The covenant of parenthood

A long, long time ago, NPR did a series of stories aimed at “documenting” the state of marriage in America.  One of those stories stood out strongly in my mind, because the woman the reporter interviewed articulated a view of marriage that I’d never considered before.  She said that, in America, secular people view marriage as a “contract.”  Each party has obligations to the other, and if one party breaches his (or her) obligations, then the other party is automatically released from the contract.  Her view, a religious view, was different.  To her mind, marriage was a covenant.  Under that approach she said, one spouse’s obligations continue regardless of whether the other spouse abides by her (or his) promises.

I’ve often thought about her words when I look at the divorces in the community around me.  None happened lightly.  All happened because one or another partner to the marriage truly broke his (or her) marriage vows, usually with adultery.  All were unhappy marriages to begin with.  And because I live in a child-centric world, all of the divorces involved children.  In each case, the true anguish for my friends wasn’t the divorce itself, it was the child’s (or children’s) well-being.  Would the child be better off shuttling back and forth between two single-parent happy homes (because the presumed that divorce would make the parents happier), or would the child be better off in a two-parent home that was a battlefield of parental pain?  Most opted for divorce, feeling that their marital pain was so overwhelming that they were rendered incapable of being good parents.

Because I respect my friends, and because I know their abiding love for the children, I would not presume to second guess their decisions.  None were made lightly; all provided much food for thought.

I was reminded of the dramas that have played out around me over the years when I read David French’s Social Justice Begins at Home, which decries the ease with which practicing Christians have accepted the culture of no-fault divorce.  He notes that, traditionally, the church has severely limited divorce, but that, even as this doctrine exists in theory, it is vanishing in practice.

In a way, it seems to me that what French is saying that, even amongst Christians, marriage has slipped from being a covenant to being a contract.  However, that social/religious shift has blinded people to the fact that our relationship to our children is not a contract, it is a covenant.  We owe our obligations to them regardless.  They didn’t ask to be born.  They’re vulnerable, they’re dependent, and they are tied to us emotionally in ways that transcend any normal consensual relationship.

Some marriages are so disastrous that the children’s welfare demands a divorce.  (I know one of those situations, which involves an increasingly abusive father, and a mother who is unable to protect her children from his escalating verbal and, sometimes, physical abuse.)  Most unhappy marriages, though, involve parents who manage to put on a good front for the children.  Sure, mom and dad fight, but that’s normal even in all but the most perfect marriages.  Mostly, though, the parents experience private pain, while continuing to create a stable, financially secure home for their children.  These are the marriages in which, even if the contract between the parents is breached, the covenant to the children continues.

I think French and I are on the same page, whether one views it from a Christian perspective or from a non-observant Jewish perspective, which is that the children’s needs are transcendent.  If the parents are able to shelve their pain and their discord, it is their obligation to the children that must determine whether the marriage continues.  The mere fact that life would be easier for the parents if they weren’t burdened with their respective spouse cannot serve as a justification for breaking apart the home, thereby destroying both the child’s emotional and economic security.

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  • Don Quixote

    As you acknowledge, it depends.  I’ve been blessed with the world’s best wife and a terrific marriage, so I was never confronted with the issue as a parent.  I did face it as a child, however.  My Dad and step-mother (my mother died when I was 3 and Dad remarried when I was 7) fought for five years of miserable marriage, then divorced when I was 12.  I can tell you with complete certainty that whatever harm their divorce caused me (and that harm was substantial) it was nothing compared to the harm that remaining in that marriage would have caused both me and them.

    I do think perhaps you overestimate the ability of parents in a seriously disfunctional marriage to “shelve their pain and discord” and perhaps underestimate the harm to the children from living in such a tension-filled and unhappy environment.  But each circumstance is unique.  What’s important is that each couple weigh their unique facts, acknowledge their responsibility to their children and, insofar as they possibly can, act in the best interests of the children.

  • Bookworm

    I agree with you completely, DQ.  I probably should have stated more clearly that what I was trying to say is that I don’t believe mere unhappiness is a justification for walking away from a stable, two-parent home.  In more extreme circumstances than “I married the wrong person,” the poison of a completely destructive marriage is often infinitely worse than any harm that can flow from a divorce.

  • Bookworm

    I’ll add one more thing to my point, which is that poisonous marriages often lead to poisonous divorces.  The poor kids are damned whether the parents do or don’t.  You were lucky in that a bad divorce still pitch-forked you into a better situation.  I know of children who, following a miserable home life with married parents, ended up as the rope in the tug-of-war between divorced/divorcing parents.  And that’s a reminder that the issue isn’t always divorce itself, it’s the parents’ personalities and values to begin with.  No matter what they do, these parents are trouble for their kids.

  • Ymarsakar

    In a way, it seems to me that what French is saying that, even amongst Christians, marriage has slipped from being a covenant to being a contract.

    Haven’t people heard about re-negotiating a contract? Nor are all contracts the same.

