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The New York Times reported on October 15, 2006, that married couples—"with and without children”—now make up a minority of American households. Don't worry, the Times hurried to assure its readers, marriage isn't dead: "The total number of married couples is higher than ever, and most Americans eventually marry.” Be that as it may, the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University finds that the likelihood of an American marrying has been declining for decades, and the average age at first marriage has risen since 1960 from 23 to 27 for men and from 20 to 26 for women.
"Huh,” thinks the girl who married at 24. "Who'd have thought my youngish marriage and big church wedding—sans prenuptial agreement or a trial period of living together—could be considered nonconformist?”
The Times sums up the decline in marriages by stating, "Marriage has been facing more competition.” This competition for the title of "Most American Households” comes primarily from cohabitation. In other words, couples are moving in together instead of marrying, or cohabiting first and then marrying. Why has shacking up become such a popular option while marriage has declined in popularity? There are many answers, but some of the most common are: solidarity with homosexual couples who cannot marry, the fact that working women need no longer rely on marriage for economic security, and the idea that cohabitation before marriage is a good preventative of divorce.
Today's young adults grew up watching divorces, and according to the recent book Midlife Crisis at 30 by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin, "even those with married parents were left with an uneasy anxiety, the feeling that things that were supposed to be permanent just might change.” Young women are therefore delaying marriage until after they've established themselves personally and professionally as a sort of "Divorce Insurance Policy”; should they be left to support themselves and their children alone, they'll be able to. And as a supplemental policy, more and more couples are choosing cohabitation as a form of trial marriage, an extra guarantee against the possibility of divorce.
In short, today's young men and women have lost their faith in marriage as a permanent institution. But since they still want the financial and emotional benefits of marriage, cohabitation becomes an option. For one thing, it provides the comforts of marriage, but it cannot end in a messy, legal divorce. And, says conventional wisdom, since cohabitation is "almost” marriage, it can be used to "test-drive” a partnership; the couple can try out being married for a while to see if it works for them and break up if it doesn't. In other words, perhaps cohabitation can save an entire generation's romantic aspirations from appearing before the judge.
Alas for young love. Conventional wisdom in this case is wrong. Couples that cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce afterwards. Cohabiting couples also have higher rates of child abuse and domestic violence. And more and more children—40 percent now—will spend some part of their lives in a cohabiting household. That means these children will experience the same difficulties as the children of divorce; they will enter adulthood in the same quandary as their parents did, searching for permanent relationships and having no idea how to find and maintain them. Perhaps they'll believe, as some of their parents do, that marriage happens magically, and that there are no rules about it anymore because none are needed. They'll search for their soul mates, but many of them will find their ex-spouses.
I never looked for a soul mate (in fact, I hate that phrase). What's more, I entered the world of dating with some pretty clear ideas about marriage and its permanence. After all, my parents (and my husband's parents) are still married. As a Catholic girl who went to a Catholic school through the eighth grade, I saw very little divorce growing up. So I wasn't afraid of divorce. I saw no need to "test drive” my marriage when I already knew it takes more than luck to make marriage work.
It takes, among other things, the conviction that divorce is not an option (see "Catholic Girl” above). I know myself well enough to know how much I like the easy way out. Only with the mental certainty that my marriage is forever am I able to put forth the effort—and it's a big one—to make my marriage happy. Part of that effort was watching happy couples during my engagement. These couples talked to each other, never went to bed angry, and never gave each other the silent treatment. They studied compromise the way they'd once studied long division. And none of them had assumed that marriage would be easy; thus, none of them ever decided that difficulties in marriage automatically mean divorce is in the cards. I entered my marriage with no illusions that my fiancÿ was my soul mate, or that he and I would be able to read each other's hearts and minds in silence. Rather, I walked up the aisle ready to work and ready to talk.
