Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does Same-Sex Marriage Decouple Child-Rearing from Marriage?

If you think about it, child-rearing was decoupled from sex (and by extension from marriage), the moment human beings figured out that sex leads to conception. Methods of contraception are historically documented to have been known and practiced for many millennia -- as far back as recorded history goes. For all of recorded human history, in other words, child-bearing and rearing has been essentially voluntary.

That being the case, the question is, Why do people choose to have children?

Sociologists and historians have studied this. Historians of the family have noted that as societies have transitioned from a predominantly rural, agricultural economy to an urban, industrial economy, fertility has dropped dramatically. Farming families use children as part of their labor force. On the farm, kids help produce family wealth from a relatively young age -- as soon as kids are physically capable of walking and carrying things. In advanced industrial societies, by contrast, kids are no longer a source of wealth. They are, rather, extra mouths to feed and a drain on family resources. Over the life of their offspring, parents invest substantial resources raising children to adulthood ($1 million per child, according to one recent study!), only to have their kids leave the nest and become independent just as they become capable of producing income!

That being the case, sociologists have asked the question, "Why do people have children at all?" Wouldn't it be most economically advantageous to have no children? Fertility has not significantly decreased in the United States since the 1920s -- right around the time that a majority of Americans became city dwellers. What that suggests is that Americans continue to choose to have children because of the spiritual and emotional fulfillment they bring and the relationships that child-rearing and family create. People have children because children are a social and a spiritual good -- even when they are no longer an economic good.

In other words, Americans have children because Americans value children. The authors of the particular study I referenced above found Americans have children because they agree with the statement, "It's better for a person to have a child than to go through life childless." One proof of the power of this social attitude is in the large numbers of infertile heterosexual couples and gay and lesbian couples who choose to become parents -- who indeed go out of their way to become parents.

One way to translate this into real, concrete terms for the sake of the same-sex marriage debate is to simply ask the question: "Why would you choose or why did you choose to have kids?"

And: "Is your motivation for having kids in any way influenced or affected by the ability of same-sex couples to be legally married?"

When I think about the reasons my parents had kids, or why my siblings have had kids, or why my friends have had kids, or why Göran and I became foster parents, thank goodness it has not been for mercenary or egotistical reasons. Whatever reasons we may initially choose to become a parent, however, the vicissitudes of child-rearing are a kind of refiner's fire that teaches us to transcend our initial reasons and limitations!

In the past year, I observed a painful situation that I'm sure others of you have observed as well: a female family member who got pregnant out of wedlock. When that situation arises, it's always kind of a crisis. The immediate question is, How are we going to care for this kid? Yes, families pose the question with the pronoun we. Immediately, grandparents and uncles and aunts start to take stock of extended family resources, because we understand what it takes to care for a child.

In our society, abortion is an option. What was interesting to me was watching the discernment process of this family member. She had a very scary decision to make. She had to choose. And it was a powerful thing to see her ultimately choose to make room in her life for this child -- even though she knew that the father could never be a part of the equation.

Those of us who have been blessed to parent -- whether we have parented our own biological children or someone else's -- have learned through experience what a powerful, joyful experience parenting is. Yes, it's often painful. Every parent experiences both the pain and the joy of caring for individuals who -- from the moment they are born -- have their own unique perspective on the world, and who make choices, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Parenting is joy, but it is also heartache. And yet, we choose to do it, because ultimately it is joy.

Bottom line, what I've observed, is that people choose to rear children for the same reason they choose to get married: for love.

So this naturally poses a further question for me -- especially having witnessed a family member struggle with the challenge of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Children are far more likely to be safe and protected in a society and in families where marriage is valued. Where marriage is seen as the appropriate context for sexual activity. I have witnessed -- in my own life and others' lives -- how loving pair-bondings create emotional, economic, and, yes, spiritual stability. When people make commitments to one another, society as a whole benefits because each member of society is better cared for.

A society with lots of stable pair-bonds is a society that can more effectively respond to crises -- including the crisis of an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, or the unexpected death of a parent or parents. A society with lots of stable pair-bonds is a society that has economic and social resources and flexibility to care for kids -- including kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks -- as birth parents, as adoptive/foster parents, or as part of a support network that helps single moms.

Of course we have a vested interest in avoiding single-mom type situations, if we at all can!

So it seems to me that society has a strong interest -- for the sake of caring for kids -- in promoting marriage as a value. If gay and lesbian couples want to marry, here's why society should encourage them to marry: because we want to send a message that marriage is the appropriate context for intimate love. Because we want to send a message that mutual giving, sacrifice and commitment are good things. Because we want individuals to find fulfillment and stability.

Because we value children, and we value people, and we want to foster a care-giving society.


Neal said...

Excellent, as always!

Knight of Nothing said...

I love this post. Your thinking and writing on marriage has become outstanding - some of the best I've encountered.