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.