What Hurts the Institution of Marriage the Most?

Opponents of same-sex marriage say that allowing homosexuals to marry would hurt the institution of marriage. I don’t quite see why: if gays and lesbians want to marry, isn’t that reinforcing the idea that getting married is a good thing?

People who use this argument are failing to see the forest for the trees. They freak out over a handful of relationships nationwide and ignore the relationship that may have hurt the institution of marriage more than anything other kind: that of the cohabiting couple.

My oldest daughter and I were watching “She’s Having a Baby” the other night and for me it brought back memories of a time when marriage was treated with much more respect and honor than it is now. In 1988, when “She’s Having a Baby” was made, living together was only just beginning to be a common phenomenon. (The number of cohabiting unmarried partners increased by 88% between 1990 and 2007. Source: U.S. Census Bureau. “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007.”)

But when my first husband and I thought about living together before getting married back in 1972, we didn’t have the guts to do it. We didn’t want to be an aberration or the object of unkind gossip. Besides, to our parents at least, marriage was a very big deal. It was the ultimate state of commitment. So, like the couple in “She’s Having a Baby” we went ahead and got married despite the fact that we were young and naive and didn’t know each other very well.

Would our relationship have survived if we’d lived together before getting married? I doubt it, since getting married didn’t cause us to break up—it just made it harder to. (And more expensive.)

Consider these statistics:

About 75% of cohabiters plan to marry their partners. 55% of different-sex cohabiters do marry within five years of moving in together. 40% break up within that same time period. And about 10% remain in an unmarried relationship for five years or more.  (Source: Smock, Pamela. 2000. “Cohabitation in the United States.” Annual Review of Sociology.)

Cohabitation implies that marriage isn’t as important as we were once led to believe. Many couples go into a living-together arrangement because they don’t trust the institution of marriage. They look at their parents’ generation and wonder why they should even bother to get married. (I’ve even heard people say that the main reason they would consider getting married is to get wedding gifts. Really.)

So why aren’t conservatives berating couples who have opted to not marry (like Goldie Hawn and Kirk Russell)? Why aren’t they holding them up as examples of relationships that hurt the institution of marriage?

Same-sex marriage isn’t weakening the institution of marriage; on the contrary: gay couples’ desire to marry is a vote of confidence. They’re saying that marriage matters. Cohabiting couples aren’t as sure about that.

Sometimes it seems that gays are doing more to promote the sanctity of marriage are than straight people are.

 

 

Does a Woman Need a Room of Her Own?

Virginia Woolf wrote* that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write [fiction].” She was writing about writers, but what she said applies to being a woman, period. If a woman is to be her own person, she must have autonomy, which in this world means enough money to live on and the ability to make your own destiny. What does that have to do with a room of one’s own, though? And what does that mean anyway?

I noticed a couple of years ago that HGTV (Home and Gardening TV Network) began referring to “man caves.” These are set-apart rooms for the man of the house where he can pursue what he’s interested in and be himself. The implication is that a man can’t truly relax anywhere else in the house, as if all the other square footage belongs to his wife (and children, if there are any).

The other implication is that women don’t need “woman caves” because they have the whole house in which to pursue their interests and be themselves. The belief that the house is primarily the sphere of women probably dates back to the days when everyone lived in caves. The women stayed home and took care of the children, prepared the meals and fashioned utensils (and later, practiced agriculture) while the men went out and “earned a living.” The larger world was not for the female sex, but by the same token, men didn’t feel entirely welcome in the smaller world of home and hearth.

Even in this day when men and women both work outside of the home, women are seen as the primary housekeepers and men the householders (the ones who own the home). It’s a usually unspoken agreement between the sexes that women can do what they want with the inside of the house and men make the “bigger” decisions that have to do with the world outside the home.

I have a friend from high school who recently posted pictures on Facebook of the interior of his house. Some of the comments referred to his taste as well as his wife’s and suggested that they should both take up house staging (which is arranging the furnishings in a home so that it is more appealing to potential buyers). Apparently my friend had as much to say about how the interior of his home looks as his wife did.

I don’t think this is unusual. More men are taking an interest in home decorating (without automatically being thought of as gay). As a result, women are feeling pushed out of the house a little (until it comes to cleaning it—although that is changing somewhat, too).

