The Pew Research Center reports that millennials — adults aged 18 to 29 — think parenthood is more important than marriage. According to a poll taken last year, 52% of respondents said that being a good parent is “very important”; only 30% say the same about a good marriage.
For years now, I’ve watched Baby Boomers glancing over their shoulders at millennials as they shuffle off toward their reward, wondering, “What is up with these kids?” Some call them “young fogeys”; others say they’re so depraved, they’ll soon be wearing Baal brand jeans. This study shows each side grasps a corner of the truth, but nobody’s got hs arms around the whole thing.
On the good side, millennials like kids — they really, really like them! The results of this poll correspond to the data that show increasing support for abortion bans. On the other — well, they don’t have any grand notions regarding marriage. But you know, in a way, that’s good, too. The Church may talk very prettily about cleaving and love is patient and whatnot, but her bottom line is, don’t divorce. Marriage and reproduction are callings, not hobbies. If you can’t approach them joyfully, approach them grimly — just as long as you don’t quit. If millennials, with their hard-headed realism about matrimony, can be talked into marrying despite it, then by gum, we may be headed back to the nifty 50s after all.
To hasten things along, someone had better slip hemlock into Ayelet Waldman’s oolong, or whatever brownstone Brooklynites drink. In her essay “Truly, Madly, Guilty, she wrote that, of all the mothers in her “Look at me, I had a kid — high five!” group, she’s the only one who’s “getting some.” The hussy then goes on to reveal that it’s her love for her husband, not her love for her children, that’s holding her marriage together:
WHEN my first daughter was born, my husband held her in his hands and said, “My God, she’s so beautiful.”
I unwrapped the baby from her blankets. She was average size, with long thin fingers and a random assortment of toes. Her eyes were close set, and she had her father’s hooked nose. It looked better on him.
She looked like a newborn baby, red and scrawny, blotchy faced and mewling. I don’t remember what I said to my husband. Actually I remember very little of my Percocet- and Vicodin-fogged first few days of motherhood except for someone calling and squealing, “Aren’t you just completely in love?” And of course I was. Just not with my baby.
I do love her. But I’m not in love with her. Nor with her two brothers or sister. Yes, I have four children. Four children with whom I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I’m not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.
No, anyone who wants to plug marriage as a vocation is going to have to sell what Yahoo! News calls the semi-happy marriage — the union without devastating conflict or animating passion; that is, the union that is bearable, as long as you don’t mind being bored. In Marriage Confidential: Workhouse Wives, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, historian Pamela Haag tackles that very subject:
Her own 13-year-long marriage almost fit the bill. “Often, in my own case, I really can’t tell if my marriage is woeful or sublime,” she writes in her book. “Maybe I’m just so profoundly content that it feels like unhappiness, because nirvana is dull in this way, it lacks frisson.” (She adds that she thinks her husband is “an amazing sport, and brave, to let me write about this topic of mixed feelings at all, even though a good number of husbands and wives have mixed feelings.”)
My mother, who grew up in the actual 1950s — a golden age, according to social conservatives, to rival that of Pericles — recalls a neighborhood positively awash in semi-happy marriages. Nobody cohabited; everybody was hitched, good and proper. They all managed — nobody shotgunned her husband of a Saturday night, although my mother does recall an awful lot of people around in a kind of low-grade depression. Each couple had a passel of kids, which was fortunate, because there was always a weird one who ended up hanging himself from the shower rod. Were these couples cushioning themselves, with their fecundity, against just such a loss? Maybe so. This modern age of ours has sent a lot of folk wisdom down the pipes.
The art of the semi-happy marriage hasn’t been lost, I don’t think, but it doesn’t seem to have been codified — at least not in the Catholic press. I see no end of ink spilled over how to have a happy marriage, or why people should stay in unhappy ones. Ever once in a while, some secular publication will run a first-person account of a blah marriage — something along the lines of, “Why I Won’t Kill My Husband Till The Kids Are out of College.” But these pieces tend to have a ‘true confessions” tone; it’s as if the author is expecting her readers to gasp.
What’s needed are matter-of-fact survival guides written by married people who can stand their lives, but only just, and have isolated the techniques that make the standing possible. “I sew doll clothes — lots and lots of doll clothes! My husband re-enacts Lord Nelson’s great victories on a pool table in the basement, using our son’s old Matchbox cars. And we both drink.” Rub millennials’ noses in that reality hard enough, and you might just start to see the two-parent household emerge from its slumber.