The good news is that having children does bring happiness to most people - but this isn't just because of the children themselves. It's largely the result of avoiding disappointment about not having children...
According to a report published today in the journal Human Reproduction, women who want children but cannot have them are less likely to be happy than those who have them or those who are satisfied with not having them.
Researchers looked at over 7,000 women to try and discern what factors were affecting women's health over a decade after trying to have children. These factors included whether or not they had children, whether they still wanted children, their diagnosis for not being able to have children and what medical treatment they were on.
They found women who still wanted children after unsuccessful fertility treatment were up to 2.8 times more likely to develop mental health problems than those who had children, but that it was mainly the result of an inability to “let go” of what could have been.
"Our study improves our understanding of why childless people have poorer adjustment,” explained lead researcher Dr Gamiero of Cardiff University. “It shows that it is more strongly associated with their inability to let go of their desire to have children. It is quite striking to see that women who do have children but still wish for more children report poorer mental health than those who have no children but have come to accept it.”
Women also reported better mental health if the lack of children was due to male factors or unknown factors, suggesting that the cause of being unable to have children is as important in determining happiness as the presence or absence of children.
Why do some women feel more disappointed than others about not having children? According to Gameiro, it may be to do with goals and an absence of other types of ambition in a person's life.
"It is not known why some women may find it more difficult to let go of their child-wish than others,” she said. “Psychological theories would claim that how important the goal is for the person would be a relevant factor. The availability of other meaningful life goals is another relevant factor. It is easier to let go of a child-wish if women find other things in life that are fulfilling, like a career.”
She believes society does not make it easy enough for people to let go of life goals, and that improving this is key to helping people recover from an inability to have children: "We live in societies that embrace determination and persistence. However, there is a moment when letting go of unachievable goals (be it parenthood or other important life goals) is a necessary and adaptive process for well-being.
“We need to consider if societies nowadays actually allow people to let go of their goals and provide them with the necessary mechanisms to realistically assess when is the right moment to let go.”