WEST VALLEY CITY — Three weeks after my daughter Ellie was born she stopped breathing.
It is 4 in the morning. My parents are staying with us — helping out while my wife recovers from a C-section.
My mother comes into our room in a panic. "I can't wake her up! I don't think she is breathing!"
In a moment I am down the hall and have my daughter in my arms.
"Ellie! Ellie!" I say loudly. But she doesn't wake up.
I put her carefully on the floor. I crouch over her with my ear above her nose and mouth and I listen harder than ever before in my life.
Come on. BREATHE.
Scientific studies have found that having children does not increase happiness. In fact, experts say it has the opposite effect. The more children you have the less happy you are.
Children restrict freedom. Children require sacrifice. Children require work.
As Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University wrote in Time magazine, "Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away."
These results are confirmed across decades of research, with results published in 1957, 1970, 1975, 1978 and so on. Norval D. Glenn and Sara McLanahan wrote in 1981 in the "Journal of Marriage and Family" that "the best evidence now available indicates that the present young adults should not decide to have children on the basis of expectations that parenthood will lead to psychological rewards in the later stages of life. The prospects for such rewards seem rather dim, at best."
McLanahan and Julia Adams published in 1989 in "Social Forces" that "parents with children at home worry more, feel less efficacious and are less happy with their marriages than nonparents." A 2003 study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Craig A. Foster in the "Journal of Marriage and Family" found that parents report lower marital satisfaction compared with nonparents. Some studies indicate that there may be compensating things such as life meaning and purpose, but when it comes to strict measures of plain old smiling happiness, the verdict might seem grim.
Finally, in 2009, a study in the "Journal of Happiness Studies" found children made married parents happier. But researchers had to retract their findings when they discovered a computational error in their data.
Parents don't react well to this glut of negative studies, Gilbert wrote, for three reasons. First, the more something costs us (economically, emotionally etc.), the more we assume there must be a happiness payback. Second, we forget the rotten times and remember the really great times — like sitting through a lousy and boring baseball game only to have our team win at the end with a home run. Third, children crowd out everything else in our lives.
"We believe our children are our greatest joy, and we're absolutely right," Gilbert wrote. "When you have one joy, it's bound to be the greatest."
Timothy Dalrymple wrote in a blog post on Patheos.com about an experience he had with his daughter Sophia. She was 13 months old when she had a febrile seizure. "That's the memory I hate the most: the memory of what it felt like to be losing her," Dalrymple wrote. "The universe of my care, all my joy in the world, was wrapped in this frail 2-foot and 20-pound vessel, this brilliant soul enfleshed."
Dalrymple's blog is what caused me to think about that early morning when my daughter stopped breathing and to think about those studies on children and happiness.
I called him and asked him why he wrote it. "Happiness is a thin and pale measure," he said. "I wanted to reflect in a deeper way, parental fulfillment, parenting and joy and meaning in our lives."
Dalrymple is the associate director of content at Patheos.com and an Evangelical columnist. He had written in his article how, as they rode to the hospital on a cold October evening, that nothing inside him wished his daughter were gone so he could have his freedom back. "There was no part of me that would rather she would never have come into my life," Dalrymple told me.
I lean over my child, holding my breath while listening for her's. I am not thinking about happiness or sacrifice. All I want in the universe is a breath. There is nothing for what seems like a very long time. Then, there is a little "huh." Another long wait. "Uh." In. "Huh." Out.
Breathing. A little breathing. It is wonderful and also, because of its random nature, frightening.
Before long, my wife is in an ambulance with Ellie on the way to Primary Children's Hospital. I follow in my car, speeding along the 201 eastbound.
Then, the ambulance leaves the freeway at the 900 West exit. Where are they going?
I run through red lights to catch up with them only to see them pull into the parking lot of the Home Depot on the corner of 300 West and 2100 South.
It makes no sense. What are they doing?
Then I see the LifeFlight helicopter.
I pull close to the ambulance and get out. My wife comes over to me as the paramedics quickly transfer our daughter to the helicopter.
Ellie had stopped breathing in the ambulance.
Dalrymple said there are three reasons people have children.
1. We have children because love overflows.
Christians believe "God is love" (1 John 4:16). They also believe that they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). "But they rarely put that together," Dalrymple said. "We are created in the image of love. It is part of who we are at our deepest, most fundamental level."
This love springs up from us.
"Women who haven't had or can't have children express that they have this tremendous love that they want to give," Dalrymple said. "There is a desire for a deep and passionate enduring loving relationship."
Love precedes the child.
2. We have children because they make us human.
Having children comes from wanting to experience more of the human experience, Dalrymple said. It isn't that people aren't fully human without children, but Dalrymple believes having a child requires something different from people, "When I had my daughter I knew she was something of tremendous worth. Just having her made me vulnerable and made me exposed to risk. Some of my experience has been wrenching. Some of it has been more rewarding than any other thing I have experienced."
3. We have children because children teach us to love.
Dalrymple said that although people have the impulse of love, they still have to learn the wisdom or practice of love. "Just because we yearn to love doesn't mean our love is mature or is trained in selflessness."
Marriage teaches people how selfish they are, Dalrymple said. "Children require selflessness on an even deeper level. The pure form of love is selfless love. Children are an instrument in the hand of God to teach us selflessness."
Dalrymple said that happiness is a cheap substitute for the full richness and dynamism of the human experience found in loving relationships. "If it were simply about my own superficial happiness, then I would have pursued a career that gave me the most money and would have left me untethered to other people in such a way that I would be free to pursue momentary whims. But, if I had done that, all the things that matter most would not be in my life at all."
My wife and I drive away from the Home Depot as the helicopter's blades begin to spin. I look out the windshield as the helicopter rises with our precious daughter inside. Off she goes into the sky, disappearing into the darkness.
Dalrymple's daughter is now 2 1/2-years-old and never had another seizure. He did say, however, that sometimes he finds himself sleeping in her bedroom if she has a fever. He also said another child is on the way.72 comments on this story
By the time my wife and I arrive at Primary Children's Hospital, Ellie's breathing has returned to normal. A spinal tap shows she has a rare form of bacterial meningitis. Treatment includes a month of strong antibiotics to be delivered directly to her heart through an intravenous tube.
That was more than seven years ago.
A few days ago Ellie asks me to help her build a tower out of building blocks. We take turns carefully placing little pieces of wood on her creation and before long it is taller than her head. To her it looks like it reaches to the sky.
To me, well, it makes me happy.