Capstone Marriage, Capstone Parenthood

We might fix a lot of our problems by listening to "doin' what comes naturally"

Has our modern world made things that, for earlier generations came naturally, harder? And, in fact, do those things have to be harder?

Tim Carney, author of Family Unfriendly, says there are contemporary changes in society that do make being a parent harder, both objectively (if kids don’t have sidewalks, they need an adult chauffeur to get them places) and subjectively (the number of parents fretting whether they are doing the “right” thing). He observes that our language is revelatory of our mentality: the ascendance of the verb “parenting.” Carney asks when did “having kids” morph into “parenting?” What package of social expectations is contained in a special verb describing what was routine for generations? “Even the word parenting makes it sound like some sort of profession, as other commentators have noted, rather than simply part of ordinary daily life. When people just have kids, it’s natural. It doesn’t even deserve its own verb.” But when you are “parenting,” doesn’t it subtly turn a normal thing people did since time immemorial into perhaps some specialized or esoteric skill reserved for an elite?

That is not to say that being a parent is not a special and distinct way of acting. St. Thomas makes clear that it’s not just procreatio but procreatio et educatio, procreation and upbringing that is the role of parents.

But, as I said, generations from time immemorial had and raised kids without particular fanfare or accreditation and the world survived arguably well. One might in fact ask whether this navel-gazing focus on “parenting” is not, in fact, the pathology.

Speaking at Washington’s Heritage Foundation May 9, Carney was joined by Catherine Pakaluk, author of Hannah’s Children (a new book on mothers who choose to have larger families). Both noted that social science data increasingly suggests that one reason contemporary children face the emotional and mental problems they do (note teen suicide rates) is the lack of unstructured free time. In lieu of the “safe,” supervised, and antiseptic environs of “helicopter parenting,” we arguably need more of the old Chuck E Cheese motto, “where a kid can be a kid.”

Now, I’m not arguing for an unadulterated setting of kids wild and free, and I know that there were once support structures that oversaw kids (older adults and other mothers in the park, quantitatively more kids of a wider age span that created a “kid-supervisory” role, etc.) that no longer exist. But the transfer of adult regimentation to children (note I said “regimentation,” not “responsibility”) has not worked so well, either.

I say these things because I agree with Carney: We have overcomplicated “parenting.” Part of it stems from adult rationalization applied to kids. Carney noted in his Heritage talk that, as people have few kids, they have tended to adapt the language of “quality over quantity,” and that has applied to “parenting.” The notion of “quality time” has morphed into “quality parenting.”

On the former, I’m reminded of Harry Chapin’s hit, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about a father whose schedule never had practical room to go out and throw a ball with his boy but was constantly fixated on some elusive, perfect manaña when “we’ll have a good time then.” Alas, those manañas run out. Little boys grow up. They come home from college, then move away, and their dads discover “he’d grown up just like me/my boy was just like me” – a self-fixated egotist with the ability to rationalize his wants as “responsibly” trumping others’ needs because we’ll find some “quality time” and “you know we’ll have a good time then.” (That line of deferred-gratitude reasoning also is often heard in the “how resilient kids are so let’s get divorced” trope.)

A kinder, gentler, more laidback raising of kids (informed by moral principles) seems far more likely to have better “long term outcomes” than contemporary models of “parenting.”

But, if we have made being a mother or father harder than it has to be, perhaps it’s because we have also made being a husband or wife harder than it has to be, too. It’s not coincidental that our demographic crisis coexists with a marital crisis: fewer people are marrying and, when they do, it’s later than ever before. (That means parenting is happening later, although biological time and tide still wait for no man… or woman). It’s also not coincidental that, alongside Carney’s and Pakaluk’s books, a third important tome has appeared in the past three months: Brad Wilcox’s Get Married!

Wilcox, whose Institute of Family Studies has done yeoman’s work on the state of marriage, suggests there’s a complexification regarding marriage similar to the one attendant to parenthood. It surrounds when to get married: earlier or later?

Now, I know there are socio-economic factors that condition that decision. Education is prolonged, especially when it comes to some professions. Young people want to get a start in those jobs, which further defers “settling down.” More and more carry debt that necessitates those jobs.

But, all that said dato non concesso, there are still cultural views that drive our choices and which make us, individually and as a society, acquiesce in those socio-economic factors. The biggest cultural view is how we understand marriage. Is marriage a normal part of life, part of the transition from childhood and dependency to adulthood and independence, so that I think of it just as much a part of that transition as getting a job? Or is a job the “important thing,” while marriage is “personal” and “discretionary?” Does marriage then morph from being simply part of the adult life transition to a “magic moment” of “achievement” in that process, so that instead of marriage as foundation it’s become marriage as capstone? In other words, has the lens of “achievement” so redefined the steps of adulthood that marriage has ceased to be simply a natural part of life and turned into a “life” achievement, to be entered into “once” other “stuff” has been done? Has marriage ceased to be a constituent element ordering life and turned into a crowning achievement celebrating an “ordered” life?

The problem, as Carney observes with parenthood, is that the finished, “ordered” life where stage A has been wrapped up so one can move on to stage B is an illusion. Life almost never falls into those neat categories, especially in the modern, autonomous and highly individualistic form into which we now wedge “relationships.” Like Chapin’s manaña, that neat-closure-move-on moment occurs “I don’t know when/but we’ll have a good time then.”

(Former Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit made similar observations about what he called the “parental project,” which likewise shifts parenthood from a normal part of life to some planned, decided upon, contracted for, and purchased moment — which then subordinates the means (sex, surrogacy, insemination) to the “project.” Aupetit argues the “parental project” inherently commodifies a child. It does, because commodities are primarily things we use and, as Karol Wojtyła argued 60+ years ago in Love and Responsibility, love and use are mutually exclusive categories for relating to people.)

The solution to our real modern dilemmas — the collapses of marriage and parenthood — seem to lie not in further complexification of becoming spouses and/or parents. It’s not making marriage a “capstone” career achievement or “parenting” a specialized skill more likely to fail than succeed. Perhaps we can find one clue in vintage American music. Right after World War II, Irving Berlin wrote a song Ethel Merman made famous in the play “Annie Get Your Gun.” Among the song’s verses are this one:

“If you saw my pa and ma
You’d know they had no learnin’
Still they raised a family,
Doin’ what comes naturally
Doin’ what comes naturally.”

As Catholics, we’d speak of natural law but natural law, of course, is no Catholic preserve. Since time immemorial, people — Catholics and non-Catholics — have been getting married and having kids, “doin’ what comes naturally.”

Perhaps they were on to something?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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