Children are truly a frightening proposition. They’re expensive. They’re a source of joy. But they’re also little demons. Regardless, many of us still choose to have them, sometimes even on purpose. Kudos all around. Learning to let go of our illusions of control and to embrace the unpredictability that is life with kids was a tough step, but we made it. Now we move on to managing that unpredictability, to maintaining our homes with those destructive little balls of chaos running around, wrecking up the joint. Fortunately, it’s easy to love our progeny, even if we don’t particularly like them at any given moment. This is an important evolutionary adaptation. If our love for them were conditional, we wouldn’t be here right now. We would have left the Garden and promptly embraced extinction. But we didn’t embrace extinction, we do love them, and thus we find ourselves with a new challenge: ignoring those tiny terrors and focusing our energy on our wives.
If we truly want to build a solid home for the littlest members of our little platoons, if we want to teach them invaluable lessons they can carry into their own relationships, then ignoring them is the only choice we have. For if we are to provide an example of how they should properly love their future partners, we must be aloof fathers; our priority is the women, our women, their mothers. They are the giants who suffered morning sickness, fatigue, and myriad other forms of unpleasantness in order to bring forth our little gods:
Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America. As with many religions, complete unthinking devotion is required from its practitioners. Nothing in life is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationships with our offspring. Children always come first. We accept this premise so reflexively today that we forget that it was not always so.
Amen and hallelujah.
As Danielle and Astro Teller note in that article, this isn’t a universal problem. We fathers tend to get a pass when it comes to subsuming all our wants and desires. You moms, though, y’all are expected not only to unconditionally love our children, but also to be unconditionally devoted to them. To sacrifice all your wants and desires for them. That’s why this situation demands that we husbands and fathers step up.
Love Is Not All You Need
Ladies, please hang around. This one goes out to you. But the message, the call to action, is for the men. We are the solution to this modern heresy, this religion of children. Alas, the solution doesn’t demand a stupid and futile gesture, but a meaningful one, so we do not get to make a Deathmobile. This time. On the positive side, we do get to dismantle a warm fuzzy.
In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose. Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters? Perhaps it is time that we gave the parenthood religion a second thought.
Love? Soulmates? The QZ article started with so much promise. Yes, we most definitely do need to realize our children are not little tiny gods. But love, while wonderful, is assuredly, decidedly, most definitely not the solution. As Ambrose Bierce defined it in “The Devil’s Dictionary:” “Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
Look, love is great. It’s generally a prerequisite for many of our most worthwhile but stupid decisions. But we also need to remember that, unless we are screenwriters, love will never, ever, ever lead to happily ever after. There is a reason movies tend to end with the wedding, which is the way society has come to define love—not as a curable temporary insanity, but as a destination. It is not. It is the first step of journey, and if we want love to be a long and positive journey, we must remember our Bierce. If we maintain marriage can subsist solely on our love for our soulmates, if we insist our insanity is incurable, this law firm has a billboard for us.
We men, being practical, shouldn’t have too much trouble with this, but the modern world spends so much time selling us ridiculousness. See, we’re really sensitive and caring. We really want to cry and feel things instead of being the rocks against which the waves that are our wives crash. We’re totally empathetic and not prone to laughing at nonsense like this:
You were attracted to this woman because she was the person best suited to trigger all of your childhood wounds in the most painful way so that you could heal them… when you heal yourself, you will no longer be triggered by her, and you will wonder why you ever were.
Yeah, that’s it. We fell in love because we’re broken and wanted therapy with a side of nookie. Why did we never think of that before? Maybe because it’s not true. Regardless, let’s not stop on that quote, because the article gets so much better.
ALWAYS CHOOSE LOVE. ALWAYS CHOOSE LOVE. ALWAYS CHOOSE LOVE. In the end, this is the only advice you need. If this is the guiding principle through which all your choices is governed, there is nothing that will threaten the happiness of your marriage. Love will always endure.
