Friday, October 3, 2014

Marriage, parenting and what "family" looks like

I ran across two interesting and tangentially related articles via Facebook one morning this week, and have been pondering them ever since then.

First, on Salon, I read Brittney Cooper's article, "The American family is a myth."  As the child of a single black mother who has reached her mid-30s with neither the husband nor the children she had expected to have, Cooper mourns "the extensive ways that our societal structure only rewards one type of family configuration – heteronormative, middle class, property-owning and generally white."

I could add, "and one with a father, mother and at least one child."  Because in far too many people's eyes, your family is not REALLY a family unless it includes a child.  In a recent post on Life Without Baby, Kathleen Guthrie Woods pointed to a Huffington Post article that purported to show "33 Photos That Prove There Is No One Way To Be An American Family."  "I mean, come on. Out of 33 photos, they couldn’t put in one that showed a family without children?"  she complained. 

Cooper touches on this in her article: 
...having spent most of my young adult life trying to make it into the middle class, which also meant making sure I didn’t have a baby, now I’m supposed to spend the remainder of my young adulthood trying to figure out how to have one. Perhaps I planned too well.
[Ed. note:  Boy, do I hear you...]
If I don’t have children or I don’t ever partner long-term, am I destined to be a woman without a family? What does it mean that I might need a “Golden Girls”-type arrangement with my homegirls by age 45?  
And what do we – professional, overachieving chicks – do with the sense of failure? On most days, being a feminist both helps and affirms the rightness of my quest to think more expansively about what it means to build community and family.  
But there is often still that gnawing, nagging feeling that if I just hold on a bit longer, the (beautiful) man will come, and the baby – just one, no more than two – might come, too. How to hold a desire for this version of a life and a fierce and intense commitment to my life of independence and scholarly solitude is not something I’ve figured out.
I also could relate to this thought: 
Last week, I explored with my feminist theory students what polyamorous relationships might look like, what it might mean to consider that we can’t get all we need from one person. They – young feminists – only balked, the incredulity palpable, their eyes trained on me as if attempting to stab me, killer of their dreams.
Substitute "childless" for "polyamorous," and that's how I feel sometimes -- especially around young women who have lost a baby & desperately want another, or who are just starting out with fertility treatments. I'm their worst nightmare come true -- the "killer of their dreams" -- the dream that everyone who wants a baby gets one, eventually, somehow, some way -- aren't I?

But I am heartened by her conclusion: 
On those days when the family I planned so hard to have seems wholly out of reach for me, when for yet another year I must mark a tax form, “family of one,” I choose to remember my mama’s moxie: “You and me – we are a family.”

*** *** ***

Sometimes, though, having the ideal family -- mom, dad & kids -- isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Especially these days.   

"Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America," begins the second article, from a site called Quartz, titled "How American parenting is killing the American marriage."

They had me at "hello,"  lol.  Maybe it's my "outsider" status as a non-parent (of a living child), but the idea of "parenthood as a religion" these days seem pretty obvious to me.

The gist of the article is that, when we're single, we obsess over finding our "soulmate" -- and yet when children arrive, the relationship is put on "pause" while parenting takes over. Indeed, it's expected that we will transfer our obsession to the children -- and anyone who dares admit to putting their spouse/marriage first (hello, Ayelet Waldman!) is roundly condemned.

But there can be a price to pay:  "Couples who live entirely child-centric lives can lose touch with one another to the point where they have nothing left to say to one another when the kids leave home."  Sadly, I have seen this happen to some of my friends & relatives.

I like to think that one of the "silver linings" in the dark clouds of pregnancy loss and infertility has, for me, been a stronger marriage -- although these things can most certainly take their toll on a marriage too, and I will acknowledge that my marriage is far from perfect. 

I've had some thoughts on this issue in the past.  Back on Valentine's Day 2008, I reflected on my marriage & had this thought to offer: 
I've read that people who have children often focus so much on the kids that they neglect the relationship -- only realizing it, perhaps, when they become empty nesters & refocus on each other again after many years. For those of us who don't have children & have been empty nesters all along, the relationship is all we've got to focus on -- so perhaps we expect too much and depend on each other too much and obsess too much about it. Somewhere, there must be a happy balance between the two models.

The impact that children can have on a marriage is something I have thought about for many years, before & after Katie.  In pondering the issue of marriage equality in 2013, I wrote:
Children are one reason why people get married, of course. (And, of course, a lot of people these days are having children without getting married.)  But there are many others. I wanted children and I expected that dh & I would have them, someday. But the chief reason we got married was that we loved each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We promised to love each other for better or for worse, and when we were walloped by stillbirth and infertility, I realized that this must have been "the worse" they were referring to in the vows -- it doesn't get much worse than that, does it?

Before we got married, we went on an Engaged Encounter weekend. It was a Catholic church program, recommended by our (Anglican) minister.  Even though the Catholic church is a big fan of procreation ; ) I distinctly remember the couple leading the session advising us to put our marriage at the centre of our family, and make time for each other amid the chaos of family life.

A few years later, anticipating the family to come, I bought a book called "Childbirth and Marriage: The Transition to Parenthood" by Tracie Hotchner. It went into the Goodwill bin some years ago, but I remember it had a big impact on my thinking. From what I remember, it, too, advised couples to stay focused on their marriage and not let their new roles as mom & dad overwhelm their original roles as life partners. I came to believe (and still do) that the base, the core, of any strong family is a strong partnership between spouses. Children are the icing on the cake -- but the cake, the core of the family, is, or should be, the marriage.  
It's funny to think that a book about "the transition to parenthood" has helped me make the transition to a permanently childless future, but that's essentially what happened.


  1. I was babysitting my two nieces a week ago. We were out, on a playground when the girls had a brilliant idea that they are so big (5 and 6) that they don't need babysitting.

    So the oldest said to me: "Go home to your family and wait for us there."

    I found it great, their fight for independence (obviously they did not get rid of me). But I really wanted to know what my niece had in mind by "your family". I asked her what did she think by "my family".

    Reply of my niece was: "Well, your husband, of course."

    I could have kissed her right there! She is only 6 and for her is normal, that my family means me and my DH.

  2. Recently an acquaintance of mine told me that after 22 years, her and her husband were divorcing - right after their daughter left for university. Now I have to admit that I was pretty certain that would happen to us if we didn't work on our marriage. 20

  3. I see this SO much these days:

    But there can be a price to pay: "Couples who live entirely child-centric lives can lose touch with one another to the point where they have nothing left to say to one another when the kids leave home." "

    I enjoy observing others and I notice in family members this happening. R's cousin, who lives in same town, and I notice this with him and his wife. They have 3 kids, different parenting styles, his wife is hyper focused on the kids and they are both career focused. I know they have date nights and what not, but in general do not seem to spend much time together nor to be on the same page about a lot of things. I do wonder what they will do when the kids leave. They are open a branch of 4 year university here now, and they have been saying to the kids "oh you and just stay here and go to school." Often my friends with kids can't believe that R and I sit around together every evening - without the TV on most of the time - and talk to each other. I have noticed in the friends I have who can't have children that the couples are usually much closer and happier with each other. I think overcoming tests together and having the space to focus on each other definitely can lead to a healthier, happier marriage and family. (because 2 people are a family!)