Other things about marriage

Posted: Aug 10, 2003 12:00 AM
In the every-two-minutes bulletins on the sex/marriage/gay-religion wars, we detect wisps of mockery directed at conventional marriage with conventional aims. Those who are bent on introducing a little fun into the analyses tend almost always to use the word "procreation" with a faint sense of disdain. They tend to make the whole human life process sound rather like hard labor, which is appropriate to describe only one of the two episodes in the beginning of life: birth, but not conception. Hard labor faithfully describes one part of the third act, which is rearing the child.

But attitudes can be skeptical, and derisive, as when a correspondent of AndrewSullivan.com introduces recondite bits of Vatican lore having to do with marriage and impotence, and asks such questions as, Is marriage continuingly sacred after the onset of impotence? etc. etc.

The dismissal of marriage as nothing more than that which is supposed to happen before children eventuate is sociology -- the taboo-lifting license given to newlyweds who have formalized mating arrangements. Although we don't think very much about it, the breeding of children is of course required for the perpetuation of the race.

Mocking Swedish emphases on unburdened sex and birth control and free abortion, the late Malcolm Muggeridge quipped to a friend, "Just think of the good side of it. By the year 2050 there will be zero Swedes left!" That was high mockery, but in its own way a reminder that if the world is to go on, so also do people need to be generated to inhabit it. If there is nobody living, who will be left to inveigh against the neglect of the environment?

But move quickly from the mechanical points, which take up so much time. There is something of a wavelet to eliminate altogether the act of marriage. Let two persons of one or more genders -- make that three persons, or four polyamorous persons -- make their own arrangements, and then invoke congenial aspects of the law to make cohabitation feasible. What more do you need? Want?

Well, what more is wanted is attention devoted to the extra-biological uses of marriage:

  • When a child is born, something notoriously happens to the mother primarily, but also to the father. The romance of maternal love is suddenly there. The mother feels love for the child and exerts herself, on behalf of the child, to protect him/her. These qualities are of enormous importance in catalyzing in the mother faculties emotional and spiritual.

  • Both the father and the mother undertake intuitively to acknowledge a sense of obligation. This begins with teaching the child to keep clean, and, if the child's interest in hygiene should lead to an interest in medicine, could extend to helping the child earn a medical degree.

    It is vital to discern here that such help and devotion as are given to the child are neither entirely "interested" nor "disinterested." Yes, one motive in sacrificing in order to send the child to medical school might be self-concern -- maybe when retirement happens, the affluent son or daughter might be able to help out. But the sweeping, unexamined, unheralded motive for helping the child is a sense of duty. The father and the mother show feelings of love and responsibility that are not equivalently evoked by any other relationship.

    Yes, we love and venerate our parents, we try to help our friends, to love the poor, to give to the Red Cross. But it's not quite the same thing, is it? And one is permitted to wonder: What would society lose if the total sum of that care and love that are engendered by having children were lost to civilization?

    If the above is true, is it also self-evident? We know that the composite impact of single-parent homes on children is huge. The poverty rate in single-parent homes is 400 percent of that for two-parent homes. Among long-term prison inmates, 70 percent grew up without a father in residence. There are comparable figures for illiteracy and drug use. The social problems we concern ourselves with in our mammoth federal programs would substantially end with the reconstitution of traditional family life.

    There are always the exceptions. Gay couples who adopt children can show exemplary concern for them. But people who talk about marriage, and dismiss it with nothing more than perfunctory acknowledgment of the procreational arrangement, are not seeing through to the heart of the question.