The husband is no longer relegated to a workshop in the basement or garage. Now he is more likely to have a study, home office or man cave. But what about the wife? Where is her special place, where she can conduct her own affairs in private? I’m sorry, but the kitchen and laundry room just don’t qualify.

But the assumption persists that taking care of the home completes a woman in ways that would never be enough for a man. It is thought that all women have a nesting instinct and that they just tolerate their husbands’ presence, let alone his interference.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your home and feeling completed by taking care of it. The problem is that too many people, male and female, believe that that’s all a woman should want out of life. Even women talk themselves into believing that their priorities are skewed if they want to do anything but keep a house and raise children.

A room of one’s own doesn’t have to be a physical one; but it does need to exist. Autonomy requires the presence of privacy and the absence of interference. If you find that you can’t retreat into your own “space” where you can create who you are, then your personal growth will be stunted. You will only be a reflection of what other people want from you.

*Source: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, 1928.

A Personal Story

I’ve been a feminist since 1971 when I joined a consciousness-raising group after I had my abortion. I didn’t think that I would ever tell anyone about the abortion, but as we all began to share our stories, I felt safe enough to share mine. Instead of shock or disapproval, I was met with understanding and support. I had had a decision to make and I made the one that I thought was best for me at the time.

The boyfriend who got me pregnant would never have allowed me to give the baby up for adoption, but he was okay about an abortion. I didn’t tell my parents because I felt like I should be adult enough to handle it myself. And, okay, I admit that I was afraid of their reaction, but that wasn’t the main reason I had the abortion. I was 19 and in my first year of college and I knew if I had the baby I would have wanted to keep it. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1971 it was still considered shameful to have a baby out of wedlock. All of the girls I knew in high school who had gotten pregnant (and not had abortions) went ahead and got married. I realized when I got pregnant that I didn’t want to marry the father and I didn’t want to raise a child with him. He could be cruel at times and I didn’t think he would be a good father.

Turns out I was right. For various reasons, I did end up marrying him after my first husband and I got a divorce (possibly partly out of guilt for having aborted his baby). And he abused the children I had from my first marriage. Not sexually, but verbally and physically. We divorced after three and a half years, which was three  years and five months too late. My children still have scars from the way he treated them. I’m not proud of what I allowed to happen to my children. But it was a kind of vindication that I had been right to not have a child with him in the first place, and I thank God that I didn’t have one with him when we did get married.

When my four daughters were old enough, I told them about my abortion. “Just don’t ever put yourself in that position where you have to make that decision,” I told them. When my oldest daughter became pregnant when she was 25 and unmarried, she told the father that she would never consider an abortion and I was really proud of her for that. Thankful, too, because her son is the only grandchild I have today. And I can’t imagine his not being in the world.

Sometimes I think about the child I didn’t have. He or she would have been 42 this year. I like to think that if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have terminated his or her life, but I don’t know that for sure. If I’d had the baby, I probably wouldn’t have the children I do have, because my life would have gone an entirely different way.

I understand where people who are anti-abortion are coming from. I don’t think abortion is ever a good thing. But I’m uncomfortable with making it impossible for any woman to have one legally and safely. Legal abortion doesn’t make women get pregnant because they think, “Oh, if I get pregnant I can always have an abortion.” All making abortion illegal would accomplish is that women who find themselves in tough situations would have illegal abortions or try to abort themselves. And then they might die, sometimes leaving their other children motherless. That’s not a solution.

Most people who are against abortion are against it on religious grounds. But they don’t take into account that not all people believe in God or have strong religious convictions. Here I stand on a principle of democracy: it’s wrong to force all members of society to abide by the convictions of a subgroup. Forcing women to have babies they’re not ready to have isn’t going to convert them. Only God can do that, just as only God is the final judge of all that we do. All we can do is try to live according to our own consciences.

Two years ago my oldest daughter had a miscarriage. But before the fetus died, she was told that it had both Down and Turner Syndromes. The doctor who informed her made it clear that he disapproved of abortion. My daughter was made to feel guilty at a time when she was in deep anguish about what she should do. The eventual miscarriage took the decision out of her hands, but she hasn’t forgotten how she felt when her doctor tried to force his beliefs on her. He wasn’t the one who would have to raise the child, if it lived. She, not he, was the best judge of what she could handle.