Okay, that’s definitely it. Always choose love. It’s so simple. Except how does that work, exactly? Oh, you don’t know? Well, allow me to retort.
See, Brett, love is not a choice, but thinking of love in such terms—an all-caps bumper sticker slogan—is. And it’s an asinine one. No matter what we tell ourselves, our feelings will ebb and flow. And if our feelings are our spirit animals, we might find ourselves giving serious thought to calling the aforementioned law firm. If, on the other hand, we want to stay married, not for the kids but for ourselves, there are much better strategies we might deploy. We’ll get to those. First, though, let’s take a brief stroll through history and try to figure out how we arrived at the notion that love is all we need.
It All Started with Those Bad Boomers
Zsa Zsa Gabor once quipped, “Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.” Granted, Zsa Zsa wasn’t an exemplar for staying married so much as getting married, but even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. So how did we get from such truth to our modern predicament? As with so many things, it probably started with the Baby Boomers.
During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, it was thought that, when people were freed to pursue their desires without hindrance or moral condemnation, romantic love would fade out. The illusions and idealizations of love would no longer be needed to assuage feelings of guilt or selfishness. But the opposite occurred. Since the 1980s, romantic love has regained its old salience. It may be more important now than it ever was.
Love now dominates the institution of marriage as never before. In recent years, Hollywood has been pouring out wedding movies, while the average cost of real weddings climbs higher every year–now over $25,000 in the U.S., over 10,000 pounds in the U.K., over 10,000 Euros in France. (Just paying for the wedding is becoming a ‘heroic’ act today.) High divorce rates likewise reflect the belief that, if love goes, the marriage must end. Why this surprising aftermath to the sexual revolution?
Granted, the above comes from a syllabus for a course at Duke and not an abstract to a peer-reviewed study. But Professor Reddy seems to have done his homework to reveal some solid truths that the current state of affairs is a surprising, instead of predictable, result of the sexual revolution. We, as a society, are obsessed with romantic love, on how we feel, on how it relates to our desires.
To put it another way, “If it feels good, do it,” the crux of marriage based on romantic love and a core principle of the sexual revolution, is an idiotic strategy. When marriage is about feelings and feeling good instead of about work and reward, it’s an unsatisfying and unstable proposition, as evidenced by the authors of this idiotic strategy, roughly 45 percent of whom end their relationships in divorce.
As for Gen-Xers
But what about us, Gen X, the kids who grew up in the shadows of those Baby Boomer divorces? The latchkey kids. A generation in many ways defined by divorce. Did we learn anything? Do we fare better? We’re smarter, right? Sort of…when we’re not being dumbasses. Somewhat shockingly, given our predilection for dumb-assery, 77 percent of us who have married since 1990 reached our ten-year anniversaries. This calls for another round of kudos. But it’s also just a number and could head south at any time, especially as it likely includes a number of us who are always choosing love.
Susan Gregory Thomas, who as a child suffered an ugly divorce, was hellbent on not joining the ranks of the 23 percent, of not going through what her parents had and subjecting her children to divorce. “I believed that I had married my best friend as fervently as I believed that I’d never get divorced.” Nine years in, after two years of sleeping in separate bedrooms and becoming little more than “fighting siblings” who didn’t particularly like one another, Thomas and her husband ended their marriage.
Thomas’ first mistake was marrying her best friend, but she at least began her marriage cognizant that marriages don’t just magically work. She chose love, but it doesn’t seem she embraced actively being married. She definitely didn’t take a time machine forward, heed my advice, and ignore her kids. And she especially didn’t embrace work and reward. She embraced fear.
To allow our own marriages to end in divorce is to live out our worst childhood fears. More horrifying, it is to inflict the unthinkable on what we most love and want to protect: our children. It is like slashing open our own wounds and turning the knife on our babies. To consider it is unbearable.
