Friday, June 02, 2006

Off to Reunion

The Gruntleds are off to alma mater for a 25th reunion, so I will take a couple of days off from the blog. We will return with family tales on Monday.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"The Squid and the Whale" is a Harrowing Divorce Movie

I know I am six months behind on this discussion, but one of the very few drawbacks of living in a small town is that we get to movies a bit late. This one, though, is not a blockbuster that defines a season. It is not a general-audience movie. It is a film for people who need to think about and chew over how divorce works on kids.

When the film came out it coincided with Elizabeth Marquardt's book Between Two Worlds, and much of the discussion on the Family Scholars Blog, which Marquardt is part of, turned on how well the film depicted the very thing she wrote about.

Noah Baumbach has written a nearly autobiographical fiction about his own parents' divorce, through the eyes of a Noah-like teenager and his little brother. As I wrote on the Family Scholars Blog, I thought it was a richly made movie of selfish parents destroying their children. Baumbach's parents are living, as are most of their friends. He was quoted as saying that when they saw the film for the first time, he looked back at them when it ended; they looked as if they had been flattened by G-forces.

Yet Baumbach was actually fairly gentle with the parents. He shows the mother as doting on her sons, and the father still having some tenderness toward his ex. In interviews Baumbach has been careful not to condemn his parents, or divorce in general. The tagline of the movie is "joint custody blows." The strongest critique he offers is of the tug-of-war between the parents that pulls the kids apart. These fictional parents are much better about that than many real parents manage to be.

Still, the older son is already on the road to emulating his father. He dumps his nice girlfriend because, in his father's estimation, the boy can "do better." At the same time, we see the father getting booted by his third wife and taking up with a woman half his age – who, just to make it worse, is his own student. The little brother is even more scarred – especially after both parents forget him and go away with their new paramours for a weekend. He is about ten, and cries when his parents have the "family meeting" to announce their divorce. He hardens, though, turning to drinking, public sex, and an extremely foul mouth. It is hard not to fear much worse in his future.

As a film, "The Squid and the Whale" is a bit rough around the edges. It has some unfinished parts that show a young director. More importantly, there are parts of the parents' relationship which simply can't be brought into focus when the director is working so close to his own life. Still, this is a rich movie for thinking about the effects of divorce and, therefore, of marriage, on kids.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Three is the New Two

A new story in the Boston Globe reports the happy news that among educated marrieds, there has been a slight return to replacement-level families. Married people need to have a bit more than two kids per couple merely to replace the population. In recent years, though, the whole country has not been having enough kids to keep up. Among married people – those in the best position to care for kids on their own – the birth rate has dropped well below replacement level, and among educated marrieds the birth rate has fallen alarmingly. Even among educated married people who do have kids, there has some sense for the past generation that two was the maximum responsible number.

As I have argued for some time, though, it is precisely among educated marrieds - those people most likely to consider the impact of their family size on the world - that we need a few more kids. So it is encouraging that there has been a small but real uptick in the number of third-or-more births, from 26% in 1995 to 28% in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This statistic includes unmarried as well as married women, so is not exactly what this doctor ordered. But it is a movement in the right direction.

At a time when Russia and much of the former Second World is trying desperately to keep their population from collapsing, it is encouraging to see that more Americans vote for the future with a third child.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Loose Ends of the British Divorce Ruling

The Law Lords, Britain's highest court, upped the ante in two large divorce cases. They awarded much larger settlements than had been given in the past to two divorcing women. One couple had a childless short marriage; in the other, she had given up a career to raise the couple's children. Both involved significant amounts of money.

The principle at issue, though, is that both members of the marriage are entitled to part of the wealth and the future earnings that the marriage helped make possible. This seems to me eminently fair and long overdue. The buzz has been that now rich men will be less likely to marry at all, or to marry only with pre-nups. That would be sad. But what that really means is that up until now men, especially rich or high-earning men, have been more willing to marry because they knew they could dump their wives and still keep most of the marital assets. That is at least as sad.

There were two loose ends of this story, though, that have had me pondering. One is fault. The other is kids.

One of the divorces in the British case involved a couple who had been married for three years and had no kids. During the marriage, the husband had made a fortune as a fund manager, and would likely make even more in the future. The report of the decision cast the whole question as one of her share of his past and future earnings. As an aside, the reports mention that the marriage broke up because he had an affair. Now, the basic justice of the case is that she did contribute to his fortune by letting him invest in his career while she did everything else. But it seems to me that she is also entitled to something additional – Hazardous S.O.B. Pay, perhaps – for being cheated on, too.

The other issue is the role of custody in who initiates divorce. I have been convinced by Margaret Brinig's studies, which I have written about before, that women are more likely to file for divorce in jurisdictions in which they are almost automatically awarded custody of the children. It seems to me that justice would lead one to make custody awards on a case-by-case basis, so neither party would assume that they would get the kids.

