I guess the Wall Street Journal thinks of its Saturday Review section cover these days as the place for the essay-as-sharp-stick. First the Tiger Mom, now this: “The Divorce Generation,” a cri de coeur from Generation X:
For much of my generation—Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980—there is only one question: “When did your parents get divorced?” Our lives have been framed by the answer. Ask us. We remember everything.
OK, Susan Gregory Thomas, I’m in. Tell me about it. And she does, and it stings — it’s no fun when your parents split up, no matter what. She deals a few anecdotes off the deck, standard procedure for a personal essay, and then starts down her own story’s path. I had a feeling what was coming, thanks to the subhed (“Having survived their own family splits, Generation X parents are determined to keep their marriages together. It doesn’t always work.”), but I was willing to come along for the ride.
One aside here: I understand the existential pain of the Gen-Xer, really I do. People think of the baby boom as this monolith of demography, but it isn’t. When we talk about baby boomers, we’re really talking about the early boomers, those born, oh, 1946 to 1951, say. The ones who were old enough to actually experience the ’60s as we commonly think of them. The year of my birth, 1957, was technically the peak of the boom, but we were the little siblings of the leading edge. Sally Draper was an early(ish) boomer; I was Bobby Draper. They were psychedelia, we were disco. My older siblings worried about being drafted, we led the New Traditionalism, reviving everything from prom to Greek life on campus to blackout drinking. And so on.
So I get that Gen-X-ers feel neglected by the media, by history, etc. But I will also say that when it comes to pouting and resentment, man, some of these folks really peg the needle. And being a world-class pouter and resenter myself, I know what I’m talking about. But for now, let’s not go there; this is just in the interest of full disclosure.
“Whatever happens, we’re never going to get divorced.” Over the course of 16 years, I said that often to my husband, especially after our children were born. Apparently, much of my generation feels at least roughly the same way: Divorce rates, which peaked around 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970. In fact, the often-cited statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce was true only in the 1970s—in other words, our parents’ marriages.
…No marital scenario, I told myself, could become so bleak or hopeless as to compel me to embed my children in the torture of a split family. And I wasn’t the only one with strong personal reasons to make this commitment. According to a 2004 marketing study about generational differences, my age cohort “went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” Census data show that almost half of us come from split families; 40% were latch-key kids.
The boldface is where she started to lose me. Never mind quoting a marketing study; never mind the “one of the most” fudge words. Has this woman read American history? Un-parented and un-nurtured children were as common as ticks for most of it. Pioneer-era orphans wandered the woods like feral monkeys. The boom periods of modern cities in the early 20th century were marked by children roaming the streets while their parents worked or drank or otherwise suffered as infantry troops in the industrial revolution. It’s one reason the social-work movement was born. I’m sorry her father was neglectful and her mother preoccupied with her own misery, but presumably she had enough to eat.
And then we’re off down the path of her happy marriage, with the ominous clouds bulking on the horizon, and before too long, I see where she went wrong:
When I had my first child at 32, I went into therapy for a while to sort through, among other things, just why the world—as open and wonderful as it had become with my child’s presence—had also become more treacherous than I ever could have imagined. It wasn’t until my daughter was a few months old that it dawned on me that when the pediatricians and child-care books referred to “separation anxiety,” they were referring to the baby’s psyche, not to mine.
The thought of placing her in someone else’s care sent waves of pure, white fear whipping up my spine. It occurred to me that perhaps my own origins had something to do with what a freak show I was. After hearing about my background for some time, my distinguished therapist made an announcement: “You,” she said, “are a war orphan.”
I know this woman. I’ve met her many times. To some extent she’s like all of us with our tender newborns, terrified that if we let them out of our sight for even a moment, they will burst into flames. But the hormones ebb, and we get over that. We learn that other caregivers are not just convenient, but necessary for the long journey to begin — the child’s long journey, that is, to independence. Even as infants, they profit from interaction with others.
She reminds me of a friend’s sister-in-law, who actually endangered her daughter’s muscle development by refusing to not only let others care for her, but to even put her down, so she could crawl and toddle and explore the world. She was ordered by her pediatrician: Lighten up.
OK, let’s cut to the chase:
I had married the kindest, most stable person I’d ever known to ensure that our children would never know anything of the void of my own childhood. I nursed, loved, read to and lolled about with my babies—restructured and re-imagined my career—so that they would be secure, happy, attended to. My husband and I made the happiest, most comfy nest possible. We worked as a team; we loved our kids; we did everything right, better than right. And yet divorce came. In spite of everything.
In other words, she lived for her children, and stopped sleeping with her husband. In spite of everything.
John Rosemond, the parenting expert, gets on my last nerve these days. My newspaper ran his column for years, and I watched him evolve in that time from a reasonable moderate to a right-wing scold, but the core of his advice is still sound, and it boils down to this: Attend to your marriage. Do what you need to do to keep it appealing for both parties, and the kids will take care of themselves. In fact, they’ll do better than if you make them the center of your world. Be authoritative and confident, but most especially, love your spouse. Susan Gregory Thomas concentrated on her comfy nest and forgot about her husband. It happens. It’s maybe a natural reaction to being the children of Don and Betty Draper’s divorce. She overcorrected.
Which leads us to the second divorce story of the day, Bethany Patchin’s:
In August 1999, Bethany Patchin, an 18-year-old college sophomore from Wisconsin, wrote in an article for Boundless, an evangelical Web magazine, that Christians should not kiss before marriage. Sam Torode, a 23-year-old Chicagoan, replied in a letter to the editor that Ms. Patchin’s piece could not help but “drive young Christian men mad with desire.”
The two began corresponding by e-mail, met in January 2000 and were married that November. Nine months later, Ms. Torode (she took her husband’s name) gave birth to a son, Gideon. Over the next six years, the Torodes had four more progeny: another son, two daughters and a book, “Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.”
You read that right: Four kids in six years, from the book of Duggar, Chapters 1-5. Full quivers, full households, full hearts. Until, oops, reality intruded:
In 2006, the Torodes wrote on the Web that they no longer believed natural family planning was the best method of birth control. They divorced in 2009. Both now attend liberal churches. Ms. Patchin — that is her name once again — now says she uses birth control, and she even voted for Barack Obama for president.
“I was 19 when we got married,” Ms. Patchin said by telephone from Nashville, where she and her former husband live and share custody of their four children. “And I was 20 when we had Gideon. My parents weren’t anti-birth-control; they were pretty middle-ground evangelicals. So I kind of rebelled by being more conservative. That was my identity.”
The Patchin-Torode co-prosperity sphere learned some hard lessons: That children are stressers, and that having four so close together — they came as two sets of Irish twins, and yes, she was nursing when the younger ones were conceived — is particularly so. Also, that having to postpone sex so often isn’t good for a young couple. As Torode put it:
“Wanting to make love to your spouse often is a good thing, but (natural family planning) often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men for feeling this,” the Torodes wrote. And it is “a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire (ovulation) for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.”
In other words, viva modernity! Sometimes God’s plan involves birth control.
I feel bad for both of these couples. I feel bad for their kids. I wonder if it’s possible that we’ll ever find a happy medium that doesn’t involve swinging past it, clinging to a pendulum. But I think I like the Patchin-Torodes more. Or maybe I just haven’t read their first-person essay yet.
I’ve gone on too long, I fear. Any bloggage?
Nope, I think I’m tapioca on that front. Post some of your own if you like, but me, I’m off to work.