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

Ellen Wilson Fielding

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

  • givelifeachance2

    ” having and rearing (one or two) children is usually financed by two fully functioning jobs or “careers””

    Although you must know that homeschooling can take away most of the marginal costs of educating the child, relieving the taxpayer at the same time of footing the government school. What’s left for marginal child expense, really, is the astronomically high cost of health care, thank you Third Party Payor system. Homeschooling can also leave the mother free to care for granny, further reducing the taxpayers burden. Those who can, homeschool.

    “marriage and family (perhaps first complicated in ways novel to human history by the Industrial Revolution)” – I would argue that the French Revolution’s distortion of sexuality was the first cause here.

    You make an important point about career decisions based on fragile notions of marriage. We need to get back to the meaning of “matrimony” – mothermaking. That’s what marriage is about in the first place.

  • Mack

    At the beginning of term I ask my community college students, via a survey, about their plans. All of the young women discuss marriage and family along with career possibilities; the young men never do.

  • mary jo anderson

    Thank you for this well stated summary of the dilemma for too many young adults. Two quick illustrations from recent events, if I may–In a discussion with graduate students at Notre Dame the young men lamented the dearth of Catholic women willing to marry until degrees were securely in hand and careers underway. The young women responded that it was foolish to embark on marriage before one was self sufficient– they had seen their own mothers abandoned. A month ago a pretty 32 year old sat next to me on plane. She was in great angst over the question of her eggs–should she freeze them as her older sister had just done? Her rationale was that so far she had not met “the right sort of guy” but had hopes that she might “someday” and did not want risk a child with birth defects, or infertility. The personal life of too many young adults is a landscape that is very difficult to navigate. This is the legacy of the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce, complicated by reproductive technologies.

  • ABBonnet

    St. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth says:

    “If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that.

    I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.” ( 1 Cor 7:28-31 NAB)

    St Paul wants to spare the Corinthians and us the earthly affliction that accompanies marriage. It seems that marriage has always been a difficult path through life.

  • Tarzan

    Getting married, and subsequently having children was the best thing I ever did. My supposedly fulfilling career took a left turn just over a year ago when my boss told me that, “we appreciate your past service, and you are great, but we have decided to outsource your position.”. Your job doesn’t love you back. Fortunately, I landed on my feet.