So far, the talking has worked. My husband and I will have to begin a whole new round of compromises and negotiations, though, as we attempt to buck another set of trends. We want to become parents. What's more, we will ideally have many children (see "Catholic Girl” above). This endeavor will doubtless teach us to communicate in entirely new ways, talking in the half-awake moments of midnight feedings or over the heads of curious and attentive little people. And while we'll be able to rely on our parents for advice, suggestions, and nuggets of wisdom, we won't have many people our own age to whom to turn for sympathy.
We've all heard the news that Americans are having fewer and fewer children than ever, and that they are reproducing below the replacement rate. What may be less well known is the fact that this decline represents a decades-long trend, and that as Americans have had fewer and fewer children over the years, those children have seen less and less of child-rearing as adults. American family life is losing its "child-centeredness.” And the adult children of the fertility decline are not just having fewer children; they are in many cases not having children at all. According to the National Marriage Project, "the percentage of households with children has declined from half of all households in 1960 to less than one-third today—the lowest percentage in the nation's history.”
For those adults who have children, life is getting harder. For many families, one salary no longer pays the bills; having both parents work adds the extra bill of paid childcare to the family budget. Sometimes the daycare and the added transportation costs eat up the vast majority of the second paycheck. And if mom can afford to stay home, she often leaves behind a job in which the standards of performance are clear, in which effort is tangibly rewarded, and in which high-level conversations are carried on regularly. And she leaves all this in order to do repetitive tasks for often unappreciative youngsters who cannot discuss economics, politics, or the office Christmas party. The transition is not an easy one.
It is made harder by the fact that parenthood is losing its respect in the culture at large. This is, after all, the age in which father no longer knows best and all housewives are desperate. What's more, the childless, with their greater amounts of disposable income, have become an important demographic. More and more advertising is aimed at them; their lives are made to look better and better. Meanwhile, parents' lives are looking harder, poorer, and generally worse. Fewer and fewer are choosing parenthood; who, after all, would voluntarily choose the worse life?
To older ears, this may sound like merely a rhetorical question. Of course people want to have kids, don't they? But my generation, caught between "Imagine” and American Idol, grew up being told that "me-time” at the spa is one of life's little necessities and that self-fulfillment is the first duty of every person, but especially of every self-respecting woman. Add to that self-involved psyche the trauma of divorce and an overwhelmingly consumerist milieu, and suddenly the reasons for "breeding” no longer seem self-evident. Parenthood doesn't just look worse; it looks like madness.
If you measure sanity by the size of your checking account, parenthood is madness. If you seek sanity in self-sufficiency, marriage is crazy. If, on the other hand, you want a sane culture—one that can not only perpetuate itself and pass on its values but also work to establish justice and care for the least powerful of its members—then the divorce culture and childfree-by-choice demographics must be dismissed as the products of a diseased mind. Because culturally speaking, sanity is the ability to love others; only compassion can drive the search for justice and the effort of social perpetuation. And my generation's minds have been warped by the mad scientists of divorce and consumerism.
Our families were destroyed by divorce, but families are the schools where children first learn to love. You might say school ended before we took our finals. So now many of us are rejecting that school altogether. And where we are starting families, we are more and more often starting them out of wedlock, meaning that our children will have the same difficulties learning about love, self-sacrifice, and delayed gratification that we did. So the problems of my generation will be worse in the next. The world will be even more disjointed, populated by people who live more and more in their own customized bubbles, by people who no longer seek the lost permanence of community and instead buy relationships for which they know the expiration dates. Those in my generation don't have babies; they have appliances and iPods. And in another twenty years, those iPods will probably need therapy.
There are two options: Either we stop having children altogether, so as not to inflict the madness of broken families on them, or we start having children and making a concerted effort to learn how to make love permanent. Our choices are love or isolation. I know which I'm choosing: All questions of sanity aside, my husband and I are trying to conceive. Starting a family won't be easy, and it's true that we may not get much sympathy from our peers. But maybe they can get some help from us. Just maybe, while my husband and I are trying to perpetuate his dimples and my eyes, we can also work to turn the tide away from selfishness and fear in the next generation. Yes, I know it sounds like a crazy plan, but sanity is often mistaken for psychosis in a world gone stark-raving mad. •
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