Saturday, November 12, 2005

Choice vs. Faithfulness in Family Life

In the seventies family life was reconstructed to make adults free to choose the family lives they wanted. The promise of “families we choose”was that family life would be happier and more satisfying. No-fault divorce would end unhappy marriages. Easy birth control and abortion on demand would mean there would be no unwanted children. Cohabitation before marriage would end na├»ve marital choices. Reducing the stigma of divorce, unmarried parenting, cohabitation, abortion, and homosexual relations would widen the spectrum of “family.”

However, as Francis Fukuyama argued convincingly in The Great Disruption, the sixties and seventies disrupted traditional ways of arranging society in the name of freedom, without putting any better social arrangements in their place. Indeed, as things have played out since then, the new social arrangements have produced many new social problems, without solving the old ones. The American Paradox, David Myers argues, is that today Americans feel materially rich, but spiritually poor. Norval Glenn, a leading family sociologist, has shown that while most people are still happy with their marriages, fewer report being very happy compared to forty years ago.

The problem, I think, is that family life is not based on choice, but on faithfulness. The problem with the religion of choice is that it does not let you actually choose anything. Any choice made now forces you to give up other choices in the future. If, on the other hand, you try always to keep your options open, you never get to live any particular kind of life fully.

The conflict shows up most clearly when we are talking about marriage. As Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher demonstrate in The Case for Marriage, marriage can change lives because of the Power of the Vow. We choose our mates. More importantly, we choose never to choose another, barring death. That is what gives marriage its power. Choosing to live a married life with one particular woman is what makes the extraordinary change in men. Single men live the life of “options.” They have lots of choices, but many fewer accomplishments. Married men are the most productive economic group in society because they have given up the life of many options, and are living the life of their one great choice.

When we say “choice” now, it first calls to mind the choice about abortion. Easy abortion was supposed to end unwanted children. It didn’t. There are many factors which contribute to the problem of unwanted children. Still, a pro-choice attitude toward children, however much it may free women to live as they choose, has the unintended effect of undermining commitment to the children who are born, and to children in general.

As a society, the growth of choice about every aspect of family life – and genetic design of children and cloning are on the horizon, expanding the world of family choice – has, paradoxically, undermined our collective commitment to actual families.

Choice is a virtue in a society. But it is a secondary virtue. Faithfulness is a primary social virtue. When choice serves faithfulness, society is better. When choice displaces faithfulness as a high social virtue, society suffers. And the institution of society that depends most on faithfulness, commitment, reliability, and the Vow, is family life.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Marry Your Baby Daddy – The Book

Earlier I wrote about Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, a contest in which a group of couples who had a child together and the intention to marry someday were given an an-expenses-paid wedding, arranged by novelist Maryann Reid and Rev. Herbert Daughtry. Rev. Daughtry supplied the church and conducted the services. Ms. Reid wrote the novel, Marry Your Baby Daddy, which inspired the contest. Having been intrigued by the concept, I thought it only fair to read the novel, too.

The premise of the novel is that the loving grandmother of the three Anderson sisters has died. Each Anderson woman has a child with a man she sort-of wants to marry. To their surprise, grandma died with money – three million dollars worth. It will all come to them – if they each marry their “baby daddy” within six months. Romantic complications ensue.

Let me say at the outset that “chick lit” is not my genre, and black chick lit is terra incognita. I am not the target demographic. This is fine – in this great country of ours, there is room for every kind of reader and every genre of writing. Someday I will blog about my favorite genre, fast-paced church history. (I’m sure you can’t wait).

The women range in age from late-twenties to mid-thirties, and in class from the corporate lawyer big sister to the successful hairdresser middle child to the file clerk little one. The men include the sweet one who wants to marry, the decent one who doesn’t want the bother, and the handsome tomcat who is by turns sweet and brutal. Oh, and there is a handsome lawyer handling the estate. I am guessing that experienced readers of the genre could fill in the rest. But novelty is not the point of popular genres. My wife reads mysteries every night, not for the puzzle so much as to be drawn into the setting and the nuance of familiar kinds of characters. The evocation of the particularities of New York black culture, especially in the Brooklyn settings, is engaging. The communication among the sisters, who have only one another to rely on, is believable and really the emotional core of the story.

