Tue. November 13
The Postnuclear Family: Last Comes Marriage
A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor
–The Smiths, “I Want the One I Can’t Have”
We are living in the world of the postnuclear family. All of the elements which used to be more or less tightly bound together in the concept of “marriage”–commitment, sex, children, economic support, and love—are now available separately or in any number of mix-and-match combinations. The “new normal” of marriage can seem like an unmappable chaos of trends, statistics, and conflicting ideals. But patterns do emerge from the noise. In this series I’ll look at five (-plus) of the most useful books for understanding what’s going on with American sex, love, and marriage. Most of these books don’t offer explicit policy suggestions, but they do show us what we’re dealing with, and where we may be misunderstanding the nature of our problems.
I’ll start with the book I recommend to everybody who wants to understand American family life: Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’s 2005 sociological study Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. This may be the most important book on marriage in America written in the past ten years, for four reasons:
- The patterns of out-of-wedlock childbearing, and the beliefs and attitudes which support those patterns, are making their way up the class ladder. Middle-class women are increasingly putting motherhood before marriage, and marriage is retreating from middle-class lives.
- Edin and Kefalas lived in the communities they studied—poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia—and let the women there speak for themselves. They noted when the women judged them and pointed out what was lacking in their own upper-class lifestyles; the women found it sad and almost incomprehensible that one of the researchers didn’t have children, for example.
- The authors take love and morality seriously as motivations. The women they study have deep longings, loneliness, tenderness, and fairly stern moral beliefs, and while these elements of their lives may be shaped by material conditions, they also shape how the women respond to economic challenges.
- The most striking thing about this book is the clarity with which it shows that women who have children out of wedlock are often trying very, very hard to follow the rules and norms of their own community. Again and again I hear people say that the breakdown of marriage in our country is caused by narcissism, individualism, or relativism. Those forces probably play a role in shaping our values. (For example, we are far too quick to identify personal happiness as an end in itself, a form of virtue rather than what we hope may be one fruit of practicing actual virtues.) But the women in Promises I Can Keep, as the title suggests, are not narcissists or individualists. They believe in family obligations and self-sacrifice for their children. They hold marriage in extremely high regard—even too high regard, viewing it as something you can only have once you have already achieved most of your other life goals, such as economic stability. They do not need to be convinced that marriage is good. They simply believe it is irresponsible to marry before you’re economically stable, and both irresponsible and tragic to wait too long to have children. The combination of these two beliefs plus their own precarious economic situations produces a community in which marriage is an endlessly receding horizon, always tantalizingly out of reach. And to return to our first point, the moral beliefs these low-income women hold about when to marry and how to get to the altar are shared by people up and down the income ladder. The main difference is that higher-income women are more willing to postpone childbearing.
Promises I Can Keep shows women trying to do the right thing at severe personal cost. They’re following the advice of others rather than their own whims. The book explores some of the reasoning behind this advice—while also showing how the rules they’ve been taught to follow keep women from attaining the marriages they want.
This post is part of a series by Eve Tushnet about the postnuclear family. Our new family landscape may look chaotic, but the books in this series can help us understand what’s going on with sex, love, and marriage in America.