I suppose the political is personal too
This post is 1) long; 2) personal. You’ve been warned on both counts.
According to the census, traditional nuclear families now make up less than 10% of the population here in my city of Baltimore:
Delaying marriage is a lifestyle that has suited [ 27-year-old marketing professional Brandy Washington]. She and her boyfriend wanted to “try things out” and live together before becoming more serious — a far cry from her high-school-sweetheart parents, who married right out of college.
Almost all of her peers, Washington said, are living the same way, either with friends or a long-term partner. They have few serious personal commitments, and are free of social stigmas pressuring them to get married and have children on a specific timeline.
And, according to 26 year old Peter Darrell…
You go and make yourself into a person, you have an adventure, you do something, and then you go get married.
I doubt the census report was needed here; that nuclear families (to say nothing of large extended families) are giving way to non-traditional families is obvious. The outcome of this is debatable. I’m accustomed to playing the role of the traditionalist making the futile argument that maybe our grandparents had it about right. I’m sorry Mr. Darrell, but maybe “making yourself into a person” actually has a lot to do with learning the cooperation, love, and commitment that marriage entails. A fine argument, but as I said, futile. Not only futile, but incredible – as in, lacking credibility from this messenger. I’m not married. Here I am, having become a whole person, having had whatever adventures one associates with average post-college life, and I’ve never been married. I can talk a good game, but…
“As for family, I’ve always loved the idea of a big, loud, arguing, close-knit clan. In my ideal, 5, 6, even 7 kids continuously interrupting each other at the table, playing ball in the yard, getting into fights … that’s the family of my dreams.”
And here’s what turns that story from today’s Baltimore Sun from an interesting story that likely merited its own comment into the “long” and “personal” post I promised at the top: I’m about to add to that 10% of the population in a traditional family. Last month, I got engaged. This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, mostly as an explanation for why I’ve been largely absent from this blog for the past seven or eight weeks. When I have posted, I have deliberately avoided any mention of anything that wasn’t pretty narrowly political; I’ve written up some thoughts on Heath Shuler, Bruce Braley, Ted Strickland, Jim Webb (the latter included with, but always a step above, the others). In other words, things that struck me as interesting, but not The Thing that has been really taken over as the focus of a lot of my thoughts lately.
It’s weird though, getting to take all of those values that I normally apply externally and directing them to thoughts of marriage and family. I often use this space to write about a political perspective that flows from a particular set of personal values: aversion to rootlessness, hatred of greed, appreciation for the past, deep sense of duty, sacrifice, honor, and –always above all – loyalty. Now, I’m considering for the first time in non-abstract terms what those values mean in terms of what kind of wife I want to be, how I want to raise my children, thoughts about divorce, the work-life balance, public (and private) education, religion, extended families, multi-generational households… the list is endless.
Let me start with a few basics, so you’ll know something about my fiancé, Jonny. He and I share a love of Democratic politics, American history, trivia (and I’d like to point out here that I KILLED him at Trivial Pursuit the other day…) and the Baltimore Orioles (even though, in one of the most shockingly traitorous opinions ever uttered by a Baltimorean, he thinks Ripken’s streak was “overrated.”) He’s a loyal son to his parents, a loyal brother to his sister, and I have every confidence he’ll be a loyal husband to me.
Early on in our relationship, we had a conversation – theoretical at the time – about divorce. While I’m not quite as absolutist as Christopher Lasch’s recommendation of a constitutional amendment banning divorce, as a child of multiple divorces on both sides, I don’t view marriage as something that should be “gotten out of” simply because one of the (or even both) partners believes the marriage to be a mistake. My takeaway from childhood was not the modern – “there are all kinds of families” or “children are better off with two happy parents living separately than two miserable married people;” my takeaway was that the option of an out leads to constant insecurity. That the replacement of a sort of quiet and mundane contentment with the never-satisfied need for fulfillment leads to unhappy people who never find what they’re seeking and too often hurt those around them while seeking it. That casual divorce turns marriage into some kind of balance sheet in which people expect to get an approximate return on what they put in and are always open to a better option if one should come along.
Everyone’s opinions are based on life experience, and for every person who has had my experience of the familial revolving door, there’s someone who has life experience that leads to the questions I often get on the subject: would you recommend an abused wife stay with her abuser? Well, obviously no. Should a married person who comes to acknowledge they’re homosexual be forced to stay with their spouse (of the opposite sex in this scenario)? Honestly, I do think it’s the honorable thing to do, although I would imagine in most cases the other partner would put an end to it anyway. Simply put, in very large part, marriage is marriage (as opposed to dating or cohabitation) because there is no going back. It’s permanent. The selection of a spouse is based on choice, but once the vows are taken, the spouse becomes family, and it should be as difficult and infrequent to divorce them as it is to divorce relationships of blood. Obviously, there are people who are estranged from parents and siblings, but the rates of that kind of estrangement are nowhere near the rates of marital separation and divorce.
