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June 17, 2010

Marriage without children = Marriage

It is difficult to disaggregate all the strands of opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, but some part of the heteronormative punch of traditional marriage seems centered on both biological procreation and social reproduction. Run these ideas through the meat grinder of conventional wisdom and you tend to arrive at the rough idea that marriage is - or certainly should be - about children. But for increasing numbers of people, the response to that claim is, not so fast.

From commentary by Tara Parker-Pope in the NY Times:

One of the more surprising trends in marriage during the past 20 years is the fact that most couples no longer view children as essential to a happy relationship.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center released a survey called “What Makes Marriage Work?” Not surprisingly, fidelity ranked at the top of the nine-item list — 93 percent of respondents said faithfulness was essential to a good marriage.

But what about children? As an ingredient to a happy marriage, kids were far from essential, ranking eighth behind good sex, sharing chores, adequate income and a nice house, among other things. Only 41 percent of respondents said children were important to a happy marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990. The only thing less important to a happy marriage than children, the survey found, was whether a couple agreed on politics.

So why do kids rank so low on the list? The fact is, marriages today are increasingly adult-centered, rather than child-centered, an issue identified in a sweeping 2008 report from Rutgers marriage researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. In the report, called “Life Without Children: The Social Retreat From Children and How It’s Changing America,” Dr. Whitehead notes that the percentage of our lives that we devote to parenting is shrinking. Because married couples are delaying children and having fewer kids, they start parenting later and finish parenting sooner than couples of earlier generations. She writes:

For most of the nation’s history, Americans expected to devote much of their adult lives to the nurture and rearing of children. Life with children has been central to norms of adulthood, marriage and the experience of family life. Today however, this historic pattern is changing. Life without children is becoming the more common social experience for a growing percentage of the adult population.

The decline of the child-centered marriage is particularly relevant this week, as lawyers in California offer closing arguments on Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in the state. In January, a supporter of Proposition 8 argued that children would be hurt by same-sex marriage, an issue reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Extending marital rights to couples who cannot conceive children would change marriage from “a child-based public institution to an adult-centered private institution” and “weaken the role of marriage generally in society,” David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, testified at a trial in San Francisco federal court on the constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The ruling on same-sex marriage in California will likely not be the last word on the issue. And as Dr. Whitehead goes on to explain, the changing patterns and timing of marriage and parenting don’t mean that we don’t love or remain committed to our children. It just means that children are less central to our lives than they were in the past.

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