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The Thoroughly Modern Marriage?

4:51 PM, Mar 4, 2014 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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Richard V. Reeves has written in The Atlantic a confident and illuminating account of the state of marriage in America today.  College-educated American men and women “are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy.”  On this front, the Americans have once again shown their superiority to the Europeans, who, in their socially self-destructive way, remain ambivalent at best about the value of being married.  But a European might respond that only an American could be content with such a self-consciously mechanical view of a relational institution.  It’s easy to hear the French man Alexis de Tocqueville laughing between the lines of his deadpan description of American men describing marriage in terms of “self-interest rightly understood.”

baby

People used to think, Reeves reports, that marriage was about sex or religion or money. But today’s women can readily find sexual enjoyment without being married, and they no longer need men to prosper. Women these days earn their own money, and they are, in fact, soaring ahead of men on that front. And religion is no longer an important determinant of sophisticated personal behavior. 

What’s left?  Well, someone might say love!  But Reeves seems to agree with the philosopher Nietzsche that any modern experiment to ground a social institution on something as whimsical as love alone is doomed to fail.  Reeves explains that “romantic marriage” is typically irresponsible, because the focus is on the passionate, basically hedonic relationship between parents, often at the expense of the unsexy, all-too-routine, and physically taxing relationship between parents and children.   “All you need is love” can’t, of course, be the slogan for facing the rigors on the knowledge economy in the 21st century competitive global marketplace. What we need—and what we’re getting from enlightened and high-achieving Americans—is the joint commitment of a man and a woman to “high-investment parenting.”  

Whether he knows it or not, Reeves is updating what can be called the “bourgeois” or “capitalist” view of marriage as described by John Locke. Locke tried to re-describe all human relationships in terms of contracts between free individuals serving their self-interests. Locke even understands the beginning of marriage that way; men and women consent to have the right to one another’s bodies. But marriage becomes an enduring contract only when it produces children, who become the “common concern” of both parties to what begins as a sexual deal and perhaps also an ephemeral antidote to “being alone.”

Marriage, for Locke, is the one example of a contact rooted in a common good that can’t be reduced to self-interest. That means the contract must include the duty to stay together until the children are raised. Locke doesn’t think that the Biblical “until death do you part” makes any contractual or biological sense. But the biological situation of members of our species does require that parents stay together and work together for the kids for a very long time.

A modern problem we free individuals have encountered, of course, is Locke’s defense of this obligation to children contradicts his general effort to base every human choice as strictly consensual or based on rights.  So our law today doesn’t make parents remain married and properly dutiful as parents until the kids are raised. Our “Lockeanism” has resulted in single moms and deadbeat dads (and occasionally vice-versa). Nobody much today would defend the restrictions on divorce Locke recommends. What was permissive for his time seems oppressive in ours. We haven’t been able to keep the Lockean spirit of contract and consent in the “Locke box” Locke himself put together for the good of our future as biological beings who are born to die.

Another invention Locke didn’t foresee, of course, is the routine and easy use of contraception, which allows men and women to enjoy the rights to one another’s bodies without the consequence of children.  His assumption was that the downside, in a way, of the exercise of that right would typically be kids, and so the saddling of rights with obligations.  Locke didn’t seem to see the point of the legal institution of marriage in the absence of shared duties of parenthood.  From that view, he would have sympathy for the contemporary European view about the obsolescence of marriage.  But from another, he would insist that we continue to need kids, and they will continue to need to be raised well for a life of responsible freedom.  Our freedom has to be chastened by the requirements of the perpetuation of the species, although, truth to tell, there may be no reason that the free individual as a free individual would be that incentivized by species-based concerns.

So it’s a great relief for libertarians—and maybe it would have been news to Locke—to see the free choice of parenthood by high-achieving Americans today.  They could contracept their way to a life of hook ups or a life of mere romance, but they are, in the way people never have before, freely choosing to lavish their scarce resources of time and money on their children.  When it comes to kids, they’re becoming conservative—that is, repressive.  They’re all about parental discipline, and they even believe that divorce should be tougher for parents to get that it is now. 