SO, if kids are awarded based on what is good for kids, and money is awarded based on just contributions. This may make for more just divorces. Now if only we could find a way to make fewer divorces.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Harvard-Yale Study at 20: Still Missing the Point

Twenty years ago this week Newsweek's cover story, "The Marriage Crunch," reported the dire prospects for educated women who had not married by their mid-thirties. The most notorious line in the article – which did not come from the original report – was that a 40-year-old unmarried woman with a B.A. was "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than ever to marry. This report was unlikely at the time, but the "Harvard-Yale Study" became notorious, attacked by marriage-ambivalent feminists and striking fear into the hearts of unmarried educated women everywhere. This story was particularly important to the Gruntleds because we were graduate students at Yale when that report was written, and one of the co-authors, Trisha Craig, was a college as well as a graduate school classmate of ours.

This week the magazine is running a follow-up story to show how silly the fears they fomented before were. Most of the single and worried women they interviewed in the story subsequently got married and stayed that way. The old rules, Newsweek intones, don't apply any more. Educated men want to marry educated women, and artificial reproductive technology means that women can have babies indefinitely.

The new story is a silly as the old one was. Yes, educated women are marrying later, and their marriages are more likely to last than those of less educated women. Yes, there are all kinds of expensive miracle treatments that extend fertility for a few years for some women. But biology has not been repealed, nor sociobiology. And Newsweek did not report that, ironically, Craig herself is unmarried (though she does not report that as a tragedy).

The main point, though, is that the "Harvard-Yale" demographers did not set out to study the marital chances of educated women, but of uneducated welfare mothers. Those were, and still are, slim. For comparison, they included numbers on the marital chances of educated women of different ages. But Newsweek isn't aimed at welfare mothers, and neither are the thousand and one women's magazines that picked up the story. For their readers, the footnote was the story. And Newsweek, like most news organizations, usually finds a way to turn every story into something readers can fear.

The good news is that educated women do have a good chance of marrying.
The bad news is that uneducated welfare mothers don't. And that is something that we as a society should be concerned about.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Standard is a Standard Even If Exceptions Are Allowed

The debate over the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church is heating up, as we get closer to the General Assembly a few weeks from now.

The Task Force proposes two crucial ideas:
1) that the church leave in place its existing ordination standards; and
2) that the ordaining body decide if any particular candidate's scruples about those standards touch on essential tenets of the Reformed faith.

Some conservative groups in the church say the Task Force's two recommendations contradict one another. Either a standard is a standard, or it isn't. In their reading, a standard is an absolute requirement, set from the center, that every individual must meet.

In the Presbyterian Church, the central body is not where candidates are examined and, if they pass, ordained. There is no bishop, and certainly no Vatican, in the Presbyterian Church. The body that examines and ordains ministers is the regional presbytery. The presbytery, not surprisingly, is the central unit of the Presbyterian Church, the level where church leaders live with one another the most, and the unit that any unspecified powers are reserved for in the church. The General Assembly, with the agreement of most presbyteries, can set the standards for the church, but the presbyteries are where they are applied. In nearly all cases, that is where it ends: the church as a whole accepts the presbytery's judgment.

Still, since the first two presbyteries were brought together in this country, the church has faced the problem of presbyteries interpreting and applying the standards differently. In those cases, the church has had two mechanisms to smooth out the conflict or, if smoothing out is not possible, for deciding the contested issue. The main mechanism is to trust each presbytery to ordain well. That ordination is for the whole church. However, if a minister wants to "labor within the bounds" of another presbytery, he or she must be examined and approved by that new presbytery. The second presbytery can't change an ordination granted by the first one, but it can say, "you may be ordained for the whole church, but you can't work in this corner of the church." This is a long-established tradition of the Presbyterian Church in this country, going back to the first synod in 1729.

The second way the church deals with a conflict of standards between two ordaining bodies is to hold a trial in the higher governing bodies (the synod, and then the General Assembly). This trial is not about the particular minister's beliefs, but rather is about whether the presbytery applied the church's standards correctly. The presbyteries are given a great deal of leeway in applying the standards, but ultimately there are limits.

Existing church standards would, among many other things, forbid the ordination of practicing, unrepentant homosexuals. Some presbyteries think this prohibition is clearly required by the Bible, and therefore is essential. Other presbyteries have made it clear that they do not think such a prohibition is essential, or even just, regardless of what the Bible appears to say.

The Task Force says this standard is still the standard for the church. They also call on the whole church to trust the local presbytery to apply that standard properly. However, if the presbytery does not apply that standard (or any other standard) correctly – or worse, denies the standard altogether – then the presbytery can be tried by a higher governing body. If necessary, the presbytery's ordination decision can be overturned. That is the way things are now. That is what the Task Force is proposing to keep and strengthen.

A standard is a standard, but every organization needs some way to judge whether a particular case comes under the standard or not.