Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The maturity needed to raise kids = maturity to have none

Well, I have gone and got tangled in another thread over at Pandagon. Amanda Marcotte was more or less celebrating the findings, dredged up in a few liberal blogs yesterday, of a Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes and practices around marriage. The big deal was the clearly eclipsed myth of having children as the most important attribute in a happy marriage. I do tend to get my feathers ruffled when that subject comes up but this time out, I am reassured at what a bunch of solid and sensible citizens hang out their commitments on that thread. To the reactionary complaints of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project that this survey signaled the demise of decent family values and depicted a country where:
“Child-rearing values — sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity — seem stale and musty by comparison.”
Amanda remarked:
Whitehead is concern trolling people right to the divorce court.

I don't know if Whitehead is really of the opinion that there is a kids vs sex life trade off. Many commenters had practical experience that this is not so. I do think I see what is so irksome about Whitehead's opinion though:

If one recognizes that they are not going to be comfortable giving up a sizable chunk of their time, their money and that mental and physical personal energy that goes into an enjoyable social life [intimate or public], even if we just call that "spoiled and selfish", then they are better off not having children. Such children, had they come along, would have sensed the neglect and brought forward that subtle and deep sense of low value as a person to another generation. If such a child occasionally reaches the cusp of awareness that that feeling of worthlessness was not innate but imposed, they must decide where to battle a foe that has long left the field. To cease cycling such drama into this world, it is vastly more important for a person to know what will make them happy than it is for them to conform to any convention of happiness.

The idea that you should always be happy is a bigger myth and more dangerous than the myth that "a baby will bring us together". Following either is a slow motion train wreck. Pursuit of happiness is a right, we allege, but the state of happiness itself is an illusion oh so popular for two minutes out of every fifteen on television. There is, however, a difference between the myth of "entitlement to happiness" as antagonist to the myth of "have babeez, be happy" and the compromise struck when one [or more often, a couple] is realistic about how children will impact them and still take the plunge knowing some things from the Before Kids life will have to go. I counted at least a half dozen comments from parents who knew these waters and reported satisfaction with that upstream swim to the spawning grounds. It is one of the most common reckonings in the world. Its just a shame some people make it badly. But as Paul Simon sings, "the information is unavailable to the mortal man" [the mortal man should ask a mortal woman! Then maybe this part of the survey would not surprise you:
The survey noted that 37 percent of U.S. births in 2005 were to unmarried women, up from 5 percent in 1960, and found that nearly half of all adults in their 30s and 40s had lived with a partner outside of marriage.

The word "sacrifice" does properly belong in this calculation. In fact all of them: "sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity" are exactly what I would call for as terms of a procreation contract. And, hoping not to put words in other's mouths, I think those commenters exemplify being conscious of those values as you work at having kids AND a reasonably fun marriage. Where Whitehead gets it wrong is that she is judging all the country through this survey. She denigrates those who know the sacrifice is not for them as if they were evil shirkers of a universal obligation. Quit judging people, Whitehead! Those values are not "musty" they are just not necessary unless you do choose to have kids nor are they for everyone. I wonder if a social critic like Whitehead could imagine how much less burdened and conflict riddled this world would be if the people for whom children were an option were free and informed enough to recognize it would be a mistake in some cases and go on their well adjusted childless way. That would be a greater "maturity" than the one Ms Whitehead judges to be lacking.

It looks like America is not waiting for Ms Whitehead to figure this one out.


Sister Novena said...

I'm not ready for kids. Maybe someday I will be, or maybe not. I know for certain that right now, while I am emotionally and psychologically capable of being a good mother, I am not in a position to actually become one -- I lack the financial grounding, the willingness to sacrifice without resentment, and the presence of a suitable father for them (if not a partner for me.)

It always vexes me when people fail to realize that sometimes not having kids is the most responsible parenting decision you can make. In many ways, not having children is itself a sacrifice -- I take the act of creating and raising another human being seriously enough that I would give up those satisfactions in order to spare my theoretical child unnecessary hardship. I love my non-existent kids enough to not have them, or at least not yet.

Neko-Onna said...

Interesting response to an interesting thread. Your assertion that the belief that happiness should be the default state in which we operate is one of the major problems of our time resonates strongly with me. I truly think that many of the "relationship problems" people have stem from this misguided assumption.

I am also intrigued by your parenting contract idea. I think it gets at the heart of one of the things that deserves to be preserved from the old marriage idea- that child rearing is a risky endeavour, and both parents and children need some sort of recourse if one or the other parent doesn't uphold their end of the deal.

GreenSmile said...

Dear Amy, you are exactly the person who proves this is such a vital dialog: you are making the choice constantly and it really is a choice, a tough choice that you make in a well informed, experienced and consciencious way.

I get a little sad when I think about this because from all I have read of your thinking, I bet you'd be one hell of a parent.
[problem is, being the one parent can be hell on a shoestring...two kinda has its advantages.]

GreenSmile said...

That happines is an illusion follows in a way from the fact [I hold it as a fact, an observation, others think it is a theory and most experience it as a wrong idea] that the pursuer of happiness is an illusion. Its my innate buddhist leanings. Though I use the pronoun in the conventional way, "I" is to me a bit of a fiction, a cognitive shortcut that sometimes leads us astray from our real natures. And screwed up relationships is very much a symptom of two people who have false impreressions of their internal unity and consistency and wind up constantly at odds because in real life, we deal with facets of people and it is the rare person who listens to the totality of the other...especially when their own "self" is at stake in some way.

Yes the purpose I propose to meet is incorporated [along with everything else including the church and the woman's bondage to the kitchen sink] in some conventional notions of written down marriage obligations. I want to take it all apart because it is broken and put the one part that I think we all agree is curcial: the wellfare [in a thorough sense] of the children, on its own footing. There is ample precedent that the state has a stake, on behalf of the rest of society that will wind up paying for the consequences of broken lives, in the wellfare of children. There are probably other parts to this and maybe I should work them out on paper so I can present a complet package. As it is, perhaps I am only fixing the worst part, not the whole thing.

I fear it would be a book-length effort and garner 5 readers.