(3 of 4)
The consequences for more-affluent kids tend to be far less devastating than for poor ones; they are less likely to become teenage parents and high school dropouts. But children of divorced middle-class parents do less well in school and at college compared with underprivileged kids from two-parent households. "There's a 'sleeper effect' to divorce that we are just beginning to understand," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. It is an effect that pioneering scholars like McLanahan and Judith Wallerstein have devoted their careers to studying, revealing truths that many of us may find uncomfortable. It's dismissive of the human experience, says Blankenhorn, to suggest that kids don't suffer, extraordinarily, from divorce: "Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal."
Put a Ring on It
That prompts the question, Does the father have to actually be married to the mother of his children to have a positive effect on them?
"Not if he behaves exactly like a married man," says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation. If a man is willing to contribute 70% of his income to the child's upbringing, dedicate himself around the clock to the child's well-being and create a stable home life a home life that includes his actually living there with mother and child he might be able to give his child the boon of fatherhood without having to tie the knot. But that rarely happens. When children are born into a co-habiting, unmarried relationship, says Rector, "they arrive in a family in which the principals haven't resolved their most basic issues," including those of sexual fidelity and how to share responsibilities. Let a little stress enter the picture and what is more stressful than a baby? and things start to fall apart. The new mother starts to make wifelike demands on the man, and without the commitment of marriage, he is soon out the door.
Poignantly, the one thing that unites the poor and the middle class in their hopes for family life is the imperishable dream of being married forever, grabbing hold of the golden ring of lasting partnership. The low-income mothers studied by Kefalas and co-author Kathryn Edin spoke repeatedly of their wish to get married; they "cherish marriage and hold it to an impossibly high standard," the authors found, but too often forgo it as a result. Meanwhile, the middle class has spent the past 2½ decades during which the divorce culture became a fact of life turning weddings into overwrought exercises in consumer spending, as if by just plunking down enough cash for the flower girls' dresses and tissue-lined envelopes for the RSVP cards, we can somehow improve our chance of going the distance. Think of the touching moments on Inauguration Night, when at ball after ball, crowds of young people swooned at the sight of Barack and Michelle Obama dancing together, artlessly but sincerely and clearly with great affection. They are an immensely appealing couple, and it was a historic night, but what we saw reflected in the faces of those awed young people and in the country's insatiable appetite for photographs of the First Family's private life was wonder at the sight of a middle-aged man and woman still together, still in love.
We want something like that for ourselves; we recognize that it is something of great worth, but we are increasingly less willing to put in the hard work and personal sacrifice to get there. The Obamas, for example, are enjoying their time of family closeness after almost two years of enforced separation, an interlude that would have caused many less committed couples to turn in their cards and give up. A lasting marriage is the reward, usually, of hard work and self-sacrifice.The Ballad of Jon and Kate
Last summer, I had an opportunity to find out how meaningful the "in sickness and in health" clause of the marriage vows is when I underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, during which my husband treated me with great kindness. I began strong, making it to the dinner table every night and putting up a brave front for our children. But chemo, she will beat you down. I spent the last week on a friend's bedroom floor, heavily drugged, mildly nauseated and watching Jon & Kate Plus 8.