Those who try to dictate what a woman should do with her body are trying to play God. The irony is: not even God forces women to have babies. As I understand Him, He gave us free will for a reason. Other people don’t have the right to take that away.

 

Letting Men Off the Hook

Melissa NelsonThree years ago, when Melissa Nelson was 33, she was fired by her boss because he felt that her beauty would tempt him to have an affair with her. (Apparently his wife agreed.) Ms. Nelson sued but her case was dismissed. The court ruled that being fired for being a threat to her boss’s marriage was within the law.

Excuse me? Where does it say that the law exists to protect men from their own sexual impulses? If that were the case, rapists might as well go free because, after all, they can’t help it. Especially if a woman dresses “provocatively” (a value judgment if I ever heard one). Why not expand that to “especially if she’s beautiful”?

I’m sick of the excuse that men are at the mercy of their “innate” natures. Girls are told that they have to be the ones to make sure that sex doesn’t happen between them and their dates or boyfriends, because “boys will be boys; they will always go as far as you let them.”

[This is insulting on two counts: it assumes that men can’t control themselves, and that women can (in other words, that they never want to have sex that badly). Both sexes are defined by their supposed normal sexual behaviors.]

I take issue with the attitude that it is the woman’s responsibility to keep men from temptation. If it was all right for Melissa Nelson’s boss to fire her because of the temptation factor, then every male boss could make a case for not hiring women at all.

Because, you know, men would behave themselves perfectly if women weren’t around.

 

Review of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Whew! This is one long book! (Although it’s not as bad as it seems–out of 960 pages, the last 259 are acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and the index.) The hardest thing about reading a book this size was trying to get it in a comfortable position. I considered buying the Nook Book but it was $19.99, so I borrowed the print edition from the library. (The hardbound book’s price is $37.50.)

The author, Andrew Solomon, worked on this book for ten years–and it shows. It’s incredibly detailed, almost too much so. I can’t even imagine the amount of thought and effort that went into it.

The best–and worst–part of the book is all the anecdotes from the interviews he conducted. They helped to put a human face on what he was writing about and kept the book from being too scholarly. But at times it was hard to keep track of all the family members and their unique experiences; they sort of blurred together after awhile.

I loved the first chapter, which was basically an introduction. It contained so many thought-provoking comments I just had to copy many of them into my journal. The author states his thesis clearly and gives the reader a perspective that makes sense of the rest of the book. This was helpful because when I saw the chapter headings, I couldn’t help but wonder what made him think that all these disparate topics would have a common thread.

Those chapter headings are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. The first six make sense, since they are all usually seen as disabilities of one kind or another. But the last four seem to be anomalies and it’s to the author’s credit that he’s able to present his premise convincingly in all of them (with varying degrees of success).

I won’t dissect each topic here, but I will make a couple of comments. Some of the chapters were real eye-openers; I hadn’t realized the obstacles that some families face when trying to raise autistic or severely handicapped, for instance. The chapter on prodigies was my least favorite chapter because the author chose to write only about musical prodigies and the examples got to be pretty repetitive.

I was also surprised that he didn’t choose homosexuality as a topic (transgender is not the same thing!). That could be because he writes about his own homosexuality in the first and last chapters, but he doesn’t go into much detail about how various families deal with a child’s homosexuality. I would have liked to have read about that.

For the most part, Solomon presents a good mix of the experiences of fathers and mothers, but even so he seems to imply that the mother has more influence on how well a child transitions into successful adulthood. Although I don’t deny the importance of mother-child relationships, I thought the view that mothers are largely responsible for raising well-adjusted children had been largely discredited. Apparently not.

I also objected to his use of dialect when writing about families that were less educated and poor. He especially did this in the chapter on crime, making it seem like it is only the disadvantaged who have a problem with crime. Plenty of middle-to-upper-class people commit crimes; they just rarely pay the same penalties for their actions as lower class people do.

Far From the Tree is important because of what it says about families. It illustrates how different parents deal with their children’s differences and how those children respond to their treatment. The main thing I took away from this book was a greater sensitivity for what some parents go through in their attempts to love and raise their children. It certainly made me count my blessings.

Don’t let the length of this book deter you. It’s well worth the time and effort.