General Spoiler Warning: talking about endings again. I'll try to stick to books everyone has probably already read.
Not every ending has to be happy. There are lots of different ways to end a story. Dean Koontz wrote a heartbreaking story I still recommend to people, even though I sobbed for days afterward, in which the hero accomplished his goal . . . and still lost the woman he loved. Nathanial Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter ends on a bittersweet note, with the "hero" overcoming his fears just before his death, and the "heroine" escaping Boston with her daughter, only to return years later to complete her life sentence of infamy. The Hunger Games trilogy ends as well as can be expected after so much horror... but hardly anyone would call it "happy."
This post is not talking about those books. Or others like them. Here, we discuss only those books where the author obviously intended the audience to be largely satisfied at the end. To be happy. To be, overall, pleased with the way things turned out.
A woman I know followed the Harry Potter books faithfully through the whole series, both for herself and for her young nieces and nephews. When book 7 came out, she read the ending first, just to be sure it ended "right." If the wrong people had died, she told me, she would have hunted down and destroyed every copy of the entire series in her family's possession, just to ensure that none of her nearest-and-dearest would be exposed to the "wrong" ending of such a tale. She demanded a happy ending and she was prepared to go to great lengths to eradicate an unhappy one. Happily, Rowling did well enough, and my friend did not have to go all Fahrenheit 451 on her books. (By the way, I totally called who died in HP. Just sayin'.)
For example: One of my favorite authors wrote an awesome romance, in which the overweight heroine still managed to bag the hotty hero. No one else has been able to pull it off, before or since (to my knowledge). It was a romance coup. I loved the story. It's full of the author's trademark humor and excellent writing and the characters were believable and quirky. But they didn't want kids. Though they both loved children and acknowledged that the other would make a terrific parent, they had both decided to remain childless. And that's what they did. And it sort of put a bummer on the HEA for me, because, in my ideal HEA, you get married and then you have kids. How can you be truly happy without them?
Now, this isn't the same for everyone. I've seen two recent studies, in fact, that explain the absolutely unbelievable (to me) decision of many modern couples to intentionally remain childless. Now, of course, I can see the draw of not having kids. More freedom, less mess, more money, less stress, more me-time, less PTA-time, more tranquility, less screaming (yours and theirs), more sleep, less waiting up for teenagers to come home, more vacations, less aggravation... you get the idea. The list goes on and on. Good things get traded in when you decide to have kids. It's true.
What childless-by-choice couples may not agree with me on, however, is that every sacrifice is SO TOTALLY WORTH IT. So long as you foster appropriate coping skills. Those studies I mentioned in the last paragraph contain statistics that parents are, overall, less happy than their childless-by-choice counterparts. Less satisfied with life in general. Well, duh. Those who don't want and don't have kids get to run their lives however they want, while parents have to deal with the unreasonable demands (and school schedules) of completely irrational miniature people. Screaming, discipline, cleaning, and confrontation aren't fun for anyone and are a necessary part of any parent's life.
But if the lows are more frequent, the highs are higher. Holding your new baby is the best high in the world. Watching my kids learn new skills, play nicely with each other (it happens on occasion), and actively want to spend time with me is a thrill like no other. Because I helped with that. No adult acceptance can measure up to the completely honest acceptance of a child. They don't BS you. They won't pretend to like you or to approve of you if they just don't. My boys might point out my chub, but they also call me beautiful. When I say "I love you," they respond with "I love you mostest." What does a childless life have that can possibly compete with that?
Finally, kids provide a lifetime's worth of happily ever afters. If you're lucky, they give you grandchildren. Who will love you and accept you. Who will call you beautiful when you're old and wrinkled. Who will visit you when you're too feeble to leave your house. Who can give you support in your old age.
Children are worth any price. I'm not saying that to be self-sacrificing: I'm a huge fan of taking care of #1. Children flat out give more joy than you can get on your own. More sorrow, too, but joy is like that. Life is like that. You can't have happy without sad, and, in my own life, you can't have a perfect Happily Ever After without children.
[Steps off soapbox]
So what about you? What elements are essential to your own perfect happily-ever-afters? Have you ever reached the end of a book and doubted the stated bliss of the main character?