I was struck by a few features, though, that I couldn’t simply attribute to the genre. For one thing, nearly every chapter contains a detailed sex description. In the “Sex and the City” literary world (as opposed, of course, to real life), is this customary? Moreover, there was not a single married father in the story. We infer that grandma has been married to produce her granddaughter’s mother, but he is so long gone his departure is not even described. The sisters’ mother killed herself when the girls were young. There is no mention at all of their father or fathers, nor a suggestion that her mother ever married. I won’t be spoiling the ending to say that some of the baby daddies become married fathers by the end, but only in that order, and only under extraordinary conditions.

The poor teen moms in Promises I Can Keep, which I wrote about earlier, grow up in a world without married fathers. These women, black, white, and Hispanic, are shaped by their poverty as much as their ethnic culture. The fictional women of Marry Your Baby Daddy, on the other hand, are above poverty. Marriage is not an economic decision for them, but an emotional one. Their questions are, am I ready to settle down, and do I want to settle down with this man? Even in the end, one of the new wives does not want to commit on whether her marriage is permanent.

Jane Austen wrote the great classic chick lit about, and for, women seeking to be wives and (then) mothers. (And wonderful moral tales they are, too, which I admire hugely, lest anyone thing I am disrespectful of the great Jane). Bridget Jones, for all her near-parody of Jane Austen, still seeks the same thing. Marry Your Baby Daddy rests on a different premise, or at least a wildly different order of operations. Is this typical? I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

She Who Gets Custody Files First

Margaret Brinig, a law professor at the University of Iowa, has done several interesting studies of divorce law. I especially commend one co-authored with Douglas Allen with the wonderful title, ”’These Boots are Made for Walking’: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women.” This work was brought to my attention by a comment on a the recent blog, “Divorce Divides Children.”

Brinig’s interesting finding is that “who gets the children is by far the most important component in deciding who files for divorce, particularly when there is little quarrel about property.” Women are much more likely to file for divorce than men – at a rate of two to one in many states. In states in which the mother is presumed to get sole custody of the couple’s children, she is much more likely to file for divorce. Joint custody rules reduce the likelihood that women will file more often than men.

Even more interestingly, joint custody rules make it less likely that either party will file for divorce in the first place. Brinig suggests that this is due, in part, to the fact that divorcing spouses often use custody filings to hurt their soon-to-be ex. Sole custody is a powerful sledgehammer against an ex. Joint custody is more like staying married.

Elizabeth Marquardt makes clear that joint custody does not make it any easier for kids to avoid being divided by divorce, and may make that feeling worse. But the main point is that it would be better for children – and parents – if there were fewer divorces to begin with.

When divorce is even on the table, all the choices are tragic. Margaret Brinig’s research about the effect of custody rules on filing, though, is a help in assessing joint custody as a tool in reducing divorce.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The “Adults First” Divorce Culture Lives On

Yesterday I posted “Divorce Divides Children” from San Antonio, where I was attending a conference. Later that morning I opened the San Antonio Express-News, and found a story typical of the problem the I have been writing about: the divorce culture that thinks divorce is about the adults’ happiness, without even asking about the children.

An amicable divorce can benefit everyone,” by Express-News staff writer Jeanie Tavitas-Williams, reported on The Unofficial Guide to Getting a Divorce, by Russell and Susan Wild. The paper reports that “with 22 years of marriage behind them, two children, a decent portfolio, property and all kinds of other personal, financial and emotional entanglements, both acknowledge they had ‘all the ingredients that could have made for a ….’” How would you expect that sentence to end? Good marriage? Effective partnership? Secure home? No, to the Wilds, those are the ingredients of a “nasty divorce."