And though the above comes from a female perspective, Thomas’ desire to protect her children because she loved them brings us full circle to why we men must ignore our kids and focus on our wives. Such a strategy, although counterintuitive, is the surest path to offering a happy home and providing a vision for their own futures, futures in which the kids get the hell out of our homes and go form their own.
Now, Ignore the Kids
Because regardless of whether or not they are our little gods, kids do their damnedest to keep us from enjoying the activities that lead to their creation—spontaneous romantic dinners, time spent together doing nothing at all, sleeping in, afternoon delight. Add to that that we’re constantly sleep-deprived, food doesn’t just show up at our homes and cook itself, we rarely have time to just be by ourselves and we parents can end up a tad cranky.
And love will not fix any of that…without a little help. But if we actively work toward love, nurture it, and sustain it, then it might just be all we need after all.
So I’ve been lying to you, pretending love isn’t the answer and is just gravy, at best. It actually is the answer, just not in the way we tend to think about it. Moreover, we can’t just choose it; we have to take some active steps that, while still not involving a Deathmobile, do involve the sweater puppets (and those are more awesome anyway).
For example, do we have ten seconds to grab our wives, press them against a wall, and passionately kiss them pretty much every day? Hell yeah we do. Kissing and caressing, even our wives of ten years, stirs up all kinds of chemicals related to bonding. What if we make and take the time to deliver our ladies all the way to la petit mort? Only good things will follow. Can we risk locking a door, looking into our wives’ eyes, and reminding them of the raw animal passion that animated our early relationships? We can. Will our kids survive if they are not our little gods, but our demon spawn, and are lower on the totem pole than the brides of our youth? Not only will they survive, they will thrive.
Men, It’s Up to Us
Too formulaic? Too bad. Those lusty moments, the swirling chemicals and concomitant desires to propagate the species that defined our courting periods, are gone and they’re not coming back. That dizzy love that made us stupid and incapable of seeing imperfections vanished many moons ago. That is what Mr. ALWAYS CHOOSE LOVE missed. Love not a feeling we consciously will into existing forever. It is an activity. And actively choosing active love, choosing to keep it and the delicious chemicals it produces a-swirling, requires us to remember Corinthians 13 isn’t talking about us.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Us? Our patience ran out shortly after we realized we were going to be late for wherever we were going while our wives were still in the house somewhere looking for something while we and the kids sat in a running car. Boastful pride? Please, we’re men. Let’s not try to fool anyone here. We fixed a water heater a decade ago and we still talk about it even as the faucet enters year two of needing a new washer. Not easily angered? Please. There are three shrieking demons currently moving the couch for some reason—most likely to destroy something—and “WILL YOU DO SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR KIDS!”
Always choose love? Don’t be ridiculous. Choose life. Choose joy. Choose to be reckless and passionate. Choose to make out. The kids will be just fine; their ancestors did survive a pretty brutal cave-dwelling, after all. Our love for them is constant. It’s not going to fade if we miss a trip to ride go-karts or eat bacon. They don’t need us to elevate them as little gods or hover above them from now until they depart the nest. They need to see us being stupid, being passionate. They need to see us groping their mothers. They need to be encouraged to one day be equally stupid and passionate, to grope or be groped while dreaming of building a Deathmobile.
Our wives, on the other hand, need much more than stupidity and dreams of Deathmobiles. They deserve much more, especially as they carried the little buggers while we were busy drinking for two. And it’s up to us to give it to them, to show them why we went temporarily insane for them. To remind them that although they may be wonderful, perfect, nurturing mothers, they are first and foremost our wives, the objects of our passion. As such it’s not too much to ask that, in service to both society at large and our little platoons, we throw the kids out in the yard, grab those women, and give them the old reminder. Then we can sit back, relax, and enjoy a bourbon as they float through the home satiated, happy, and in charge—women in full, in it for the long haul with us as our wives and lovers, not exhausted mothers in service to little gods.