Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
Caitlin Flanagan–professional antifeminist, author of a whole book of essays attacking working mothers, herself excepted–is probably the only person in the world who could make me feel sorrier for Governor Mark Sanford than I already do. “Watching the governor of South Carolina cry like a little girl,” she kicks off her Time cover story on divorce, “made me wonder whether the real secret to a lasting marriage lies in limiting your means of escape.” Trust Flanagan to use misogyny even when attacking a man. “Unfaithfully Yours” (“Infidelity is eroding our most sacred institution. How to make marriage matter again”) adds nothing to the familiar conservative lament about the “decline” of marriage: divorce and single motherhood ruin kids; sexual irresponsibility, bad enough in the upper class, has destroyed “the underclass”; and why can’t men (all her adulterers are men) stay faithfully married for fifty years, like her father? Flanagan is so moralistic and self-congratulatory–she’s married, yay!–I felt tempted to hike the Appalachian Trail myself, and I’ve only been married for three years.
It’s not hard to poke holes in Flanagan’s predictions of universal doom for the children of divorced or never-married parents. After all, President Clinton and President Obama turned out all right. Most children of divorce do. There are plenty of countries where divorce and unmarried parenthood are common, but children do fine–Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands. Some of the measured bad effects on kids are more about the way we divorce than the divorce itself–unstable living arrangements, disappearance of the father into a new family, moves and changes of school, new parental partners who don’t stick around, loss of income, less attention from a mother who is now working all the time. It may be ideal for kids to grow up in a loving, sane, happy, stable, two-parent home, but that is not the alternative for couples contemplating divorce, still less for most never-married single mothers. And is infidelity the big cause of divorce? According to studies, almost three-quarters of couples stay together after a partner strays (Eliot and Silda, Bill and Hill, meet the Vitters, the Ensigns, the Patersons and the Craigs). Even the redoubtable Jenny Sanford has not completely given up on her Mark. Yet.
We could bash divorce forever, but what’s the point? Even Jesus can’t keep unhappy spouses together–the Bible Belt has much higher divorce rates than the comparatively secular Northeast–so it’s no surprise Flanagan can’t deliver on the promise to “make marriage matter again”; all she can do is wag a self-righteous finger at those who tread the primrose path. Like they care! In The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece on her divorce lays out, hilariously and poignantly, exactly why another round of “working on” your marriage can feel like one multi-task too many.
What if we tackled divorce from the other end: the world we actually live in. Let’s assume, for example, that most people are not going to be more straitlaced, buttoned-down and self-denying than they are today. And let’s admit that you can’t make people behave as if they have no choice when, in fact, they do. There is no constituency for making divorce harder to get legally–as family values entrepreneur David Blankenhorn discovered when he tried to bring back fault divorce and to promote “covenant marriage” for couples who wanted to deny themselves the no-fault option. And it’s not going to be more stigmatized socially either. Marriage-promotion schemes like welfare reform and abstinence-only sex ed have caused much misery but have not lowered the number of nonmarital births, which last year approached 40 percent of all births. So why not acknowledge that, of the many things we’d like children to have, two lifelong married parents are beyond our capacity as a society to provide?
If the concern is really with children, especially poor children, we could improve their lives tremendously by concentrating on the things we actually can achieve. Healthcare. Excellent schools with music and drama and art and gym and after-school programs. Neighborhoods safe enough for kids to play outdoors and air clean enough so they don’t get asthma. Libraries. Summer camp. Counseling for kids in trouble–and their parents. Economic support for families, married or not. Housing for all. Free college. A public works job for anyone who wants one. All those necessities that, in America, are seen as the responsibility of individual families.
Have you noticed that conservatives express concern for low-income and especially black people–“the underclass”–only when they want to attack liberals? (This is a specialty of Flanagan’s–the only time she writes about cleaning women is when she is blaming feminists for paying them too little; the only time she shows sympathy for women in prison is when she’s casting scorn on the special parole deal granted ex-SLA member Kathleen Soliah.) But the attack on divorce isn’t really about poor people and their families. It’s about reinforcing the idea that “the family” is not just a haven in a heartless world but the only safety net you have, or should have, from the blows of fortune.
To fulfill people’s needs with our collective talents, knowledge, energy and tax dollars? Why, that would be socialism!
* * *
In “Dr. George Tiller, 1941-2009″ (June 29) I criticized President Obama’s choice of Alexia Kelley, co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, to head the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Department of Health and Human Services. While it is true that Kelley’s organization takes the Catholic Church’s line on abortion and birth control, I was mistaken when I wrote that she would decide what groups get $20 million in grants for reproductive health projects. In fact, while Kelley will help organizations apply for the funds, she will not make the grants.