The Wilds did divorce. Yet the tone of the story is congratulatory. The story continues, “Yet today, fewer than two years after their union was legally dissolved, the Pennsylvania residents are good friends. They live about three blocks away from each other, have dinner together (kids included) most every Tuesday, even have keys to each other's homes.” If they had all that going for them, and still do, why did they divorce? Because, Russell Wild says, they “had exhausted all of their efforts to regain the spark before finally ‘throwing in the towel.’"

My gripe is not with the Wilds. To me, it would seem that two people who are capable of such an amicable divorce, are also capable of an amicable marriage. But I don’t know all the facts from a newspaper story, and won’t judge the Wilds.

My gripe is with the reporter, the newspaper, and the dozens of other stories like this one that you can find any month in newspapers, women’s magazines, men’s magazines, and, especially, “relationship” television and radio shows.

No one asked about the children. The reporter does not tell us what the parents think their divorce did to their children. She did not report on the growing body of expert evidence, such as Elizabeth Marquardt’s or Judith Wallerstein’s work, which details the enduring legacy of divorce on children. She did not, evidently, think to ask the children themselves what they thought of this “amicable” relationship.

With other kinds of stories, reporters have a normal routine: first report what the more powerful parties in a conflict are doing, then investigate the effects on the less powerful. If they were reporting, say, a school strike, they would interview the administration, interview the teachers, and then talk to parents and kids, or at least to some sort of experts about the effect on parents and kids. Our current divorce culture, though, treats divorce as something that adults do. The effects on kids are not a normal part of the story, are not in the reporters’ and editors’ standard calculation of affected parties.

So this is my plea: when anyone reports on a divorce, either a particular divorce or on divorce as an institution, always ask “what about the children?” Ask, and tell.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Divorce Divides Children

Elizabeth Marquardt’s main point in Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce is, as the title suggests, that children of divorce grow up divided because they are never fully at home. She reports with great subtlety about the routine ways in which divorced kids learn to keep secrets from their parents, and even to lie to one parent so as not to betray the other. She makes clear that joint custody is not the happy solution that some divorced parent activists promote, because it keeps the child perpetually uprooted. Divorce takes children from being the center of one nuclear family, to a perpetual guest in two new families,

The core problem of divorce for children is that even in the best divorce, the child can never have a full life with both mother and father. All of Marquardt’s subjects were chosen because they had kept contact with both parents. We know from other research that a quarter to a half of all divorced children lose all contact with their fathers after a few years. The luckier ones who keep ties to both parents are still divided in their lives, loyalties, and longings. The divorced kids who lose a parent altogether are like emotional amputees.

I have known a number of children of divorce, some of whom have gone on, like Marquardt, to be successful in their education, their careers, their civic lives, and, most impressively, in their own marriages and childrearing. Yet, as Marquardt would be the first to acknowledge, the divorce always leaves scars. Divorced kids are more prone to become anxious over difficulties in their marriages. One of the reasons that children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves, despite their deathly fear of divorce, is because they either marry impulsively, or throw in the towel too soon. It is hard for children of divorce to believe that they really know how to make a successful marriage, even if other people do.

I find that I can usually tell after knowing a student for a little while whether his or her parents are still together.

Divorce is one of many experiences that scar children. Compared to growing up with violence, or drunkenness, or drug addiction, divorce leaves relatively mild scars. But it always does. Marquardt says that she is not trying to condemn divorced parents, like her own mother and father. Rather, she wants everyone to see that “divorce happy talk” is a self-serving lie that parents tell when they want to convince kids that what is good for the parents is also good for the children.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Divorce’s Religious Effects

Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds, which I have reported on in my two previous blogs, rests on a study which ultimately has a religious purpose. The National Survey on the Moral and Spiritual Lives of Children of Divorce, which Marquardt directed with Norval Glenn, was paid for by the Lilly Endowment, as part of their ongoing studies of the social effects of religion. And Marquardt’s findings on religion are among the most interesting and unprecedented in the study.

