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  • Motherhood After Tenure: Marriage Re-examined

    By Aeron Haynie June 30, 2011 1:06 am UTC

    The first round of divorces hit our social community this year, prompting questions from our seven-year old daughter: "Will you and Daddy get ever get divorced?" and "Is Sally sad because she misses her mom?" To be honest, I think we adults were more shocked: these were not couples who fought or seemed mismatched in any way; in fact, they seemed to have very amicable partnerships. (I am starting to agree with a friend who once remarked of a particularly acrimonious couple, "Fighting is the glue that keeps them together."). It is a truism that any couple’s divorce threatens the stability of the marriages around them. I don’t know if this is empirically true or not, but I think that our friends’ divorces force us to confront the unimaginable: that the family we’ve built might not last forever.

    According to Pamela Haag’s controversial new book, Marriage Confidential : the Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, most divorces happen in "semi-happy, low-conflict, low-stress" marriages. Haag argues (borrowing heavily from Stephanie Coontz work) that we are in a "post-romantic" age that values stability, compatibility and "sticking it out" over passion, both in our marriages and in our lives. She offers a provocative analysis of what is lost when we attempt to “balance” marriage, parenthood, careers, fitness, etc.: “The opposite of balance isn’t imbalance, necessarily, but passion.” However, as she herself points out, the things that allow children to thrive are not necessarily the elements that allow adults to feel the most fulfilled, challenged, or passionate. There’s the rub. Yet perhaps those of us raised by 70s parents who were too busy finding themselves to provide stable homes fetishize our own children’s stability. For example, I would love to live in Africa for a year, but that would mean taking my daughter out of her beloved school and subjecting her to a greater threat of disease; plus, she’d hate me. While one could argue that this might well be a life-changing experience for her, too, the point is that I would be making the decision based on what I want, not on what I think is best for her. Has this become absolutely taboo? If so, what are the consequences for us all?

    Haag’s book forced me to consider what makes a “real marriage” — is it children? Longevity? Monogamy? Even those who accept (to use a presumptuous term!) pre-marital sex, childless unions, or gay marriage, monogamy seems to be the biggest deal-breaker, yet (according to research cited by Haag) almost 50 percent of married men and 40 to 45 percent of married women cheat. These statistics, coupled with current divorce rates, makes it difficult to hear marriage vows without any cynicism. Or, as Thomas Hardy wrote in 1895: “And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly
believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and
desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable
as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all
surprised at what they swore.

    Haag’s book offers no solutions, but does provide examples of ways that some couples have worked to find alternatives within marriage, to reject the dichotomy of divorce or stick-it-out: co-housing communities, in which couples refuse to be isolated within nuclear family bubbles; polyamorous relationships that practice honest non-monogamy; downward-mobility marriages that eschew materialism in favor of more time and freedom; living separately while married.

    I’ll be honest, some of these options sound appealing to me, while some are absolutely unthinkable. What about you?

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Comments on Motherhood After Tenure: Marriage Re-examined

  • Take your daughter to Africa!
  • Posted by Katha Pollitt on June 30, 2011 at 11:15am UTC
  • I know many people who spent a year (or more) in foreign places as children, and several children who have done so, or are doing so. It usually works out fine. They learn the language (lucky children with their language-absorbing brains!), they make friends, they have adventures, they see the world. Stability matters but it's not the ONLY thing in life.

    About passion in marriage: I'm not persuaded there was more passion in the long marriages of the past. People had fewer options--divorce hard to get and more socially sanctioned, women more economically dependent -- so perhaps they were more resigned. Today people have very high expectations of marriage. They can actually leave their spouses when they fall in love with someone else, and many do.
  • Children abroad
  • Posted by Jonathan on June 30, 2011 at 12:45pm UTC
  • Our son, aged 9, spent eight months in China while we were on a teaching fulbright. We needed a special waiver to homeschool him and exempt him from mandatory state testing for the 4th grade. Needless to say he was not crazy about this. We compromised by spending a semsester and not a whole year. We erred and he, now 20, agrees. He learned many lessons, not the least of which was that although the child of public university faculty he was closer to Bill Gates in the great scheme of life than his peers, whose parents were professionals and businessmen and women of the new China, in the school attached to the Chinese university at which we taught. He also learned to navigate a world in which his linguistic skills were limited and social network absent. Colleagues who spent extended stays in Rome and Mexico agree on the impact their experiences had on their children. We were, by the way, not in Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing, but in one of China's rustbelt cities--yes they have them too, so it wasnt' as if we were in cosmopolitan environment.
    One of the great features of academic life is the opportunity to do things like this. I recommend reconsidering Africa.
  • Yes! Go to Africa!
  • Posted by Laura Sell on June 30, 2011 at 12:45pm UTC
  • I second Katha's call to take your daughter to Africa. I lived all over Europe as a child and moved frequently for my father's job as a diplomat. My siblings and I have no regrets about our peripatetic life and all the wonderful experiences it opened up for us. My own children have lived in the same town their whole life and I almost feel like I'm shortchanging them. And certainly children would appreciate traveling to fulfill their parents' passions more than they would divorce!
  • knowing best
  • Posted by random thoughts at mid-sized public on June 30, 2011 at 1:45pm UTC
  • Children do not always know what is best for them. That is why they have parents. Kids are generally pretty conservative creatures, deeply attached to the familiar and hesitant about the unknown. (Just watch parents try to entice many children into the swimming pool!)