They do remain, Reeves is quick to add, more liberal or permissive than most Americans when it comes to sex outside of marriage, abortion, legalized marijuana, and gay marriage. I can’t help but add that their behavior suggests that they don’t really believe that gay marriage is a marriage in full without children, just like they’re not really about restricting divorce for those who don’t have kids. They just know what the studies show: divorce and even divorce with parents re-marrying is bad for the kids. Their behavior suggests that they agree with Locke that marriage is a “co-parenting contract”—one that involves genuine commitment to putting the welfare of the kids first—that can’t be broken until the kids can fend for themselves.

But there may be some obvious limits to the explanatory power of Reeves’s rather Lockean or highly contractual interpretation of this emerging form of American commitment. He describes it in rather relentlessly functional terms. It’s about “parental investments” producing “better outcomes” for the children who must grow up to flourish in the information economy. Both parents freely and equally take on the roles of “child-raiser and money-maker,” and the juggling of those roles requires constant “trading and negotiating.” And “reading bedtime stories,” after all, is all about “accelerat[ing] literary skill acquisition.” Well, they’re might be a lot more to reading, say, the Little House on the Prairie books, just as there’s a lot more to reading together any great or even really good book.

So it’s obvious that two professional parents raising a child or two is pretty tough, although it is easier than being a single mom or being one of two parents either with lots of kids or no money or both. It’s true the parents who both have full-time jobs and raise kids don’t have much time for themselves. Without downgrading the self-denial or deferred gratification of the “investment,” we can’t forget that it’s not quite as tough as Reeves says because of what he forgets to mention:  parental love. It’s just crazy to think that these parents are giving kids all the attention they can mainly in the service of making them more productive.

Reeves’s thought almost seems to be that the contemporary high-end job is so fulfilling that spending time with kids is drudgery by comparison.  But is it really so hard to explain the choice to be not only a productive (or productive and romantic) but a caregiving being?  The latter choice might actually involve fewer constraints on who we are as free and relational beings. Spending time with your kids surely is infinitely more enjoyable than your day spent “networking” with your “colleagues.” The libertarian economist Glenn Reynolds recently wrote that nobody cares about your kids as much as you do, and that caring—that love—isn’t of course captured by the cold words “commitment” and “investment.” I gather Reeves neglects those bonds of love because they would undermine his general thesis that the contemporary marriage is based on “independence” and not “dependence.” But like Locke, he falls short in defending that thesis with the facts on the ground. All you need is love might be silly, but just as silly is the thought that you don’t need—aren’t bound by—love (and not, of course, just romantic love) at all. 

So I’m far from thinking that the sophisticated invention of the co-parenting contract is some kind of solution to the problem of sustaining places for love, marriage, and children in a free society. Studies actually seem to show that happiest are people who choose to have no children and those who have four or more. In both cases, apparently, we find a clear understanding of who I am as primarily either a productive/romantic/hedonic or parental being. Those who choose in the middle really do have to juggle conflicting self-understandings, and maybe the result is being more harried and confused than people are really supposed to be. It’s understandable, of course, why people would want all the goods—the whole menu of choice—that our world offers.  But that doesn’t mean they can work really hard to have them all without lots of emotional cost. 

There are other problems too. If people only have one or two kids (and it’s really tough—both in terms of time and money—to have the third in the co-parenting contract between two professionals without being really wealthy), then we still aren’t doing quite enough to replace ourselves as citizens and members of a species.  As Reeves does get around to explaining, this understanding of marriage is only available to a creative minority of highly educated and prosperous Americans.  For less fortunate or able Americans, marriage is floundering more than ever. That means, for one thing, as more is being invested is some of children, less—in both money and quality time—is being invested in others. From one point of view, “who’s your daddy?” is less important in our productive meritocracy, where people are ranked according to their personal accomplishments and not according to their racial, religious, or class backgrounds.  From another, the answer to that question is more important than ever, given the need for the personal investment of both of your parents to have much of a chance to succeed in our productive meritocracy.

Let's close by returning to the problem—which can, for example, be alleviated by the religious view that we are, deep down, relational creature—that what Reeves calls the post-feminist understanding of who we are as autonomous beings doesn’t seem to be completely true.

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