There’s Still Overwhelming Cultural Pressure to Get Married and Have Kids

I often think about a scene from the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie “The Departed”: A young, crooked and highly ambitious cop tells his boss, a grizzled, wisecracking captain, that he’s getting married. The captain tells him that’s good. “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead,” he says. “Married guy seems more stable.” He says a bunch of things not appropriate for a family newspaper, but the gist of it is: People see the ring and they think at least somebody can stand the guy.

Though there’s a lot of general concern over declining marriage rates and birthrates in the United States — which is a complicated confluence of several economic and social factors — the sentiment crudely expressed in that scene is still by far the predominant cultural message: marriage = good. It’s why The Washington Post devoted a few thousand words this week to exploring whether the Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott actually has a girlfriend.

Personally, I don’t care whether candidates for higher office are married — I don’t think it has anything to do with their ability to lead. But I think I’m in the minority, and strongly suspect that Americans won’t elect a never-married president in my lifetime; the president is an avatar of our nation, and most people want someone in the White House who projects an idealized image of family. (Even Donald Trump, with his divorces and reputation as a womanizer, could be photographed with his beautiful current wife and brood of kids.)

All of this leads me to a widely read, highly entertaining article from The Cut that asks: “Why can’t our friendship survive your baby?” The writer, Allison P. Davis, goes long on the divisions that can happen when your close friends become parents and you are child-free. Her thesis boils down to:

I read this piece on two levels, the cultural and the personal. As for the cultural, I think when people get into their 30s and 40s and aren’t married and don’t have kids, they’re often judged in the “Departed” style. Many Americans find a range of family structures acceptable, but the family structure that Americans overwhelmingly see as completely acceptable is “a husband and wife raising children together.” For all the concern (and, sometimes, concern trolling) about marriage and fertility rates dropping, it’s still challenging to veer from well-worn cultural scripts to write your own new ones.

A substantial majority of Americans — 75 percent — have been married by 40, and once they’re in their 40s, over 75 percent of men and over 80 percent of women have had a biological child. There’s this idea floating around that if only the broader culture pushed marriage and family harder, we wouldn’t have so many single parents, and I always wonder: When, exactly, did the broader culture stop pushing marriage and babies? “About half of adults say fewer children being raised by two married parents will have a negative impact on the U.S. in the future,” according to a new study from Pew Research. With the perennial “Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” series gearing up for “The Golden Bachelor” later this month, and entire swaths of the internet devoted to the multibillion-dollar momfluencing industry, the primacy of the marriage-and-kids model still seems pretty entrenched to me.

On the other side, parents, especially new moms, feel judged about basically everything they do, and entering an uncharted life stage with an unfamiliar identity can feel destabilizing. I have been in the parenting content mines for so long, I have seen about 100 variations of this article over the years, because it can be difficult to keep friends when your life changes pretty radically. You may also be dealing with intense emotional and physical postpartum complications on top of that. So there’s a lot of built-in sensitivity on both sides.

That said, the specific details of the Cut essay seem mostly to revolve around failures of manners and communication. A childless friend coming by your apartment and not offering to help with dinner is just rude; my mother taught me that you should always offer to help serve or clear up when you’re a guest in someone’s home — that has nothing to do with parental status. A parent talking to everybody about their baby’s constipation at a party is kind of a bore, but it would be the same thing if he or she were talking about a pet’s evacuation issues. You’re at a party: Make it funny or keep it moving!

Part of it, too, is about a desired lifestyle — a lot of the complaints in the article are about parents not being able to party like they used to. But I was already staying home most nights before I had kids. (I’m not a joiner, as previously established.) After kids, it does really become about money and energy, rather than any particular feeling about a friend or suddenly forgetting the joys of happy hour. Child care is more expensive than ever, and babysitters are difficult to lock down reliably.

There’s one character in the story whom Davis considers a “heroic parent” because she never stopped going out, “thanks to money enough to hire a nanny and a parent who lives nearby.” She and her husband “make it to Coachella every year. That night, they were planning on attending some horrifying-sounding dance party that started at 1 a.m., and by 11 p.m. they were passing out party favors and offering me an extra ticket.”

This doesn’t sound like heroism to me, it sounds like being independently wealthy and possibly very interested in recreational drugs.

That said, there are so many ways to forge the gaps caused by changes in life stage. I had kids before all my close friends, and I was wary of making new pals based solely on parental status. Having a kid, after all, is something most people do — it didn’t automatically seem like a basis for a strong bond.

My friends without kids come over after my children are in bed and drink wine and watch TV. Sometimes they go out to other engagements afterward, and I love that for them. Other times, I meet them for dinner by myself. I don’t miss their milestone events. We text a lot. Even though my kids are older now, I continue to resent the idea that baby-addled new parents can only talk about parenting and have no other interests beyond “Bluey.” (An early motherhood memory: I watched a screener of “Django Unchained” on New Year’s Eve when my older daughter was 2 weeks old.)

That mild resentment is an ember, though, that has the potential to burn out a friendship without communication about those feelings. Ultimately the possibility for bruised egos on both sides may have more to do with the cultural pressures around idealized families that today’s youngish adults are still marinating in, rather than an actual friendship rift, or a built-in stalemate between parents and non-parents. If it’s a relationship meant for the long haul, it is very possible to work through periods of distance. The real issue may be that few friendships of any kind really are built to last.

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