Sunday, October 14, 2007

Marriage and Family

This week’s U.S. News and World Report (October 15, 2007 issue) editorial column talks about how children in two-parent households have a better life than those in single-parent households, how the husband-wife traditional family is the best to raise kids who turn out to be healthy, responsible citizens.
Well, common sense suggests that if both parents are educated and if there is a constant source of income in the household, be it from one or both parents, the children are likely to receive a good education, healthcare and other benefits. This is definitely a good thing.
What about children in bad marriages or of divorced parents? The author in the said column even goes further as to say that Social Security and benefits programs should encourage marriage and not single parenthood.
But, can personal behavior really be incentivized? Maybe, in some cases, yes. For example, the Indian government did encourage smaller families to control the population, by massive public broadcasting programs and other means. But, in a democratic setup, people have to essentially believe in the principle behind the measure, to be a participant in implementing it.
The people who believe that marriage should not be a precondition for sex are going to go ahead and do it, anyway. Carelessness about contraception or the failure thereof is going to result in at least a few babies out of wedlock. Even among those who wait to get married and have babies, there is no guarantee that the couple is not going to split or that both parents will be alive till the child turns 18.
This brings us to the term – “family”. In today’s times, the family, at least in America and even in urban India, is mostly the parent/s and the kids living together. In the old days, in India, many people lived with their parents well after marriage. In fact, one sometimes had all the brothers living together under one really large roof with their wives and kids. Even today, there are quite a few such units that we call “joint families”.
In the modern or nuclear family, single parenthood is a costly thing. The single parent is the sole provider/caregiver/mentor for the children and this can be a particularly overwhelming task. In a structure where the spouses are not the sole providers/caregivers, the children are also looked after by other elders such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. It is like having free daycare cum family atmosphere. I sometimes wonder, if Americans also lived in such structures, rather than moving out of their parents’ nest after 18, would the single-parent statistics be very different? Another factor working against single-parent families is the low-income individuals who undergo out-of-wedlock pregnancies and do not have much of an education or high income to support their kids with. Added to that, if these parents are already in the grip of drug/alcohol addiction, then the children would really have a rough childhood.
But, what about the educated, well-paid professionals who don’t find the “right person” to commit a lifetime to, but find that their biological clocks are going away, tick-tock, tick-tock? Will they not also just have a baby so that they don’t miss out on motherhood? I am saying “motherhood” because it is usually women who have a shorter fertile period to have babies and also motherhood is, well, physically far more demanding than fatherhood (not the raising of kids part, just the bearing them part, before all you men jump at me).
Affluent actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Sushmita Sen adopted children out of wedlock and they are greatly admired for it. Many Hollywood celebrities bear children before getting married and the father is also pretty well-known.
In my opinion, marriage was originally meant as a structure for companionship, support in old age as well as emotional, physical and financial support throughout, as well as a unit to raise children. Today, we expect romance, great sex and the world out of it besides the above-mentioned factors. We expect to commit to one person all our lives and have emotional, physical, social and financial fulfillment till death do us part. Whether this is possible for all marriages on earth is a question that yours truly cannot answer as it is too profound, too complex for any individual alone. No wonder, commitment-phobia seems to be more common.
But, was marriage always the one man-one woman sole family unit? History points out quite the contrary. While the single husband-single wife union seemed to be pretty common, polygamy and polyandry were quite rampant, too, at least among the royals and other elite people. Did the children of such structures end up as lesser human beings? We don’t know. In the Ramayana, that epitome of family values, Rama was the eldest son, his father had three wives and the step-brothers got along so fabulously that today’s blood siblings would be ashamed of their own petty rivalries. Now, don’t for a moment, think that I am endorsing polygamy/polyandry.
All I am saying is, both marriage and family, as social institutions, have changed with time, across cultures around the world.
I somehow don’t buy the argument that marriage-first-kids-later, is going to solve all the socioeconomic problems of the world. What any child needs is love, acceptance and responsible caregivers who are genuinely concerned about his/her wellbeing and who are there for him/her not only till he/she is ready to fly, but also later. A loving father and mother united in a socially-sanctioned institution is a great gift to a child. But to say that the others who make a genuine effort to raise children right in a responsible way, who have made choices that society does not approve of, are somehow doing a lesser job, makes me feel a tad little uncomfortable.

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