family man's children have grown up and left the house; he has paid a heavy price to put them through college, foregoing many of life's pleasures for this. His kids have developed in different ways: perhaps one is a real success, with many friends and a career. Perhaps another is not on such a positive track. But they remain family nonetheless. Again, the individual appears to have had the happier life.
But now let us move another twenty years into the future. Both men are on their deathbeds. The individual has a few friends who visit him, but most of them are preoccupied with their own families, and many are uncomfortable at the sight of the old man so broken down. The family man, though, has his family: his kids have had kids of their own, so there are grandkids. They come to visit out of love and affection. The old man dies knowing that his life had a purpose, however small in the grand scheme of things. Does the individual?
That is not so clear. He might. It's not my intention to disparage or denigrate this lifestyle choice. But odds are good that this man will realize at some point that his life will end entirely unnoticed. The family man's position is not so much better: his life will end mostly unnoticed: his family is but a tiny drop in an ocean both of time and of space. But the difference between nothing and something can be a vast chasm.
So is the goal of life, then, merely its extension, even if only in memories and deeds? Not quite. The truly fulfilled man does not just seek to be remembered, but to have had an impact. We don't just wants our kids to remember us, but for us to have set them on a certain path, to have prepared them for life and, ultimately, for their own struggle with its meaning. That, perhaps, is the greatest blessing of grandchildren: evidence that the torch has been passed one more generation, that the lessons we taught and the pleasures we forewent were not in vain