Children of divorce are less likely to be involved in organized religion. This fact has been reported before. But when children of intact and divorced families were asked how spiritual they considered themselves to be, nearly 3/4ths of each group answered “fairly” or “very” spiritual. Almost all from each group (90% and 86%, respectively) reported attending religious services as a child. The divorced kids, though, were more likely to report that they lost their early church in the divorce. Sometimes when the parents stop going, the divorced kids will start attending religious services by themselves. The children of divorce are, if anything, more serious in their search for meaning, order, and spiritual direction in their lives. Indeed, despite the generally lower church membership of divorced kids compared to kids from intact families, divorced kids are somewhat more likely to report that they are born-again or evangelical Christians, though they were no more likely to have been raised that way.

The study asked what the respondents made of the “prodigal son” story in the Bible. The two groups differed starkly in their responses. The children from intact families were likely to identify with the prodigal being welcomed home by loving parents, based on their own lives or those of siblings or friends. The divorced kids, on the other had, were more likely to identify with the parent, welcoming the prodigal home – only in their case the roles were reversed; their parents were in the role of the prodigal. This response is of a piece with the common effect of divorce in making the children, especially the eldest, adults before their time. Similarly, the intact family kids could respond straightforwardly to the commandment to “honor their father and mother,” especially if they were now married parents themselves. The children of divorce, on the other hand, found this commandment harder to embrace, or even understand.

The most fascinating, and poignant, religious responses of divorced kids come from their attempts to relate to “God the Father.” For many, their own bad experiences with their fathers spoiled the whole biblical vision of God for them. This difficulty, among others, likely contributed to children of divorce being less churched as adults. On the other hand, a subset of the divorced kids found great comfort in religion – God was the father they did not have in their own family life. These kids were more likely to have gotten themselves to church as a way to cope with the divorce. I expect that it is this group that produces the higher-than-expected rates of born-again and evangelical Christians.

One religious message of Between Two Worlds is that children of divorce, even high-functioning adult children of divorce, yearn for God and a supportive religious community. Precisely because they are torn between two worlds in their parents’ homes, they are more in need of a unified and supportive religious home. The superficial secularity of divorced kids hides a religious need and want which is, if anything, even greater than that of children from intact homes.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

What’s Wrong with the Good Divorce

In Elizabeth Marquardt’s Between Two Worlds, she reports on a valuable new study which compares children from five different kinds of marriages: happy ones, low-conflict unhappy ones, high-conflict unhappy ones, bad divorces, and good divorces. The key comparison is between kids who were raised in unhappy but low-conflict marriages, versus the children of good divorces.

Marquardt’s point is that even the best divorces leave deep scars in kids. This survey, and the detailed interviews which expanded on it, was designed to go beyond normal divorces studies to look at the quality of divorces, and their effects.

Let’s look at a few statistics:

I always felt like an adult, even when I was a kid:
Low conflict: 39%
Good divorce: 51%

I often missed my father:
Low conflict: 38%
Good divorce: 56%

I felt the need to protect my mother emotionally:
Low conflict: 36%
Good divorce: 44%

I generally felt emotionally safe:
Low conflict: 93%
Good divorce: 82%

I was alone a lot as a child:
Low conflict: 21%
Good divorce: 30%

As Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher reported in The Case for Marriage, kids often don’t see their family as unhappy, even when the parents do. As the survey shows, they kids in unhappy marriages still overwhelmingly feel emotionally safe themselves. They have much better relations with their parents. They were not left alone as much.

One of the common effects of divorce is that children are “adultified” or “parentified” – forced to be mature and self-sufficient. At the time, this often seems like a good thing, a sign that the child is adjusting well. In truth, this is one of the longest lasting scars. Children of divorce often date the end of their childhood from the moment they heard their parents were divorcing. Being little adults means they lose being kids, which they miss later.

Half the children of good divorces lose their childhoods with the divorce.