Now it’s my turn and I have to actually practice what I preach. I’m humble about it. I know that 99% of couples believe whole-heartedly on their wedding day that they are entering into a union that will last a lifetime. And I know many of them are wrong. There’s no particular reason why I should succeed when others have failed. And if I fail, I suppose I’m a hypocrite. Then again, hypocrisy is over-vilified in my opinion; I mean, it’s easy to avoid hypocrisy by never believing in any standard.
As for family, I’ve always loved the idea of a big, loud, arguing, close-knit clan. In my ideal, 5, 6, even 7 kids continuously interrupting each other at the table, playing ball in the yard, getting into fights – first with, and ultimately, if needed, for, each other – competing, playing, laughing, games of Poor Old Tom*… that’s the family of my dreams; idealized beyond reality, yes, but my version of the “perfect” and a standard against which reality can be measured. Speaking of reality here, I’m 31 years old. If nothing else, Reality and Seven Children are incompatible for us. But we can still have a few, and we’ve been talking through the choices we want to make in raising them, in my mind at least with full consideration of getting as close to possible to that ideal.
At least among our peers (although there’s obviously plenty of surveys to back this up on a larger scale), there’s an ethic that the responsible parent budgets – for lack of a better word – before starting a family. There are college funds to be set up, adequate living space for each child to have his or her own bedroom, extra income for private school tuition if the public schools are poor. Even the non-financial kind of budgeting is considered: will we have enough time to devote to a child? Are we mentally and emotionally prepared to be parents? How much age difference between siblings is most appropriate in order to a) provide enough parental attention to each child, while b) teaching each child about cooperation by having siblings who are close in age?
Understand, I’m not at all arguing that this is a bad way to approach starting a family; like I said, this is normal among our peers – people we like and respect. It’s just not really what we have in mind. We’d rather our child have a sister or a brother than have a degree from a private university. We’d rather those siblings share a bedroom (and hopefully, as a nice consequence, late-night confidences) than a private space to pursue individual interests. And as for the parental attention calculation, we are in agreement that we’d rather not become our childrens’ success cheerleaders anyway, turning them into narcissists or neurotics or even just pleasant overachievers.
I’ve been asked a number of times if I plan to keep working after we start a family. I do not. While the decision certainly means a sacrifice in terms of family income, I’m not at all stressed about giving up a career. It’s been a long time since I viewed work (in the formalized, non-household, taxable sense) as anything other than pragmatic. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in hard work and I believe in doing good work. But work is transactional; I do my best to achieve the goals of my organization because they are paying me to do so. My identity is not in the least tied up in what I do, and I don’t take the same kind of personal pride from a job well done as I would from raising a good and close-knit family. Many, if not most, families require at least two incomes to make ends meet. We’re fortunate enough that, if we don’t expect luxuries and limit our travel to a few days at the beach each year, we will likely be able to get by with one. That’s an easy trade-off when it allows a child to have a full-time parent.
Up to now, while some of the things I’ve mentioned are a bit old-fashioned, none of them represent a particularly unusual take on marriage and family. Lots of couples commit to each other without leaving divorce as an option down the road. Lots of siblings share bedrooms. Lots of mothers quit their jobs to raise children. And maybe, bowing to that nagging sense of reality, this is as far as I extend my usually outwardly-aimed beliefs into my personal life.
But I keep flirting with much more radical ways to apply the values I listed at the top. I have fantasies about homeschooling my kids – what books I would give them to read and the kinds of discussions I would want those readings to spark, how much (or, more accurately, how little) time I would actually want them working academically as opposed to playing. I imagine my husband and myself living out some kind of Field of Dreams paradise (sans resurrecting the 1919 White Sox): unconditional support for one another, passing down our favorite stories to our children, a life of peace and of few material wants, and of course, a shared love of baseball (maybe it’s appropriate that my Orioles’ 7th inning stretch song includes lyrics such as “Well a simple kinda life never did me no harm, A raisin’ me a family and workin’ on a farm” and “Well I wouldn’t trade my life for diamonds or jewels, I never was one of them money-hungry fools”).
Yes, I know this is easy to caricature as the Boboish (or even New Leftist) quest for “authenticity.” So be it. My future, my fantasy. Maybe I’ve just been snookered by manufactured nostalgia, and maybe the good ol’ days – as everyone I know assures me – weren’t really “good” at all. And those Field of Dreams cornfields don’t seamlessly lend themselves to life in Baltimore. So obviously, there are ideals, there’s reality, and there’s doing the best you can with an awareness of those two factors. For now though, I just wanted to make that announcement and let you know where I’ve been and what I’ve been thinking about.
*Incidentally, has anyone else heard of this game? We played it in my family growing up, and I’m assuming it has Appalachian origins, but googling around, I can’t find anything about it.