    For example, the only reason why they can’t negotiate something that benefits the child is that their own personal biases are getting in the way. For example, if they want to no longer be married and a “couple”, they can shatter those bonds to make room for new ones. But they don’t have to live in different houses. The only reason why they move away is because they don’t want to see each other, as they haven’t actually dealt with the split up appropriately. They cannot “renegotiate” their relationship in the same house. Nor do they seek to get a house or location “near”, like in walking distance. That would essentially not be as traumatic for the child to shuttle back and forth. It’d be like a neighbor’s house. A childhood friend relationship.

    So rather than prioritizing these available solutions, they prioritize stuff that’s only meant to settle their own emotional turmoils. That’s called weakness, not strength. It’s an objective standard, not subjective.

    The issue isn’t that people now treat marriage as a contract. The issue now is that people would rather make everyone else lose simply because it would be too hard to make a mutually beneficial relationship work.
    Several contributing factors to this, such as the welfare program targeted against up and coming middle class black families, were designed to make their marriages fail. If it was simply people having problems they can’t solve, it would be one thing. But the most serious of these issues in America originated from an external influence. It didn’t fail because people failed. It failed because powerful individuals made it fail. That increases the severity of the problem by several orders of magnitude.

  • Danny Lemieux

    A big problem I see is people marrying too young or for entirely the wrong reasons. Or, not getting married at all with children in the picture.
    More-than 30 years ago, a young and newly remarried couple remarked to me that we had it all backwards: we made it really easy for people to get married and very difficult for people to divorce but that it should be very difficult for people to get married and easy for people to divorce. They both acknowledged that their 1st marriages had been disasters entered into for all the wrong reasons (the most salient one being “sex”).
    That was 30 years ago, of course. Now, we make it very easy for people to marry and very easy to divorce. Somehow, the children get left out of this and, as usual, suffer the consequences.
    When I married my (then Roman Catholic) wife, the Church made us go through extensive counseling and education on marriage and families through the Church before it would grant approval for us to get married. I think that it was a good idea…it certainly made us reflect upon our compatibility and commitment to marriage before entering into our covenant.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    I guess my way to look at it has always been that you are a spouse first, and that your relationship with your spouse should trump all. Success in parenthood can come if you are constantly working to nurture your marriage relationship through your daily actions. (actually, I add God into the mix. The whole God-Spouse-Spouse triangle). My own father is the greatest man I know, and it was through his example that I have learned 99% of  all I am. I will let you know how my outlook works out, as mine and my husband’s first kid is due in two months.

  • Bookworm

    That’s exciting, shirleyelizabeth.  I hope that the baby comes swiftly and easily, and that its birth marks the start of a very happy phase in your life.

  • shirleyelizabeth

    Also, I think my dad is probably too good of an example of a great father. He and my biological mother had nine children before she passed away from Leukemia. He remarried my adoptive mother who had six kids of her own from a former marriage (torn apart by the selfishness of the dead-beat father that left them numerous times). Four more children came from that union. total 19. Of course, this sounds incredibly crazy, and I guess we kind of are. But here are some results: We have all grown up as siblings. Not steps or part. Brothers and sisters. All but the two still younger than 18 have graduated from high school. All others, but three in the 18-22 range, have received college degrees in various fields. Seven of those are either currently working on or have already received higher degrees. That does not include spouses. All twelve of my brothers have earned the honor of Eagle Scout. My baby will be the 28th grandchild, all being raised in the same religion as their grandparents.

    This does not happen by accident. What I can tell you of my father is that he is the hardest working, most charitable man I have ever come across. He lives and governs in his home by example.

    Another also, to Danny’s comment on marrying too young, I do not think it is a problem to marry “too young.” I DO think, though, that those that treat their marriage union selfishly run a far greater risk of not being part of that union for long.

  • Ymarsakar

    Shirley, sounds like he’d be a candidate for early colonization of interstellar star systems.

  • Charles Martel

    If some terrible fate were ever to befall the earth and we had to load up a 5,000-passenger space ark real fast, I nominate Shirley’s entire family as the first to board.

  • Mike Devx

    > A big problem I see is people marrying too young or for entirely the wrong reasons. Or, not getting married at all with children in the picture.

    I’ll repeat an aphorism:  Marry in haste, repent in leisure.

    But the truth is even more obvious.  If you are wise, you’ll simply make sound decisions throughout your life.  Treating marriage cavalierly, especially in saying “Yes!” to the proposal without serious, serious thought first, is a huge mistake.  Too many people don’t take the concept of marriage seriously enough.  They set themselves up for failure.

    And as a nation we’re generally self-absorbed, and far too quick to blame all the problems on “the other person”.  Another aphorism: It takes two to tango.

  • Ymarsakar

    If some terrible fate were ever to befall the earth and we had to load up a 5,000-passenger space ark real fast, I nominate Shirley’s entire family as the first to board.
    Wouldn’t you need some serious firepower to shoot down Soros and PillowC’s private jets, plus John Kerry’s private yacht and Obama’s wandering self-mobile golf course? They’d surely want the premium spots and would push people out of line.