    Parents need to make decisions that are good for both themselves and their children. Sure, time abroad might be more advantageous for the parent than the child, but if there is reason to believe that it would also be good for the kid, go for it (even if the kid is opposed). When parents listen respectfully and give good reasons in response, kids will typically come around.
  • Africa!
  • Posted by Chris on June 30, 2011 at 1:45pm UTC
  • I agree, that staying where you are (and not going to Africa) is not necessarily what is best for your daughter. Of course she wants to stay where she is comfortable, but that doesn't mean that is what is best. I think it would be an incredible experience for your family to go to Africa...one that none of you will ever forget and will have an incredible impact on your daughter's world view and life. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity that our family had to go on sabbatical for a year; I think our children really benefitted from learning to adapt and come together as a family (among other things).
  • Avoidance and Africa
  • Posted by Mom of 3 on Doctoral Track , Humanities at University on June 30, 2011 at 2:30pm UTC
  • While I agree with everyone urging you to just go to Africa (we are planning to take our 3 boys currently ages 2, 6 and 8 to Botswana for a few months at the end of my parents Peace Corps stint), it seems to me that the rest of your post deserves the most thought.

    My husband is a physician (we made it through a DIFFICULT residency with our marriage in tact), I am finally pursuing the doctoral work I've been needing to do since finishing my Master's in English 7 years ago. I just finished a one-year appointment as an instructor at an amazing, little-known small college. I LOVE my husband, feel thankful every time he walks into the room. There is no one else I want to raise children with, deal with difficult in-laws with, navigate life with and yet...I do crave the passion of our early years, I want him to desire me the way he did a decade ago, and yet by the time the boys go to bed we are so exhausted from our days that we can barely drink a glass of wine together (many nights we can't). We don't have family near by to watch our children, and we are so consumed by our professional and familial lives that...well, I'm not sure, but while I pine for the old days, it also feels inevitable. Time, Responsibilities, Life in General, we haven't figured out how to balance these things with Passion and Romance (we don't have the energy).
    I am asking all the questions posed above about marriage, professional life, monogamy and its value/role (I still believe in it I think, am questioning it though, do my husband and I have to be EVERYTHING to each other? What if we can't be? Does that mean we're failing or is that the reality our culture glosses over in the "Happily Ever After" scenario that defines our foray into marriage...perhaps there's a reason fairy tales end with the vows, what happens 2 years later, 10 years later complicates the sentimental narrative that sells.

    Please keep asking these questions, exploring possible answers, and putting ideas/experiences out there that may make us readers uncomfortable, you could even do so from Africa!
  • Confidence and transparency
  • Posted by Journeyman on June 30, 2011 at 3:00pm UTC
  • Having raised four children (with the last two off to college this fall) I have the benefit of hindsight. Taking your children into a new culture during their childhood is a gift - not necessarily received as such at the time - but a gift nonetheless. Their world will be a global one and having this type of experience to draw on as adults will serve them well. I did not have this opportunity, but did what I could to expose my children to multiple cultures and different ideas including having a foreign exchange student live with us for a year. He has become a close adult friend to all of us now - and will be for life.
    Ah - divorce in mid-life. This too, is something I know about personally. It is the most painful and confusing thing that I've ever done in my entire life (including delivering twins sans any drugs). It confused everyone in the family - and the hurt experienced by all was palpable and permeating. But the option to stay offered much more devastation over the long term for all of us and today the healing is well underway. My passion for life has been rekindled - my children have watched this unfold and this has made all the difference. Humans survive together or not at all and we are surviving. I would encourage you not to let the fear of "collateral" divorce (and this does exist) inhibit you from reaching out to help absorb the pain and helping others become re-balanced.
  • Thanks for your thoughtful comments
  • Posted by Aeron Haynie on June 30, 2011 at 5:30pm UTC
  • I was a bit surprised to see how many of you responded to my idea of living in Africa--thanks for your encouragement!

    I was, however, using it as an example of a larger issue of how to balance adult vs. children's needs in a family.

    One the reasons I wrote about Haag's book is that once we marry it seems that our yearnings (whatever form they take) become harder to talk about openly. I don't think this kind of silence about our struggles in marriage is useful.

    So thanks for your willingness to share your own stories!
  • Yes, options help
  • Posted by Differently married at University of Chicago on June 30, 2011 at 11:15pm UTC
  • I'm polyamorous, live in cohousing (I heard about this blog entry from a neighbor), and value frugality (we drive ancient cars and are still furnished in grad-student chic, well into our forties). And yes, I think each of those options helps.

    This is my second marriage; my first, which broke up over jealousy issues, was mercifully brief. My spouse and I have been together nearly two decades now, and although we've had brief stretches of monogamy and/or geographic and social isolation (living on an island), we've never tried to keep up with the Joneses. It's hard for me to imagine trying to cope with all those stressors at once.