Marriage is a like a string of pearls, matched or graduated, real or cultivated or imitation, in various shades, some more baroque than round. And now the string has broken and the pearls are rolling every which way. This is such a “twee” metaphor that I hesitate to work from it, but there have been worse, so I’ll keep going. The thing to remember is that the elements (pearls) of this category are complex and the string is not the same from one example to another.
Let’s name the pearls -- try anyway:
- True love (whatever that is)
- Sexual access
- The conception of children
- A cultural institution for raising children
- A family contract made on behalf of children
- An economic deal to support the family as defined by the culture
- A complex of conventions about what a family is
- A unique arrangement of persons living together that is called a family for lack of a better name
- A religious concept (meaning a culturally endorsed and imaged idea) that might require:
- Two different genders (leaving ambiguous or mixed genders unaddressed)
- Or “races” (again leaving mixtures out and not defining “race” except for being people who are different)
- Or requiring fertility (sterility can be a deal-breaker)
- Or allowing delegation of sexual or reproductive obligations to someone else (slave, servant, harem, temple whore)
- Or might specify how many wives or husbands can be allowed
freshwater baroque pearls
- Or might defend the right of any person to transcend convention
- Or might even allow the marriage of people who have been dead for a long time
- A way of continuing a generation-to-generation sequence of relationships that preserves those relationships.
- A way of keeping together wealth and land occupation
- Mutual protection: a small version of tribe which may have been the precipitating group that gathered around a major figure. A tribe must contend with these marriage/genetic families as divisions within.
- A governmental category given some privileges like tax breaks and recorded in a central registry for reference and identity purposes.
- A legal category imposing restrictions, obligations, privileges.
- A medical category implying genetic derivations and granting consent for procedures and responsibility for care.
- An indicator of status
A lot of other stuff that is too unique to describe and probably not stable enough to stay put as a category anyway.
In response to that -- or maybe in confirmation of that -- is a whole book:
“Over half of all births to young adults in the United States now occur outside of marriage, and many are unplanned. The result is increased poverty and inequality for children. The left argues for more social support for unmarried parents; the right argues for a return to traditional marriage.
“In Generation Unbound, Isabel V. Sawhill offers a third approach: change “drifters” into “planners.” In a well-written and accessible survey of the impact of family structure on child well-being, Sawhill contrasts “planners,” who are delaying parenthood until after they marry, with “drifters,” who are having unplanned children early and outside of marriage. These two distinct patterns are contributing to an emerging class divide and threatening social mobility in the United States.”
So basically the idea is that there is not enough socially accepted definitions for people to maintain marriage or even practice it in some stable way. This is partly because of the breaking up of binary definitions of sex -- it is now possible to “be” something besides a husband/wife -- mommie/daddy. “Career,” “adventure,” “success” interfere with the formation of the bonded family that will support children. Bonding = bondage. Now no one has your back -- if you didn’t have parents who did that, you won’t even know it’s possible.
The economic situation is quite comparable to the bait-and-switch story of the vulnerable state of individuals who are not coping. We shut down the warehouses for the crazy by promising small neighborhood imitation families who would shelter those people -- but they didn’t. The money wasn’t there. The warehouses were reinstituted in the jails. Likewise, the idea was that a woman would have the same income as a man and therefore would not need to depend upon a spouse. Instead women are still paid two-thirds of male wages, still shut out of really lucrative jobs, and yet are still stuck with the kids. The idea that the pill would mean only wanted children was about as effective as the idea that pills would mean no more crazy people.
I wondered when we’d get around to defining marriage through the perspective of children instead of just sex or bonding desire (which is NOT the same as sex, though it can start out that way). Margaret Mead always says our marriage licensing should have two steps: one a renewable contract between consenting adults that defined their economic and other obligations to each other, esp. concerning property ownership. If that went well and the couple (ignoring gender but not accommodating threesomes) wished to make the twenty-year commitment to a child, then a new license would be necessary. It would only be revocable by the state on grounds of incompetence, unfitness, and the like -- whatever endangered the child.
BUT such a double-decker system would only work if there were a decent way of caring for children who were outside families, either because the government removed them or because they just got thrown out. The trouble is that people go right on making babies and the babies go right on loving their caregivers, no matter how unfit or ill-equipped they might be. And institutional child-raising has always been a rotten idea.
The first problem has always been economic. In times and societies where resources are scarce and what is thought to be necessities cost dearly, the nations contract into tribes, the tribes contract into defensive families, and the families fail to form or break up under the weight. Kids must shift for themselves however they can. Like every other natural spectrum, some of them will be able to manage and a high proportion will simply die, but there will be a middle category of “bent” kids, like grass grown under a board where it survives by sacrificing sunlight.
Very soon damaged kids grow into damaged adults -- not necessarily predators but unable to respond in ways that don’t damage themselves, others, or the system that the government is trying to enforce. Sentimentality (which passes for religion in some circles) holds up the ideal of family in the way it has been defined in the past: Norman Rockwell -- not Eugene O’Neill. So what was it that held together the Eugene O’Neill aggregations of drunks, addicts, violent people, full of pride and blame? Was it that a known evil is always better than an unknown evil? Is it that they knew that without the minimal shelter of the house, they would die in the brush or the alleys? Was it Irish pride in defying the neighbors?
I don’t know. I’m a solitary. No leftovers, no hitch-hikers. A small town is my loose family. I follow along at the edge of the Blackfeet tribe. But I live an examined life and that is much of what sustains me. I avoid alcohol, drugs, careless relationships because they keep me from thinking. (Reading and writing are only expressions of thinking.) It's not a virtue: it's a coping mechanism. Writing and only writing would be a mistake if I didn’t have such a huge cache of experience behind me, though the part that was “family” was never sustained. That is, I have dived for pearls, but then I gave them away. No regrets. No strings. Stories.