Dinosaur Musings on Family and Marriage

It’s so easy nowadays to qualify as a dinosaur – you can do so even if you know the specs on the latest smartphones or the most recent innovation in social networking. All you have to do is betray vestigial attachment to the historical understanding of the basic building block of human society, the family.

I have four more or less grown children. (Well, they are all in their twenties, although occasionally one will still do or say something that reminds me of a line a friend’s black-sheep daughter once gave when her much-tried mother asked in exasperation, “When are you going to grow up?” “Mother,” she replied, “I am grown up. This is how I turned out.”) Roughly midway on their way to adulthood, I took on full-time out-of-the-home breadwinning – a far cry from the mother-at-home model, which for us had included homeschooling.

Fifteen years after shifting from that model to the seldom-home-and-always-booked one, I have absorbed a pretty thoroughgoing understanding of the more contemporary social marriages and partnerships adopted by many of my coworkers and their children. Yet I still find myself making the most rudimentary conversational gaffes about marriage and children. Most of them revolve around two deeply engrained assumptions: that finding and committing to a good marital partner is the most critical task of young adulthood for most people (apart, of course, from those called to the religious or single life) and that marrying and being married is importantly, even primarily, about children.

Neither assumption is self-evident to increasingly many young (and not so young) people. Take the first one: that finding, courting, and committing to a marital partner is the most important project of young adulthood for the non-celibate. Even for males this once was understood: Part – perhaps much – of the impetus to make a good living was bound up in their desire to be able to provide for a family. Most young men and women even today hope one day to marry, and further hope that their marriage will endure. The latter hope, however, is often so tenuous, so doubtful, so little, really, expected. Many of these young people are the product of broken homes and “blended” families, and deep down they do yearn for a permanent, loving, intact marriage of their own – but much as one hopes to win the lottery or a Nobel Prize.

A traditional Catholic wedding
A traditional Catholic wedding

Since permanence seems unlikely to them and the support of a life partner through good times and bad chancy, it can seem risky – foolhardy! – to subordinate other major life projects and decisions to romantic priorities in hopes that a relationship will mutate into not merely marriage, but the real deal – lifelong, loving marriage. Given this perspective, it would be rash, for example, to pull up stakes and move across country just because the beloved had been offered a plum job (or alternatively, to turn down a great job elsewhere because it would distance you from your beloved). After all, it is imprudent to put all of your eggs in one basket – and so, in time, the on-your-way-to-marriage basket may remain pretty empty.

The second assumption, that marriage is importantly and primarily (certainly from society’s point of view) about children, is now unshared by large sectors of society for a host of reasons: sociological, financial, and political. Most of those reasons, however, rest on some of the same concerns about permanence and reliable mutual support that haunt young singles when it comes to assumption number one. Having children is a choice – a choice whose unforeseen outcomes loom immeasurably larger for potential parents than they did long ago (when more of life’s events were unforeseen, unplanned, and often unchosen). Today choosing children can seem especially risky, since an intact family rests on that shaky foundation of the marital bond.

In intact families, having and rearing (one or two) children is usually financed by two fully functioning jobs or “careers” (although each spouse may nourish the fear that the practitioner of one of those careers will bail at some point, leaving the other to carry most of the burden). And not only are the financial outlays for children steep, but schedules in two-career families tend to be frantic.

In sum, though most people still marry and (to a lesser extent) have children, marriage appears inherently unreliable to them (even more so than the statistics on marital breakups actually support). In addition, adequately fulfilling the role of a mother or father appears dauntingly difficult, requiring an Everest of effort. The ease and naturalness of human beings’ millennia-long experience of transitioning from youth to marriage and family (perhaps first complicated in ways novel to human history by the Industrial Revolution) are for many or most young people long gone. Indeed, to some degree this is probably the case for all but intentionally traditional pockets of the population.

Who are now considered dinosaurs by everyone else.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is Senior Editor of the Human Life Review and lives in Maryland.