A new study by the Pew Research Center reports the scary news that only a minority (41%) of Americans think that children are very important to a happy marriage. Press reports have noted that people rank doing the chores higher as a factor in marital happiness. However, when you ask parents how important children are to their happiness, 85% say kids are the most important source of happiness (rank 10 on a 10 point scale) -- higher than any other factor.
I think the first question is a little misleading. The question asked which factors made for a happy marriage in the abstract -- not "your marriage," but marriage in general. On that scale, the rank of kids fell 24 points since 1990. What has changed in the meantime in the public's discourse about marriage? Same-sex marriage, both as a debate and, in a handful of states, a reality. While most people (57%) oppose homosexual marriage, the percentage thinking it should be allowed has risen in the past decade and a half as gay marriage has become a reality for the first time.
I believe that what we are seeing here is a change in how some people - maybe even a quarter of the population -- think about what marriage is. If "marriage" can include homosexuals, then it would seem unfair to assume that children are important to marital happiness in general. However, when married parents are talking about their own, non-abstract happiness, children rank at the very top.
What the Pew survey shows is not a change in how most people rank children, but rather a shift in how some people define marriage.