So Close, Yet So Far

Posted on January 3, 2012 by

Ross Douthat accurately characterizes the connection between the decline of marriage and the increasingly threadbare American social fabric, then badly lapses into utter statist banality on what should be done about it:

At Christmastime, we like to tell stories about resilient families. The Cratchits of “A Christmas Carol,” for instance, who subsist on love, hope and 15 shillings a week. The Baileys of Bedford Falls, who survive wars, bank runs and bankruptcies because they have friends, one another, and a guardian angel watching out for them. The first couple of the New Testament, who manage to cope with a supernatural pregnancy, a murderous king and the necessity of delivering a child in the bleak midwinter, half-out-of-doors and far from home.

In 21st-century America, the well-off and well-educated have the best odds of enjoying the domestic stability that the Yuletide stories celebrate, while the very people who most need resilient families – the Cratchits and Baileys, the working poor and the hard-pressed middle class – are less and less likely to have them. This domestic dissolution plays a role in a host of socioeconomic ills: stagnating blue-collar wages, weakening upward mobility, stalling high school graduation rates, even the increase in juvenile obesity and diabetes. But it isn’t an issue that politicians of either party are particularly comfortable addressing. Liberals worry about seeming paternalistic and judgmental; conservatives recoil from the idea of increasing the government’s role in the most intimate of spheres. Thus America has a crisis of family life, but no family policy to speak of.

[T]here are costs to the European approach. Government-guaranteed leave often gives less financial relief to a mother or father who is already at home full time. And Europe’s overall web of regulations and job protections makes the labor market more rigid and less accommodating to part-time work – which is the kind of work that mothers, especially, tend to want. (A recent survey of American parents found that 58 percent of married women with children preferred part-time to full-time work, compared with 20 percent of husbands.)

A more flexible alternative, championed by the conservative writers Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein, would change the way we tax families, dramatically expanding the child tax credit in order to ease the burden on parents with young children. Their proposal would leave contemporary Baileys and Cratchits with more disposable income and more options without favoring one approach to parenting over another.

Yes, quite unimaginative. A more penetrating analysis would have discovered that government policies themselves dis-incentivize marriage and subsidize divorce, producing the sort of domestic destabilization that Mr. Douthat describes. Yet, after cataloging the downside of a divorce culture, the best Mr. Douthat could come up with is to double-down on government intervention.

Since an operative definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results, a much more sane alternative would be to do the opposite of what’s been tried so far…instead of more government, let’s try less of it, to include removing Federally financed enticements that encourage single parenthood and closing down the government funding sluices that shunt taxpayer monies in the direction of marital dissolution. I know it will be counter-intuitive for most of us who have grown up in the age of government-as-universal-problem-solver, but in public policy matters, often the best thing government can do is…nothing.

Imagine for a moment what would happen were a marriage to dissolve, threatening poverty for the mother and two children, and the State did nothing except to let the estranged couple, their families, and para-governmental civic institutions sort things out on their own. What would that look like? Who would look after the children? Dad? Mom? Grandparents? The Church? Orphanages? Faced with such daunting and thorny and distasteful questions, would such a marriage dissolve in the first place, or would the estranged partners stick out their rough patch and arrive in a happier future? Would the divorce rate drop if husbands and wives, and their relatives and neighbors, directly felt the sting of marital implosions, rather than sticking some unknown, faraway taxpayer with the bill?

What sort of public policy, then, reinforces marriage? A policy that intervenes to facilitate parendectomies, and then intervenes again to recapture otherwise lost household income by selling the divorce-suit respondent into state of semi-slavery? Or a policy that, by virtue of a policy of non-intervention, refuses to get sucked into quarrels between husbands and wives, thus ensuring that divorcing spouses bear the full brunt of their decisions?

Of course such out-of-the-box thinking would be anethema to people like this commentator:

Carolyn Egeli, Valley Lee, Md.
Children that are well cared for are society’s best investment in the future. Children need their parents, but mostly they need their mothers. European governments seem much better at recognizing this simple truth. Fathers are needed too of course, but in nature’s scheme of things, the father plays a secondary role in the early years. He doesn’t have breasts. And there is not much evidence to support that substitutes for women’s breasts are as beneficial to very young children. And ditto for the pure attachment that children and mothers feel for one another. Most mammals replicate this phenomena. Our economic system strains gnats and swallows camels to justify the destruction of the most fundamental human relationship of mother and child. Mothers escaping in no fault divorces, are forced into shared custody of their abusers and a deeply divisive and unfair division of property, ultimately skewed in favor of the fathers. The men have off of the top, in 90% of the cases, a much higher income, on average 25% higher, yet the women must share equally in the burden of child care. Most children don’t want to live 50% one place and 50% another, but again, the property rights of fathers are more important to the legal system. Cut the child in half seems to be the solution. Making it possible for the mother to continue to spend her time mostly on the care of her children is not even possible, most of the time, even with a very well off and often revengeful former spouse.
Dec. 26, 2011 at 1:54 a.m.

Whew, where to start with this one? First, the data is overwhelming: children do best with both parents, not just the one with the breasts. A policy that emphasizes mothers over fathers, while feeding Ms. Egeli’s inflated sense of maternal superiority, flies in the face of this simple fact. Furthermore, men also attach to their children, via vasopressin rather than oxytocin, and it would be a mistake to sideline this bonding process early on, not because breast-challenged men can do the kind of feeding breast-blessed women can, but because bonding between father and child takes time, and this bond will progressively become more and more important, even overtaking the bond between mother and child in some cases, as infants wean into toddlers and children.

Second, while it is true that most of the animal kingdom’s families feature mothers and their brood in isolation, with dad nowhere to be found, is it not also true that in such a “state of nature”, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short? Does not such a “natural” family configuration in the animal world feature males who pump-and-dump, who practice polygyny, who are “rewarded” with sex, status, and offspring for anti-social behavior (fighting, killing other males, who kill the offspring of other males, who copulate with estrous females, whether she desires the coupling or not, etc), and who generally can’t be counted on to stick around, leaving the mother to carry all the burden? Why then does Ms. Egeli think such an “natural” family model is to be preferred over one where children enjoy the full, active, present contribution of both biological parents, parents that contribute to the household in their own distinct and complementary ways?

Third, when one examines the divorce statistics, as I have, it is clear that DV accounts for a very small fraction of divorce suits. So the canard of “mothers escaping in no-fault divorces” is just that–a canard, used to justify the far more prevalent reason for divorce: simple unhappiness. As for the evil of shared parenting, if she’d like, we can simply award full custody of children to fathers, the way it used to be done until fairly recently in our culture, and the sex more likely to be able to support their children financially. In this way, the children aren’t bounced back and forth between houses. Moreover, awarding children to fathers has the happy side effect of heavily suppressing the divorce rate, which would do much to mend the social fabric that Mr. Douthat frets about in his article. Furthermore, father custody would better protect the interests of children and women than the sole mother custody model. Somehow, however, I don’t think that Ms. Egeli would cotton well to this alternative.


The men have off of the top, in 90% of the cases, a much higher income, on average 25% higher, yet the women must share equally in the burden of child care. Most children don’t want to live 50% one place and 50% another

Well duh. As the more productive sex, the sex that works longer hours, labors harder, does more dangerous jobs and who commutes further to get to them, and the sex less likely to choose or be afforded the choice to be a haus-herr, no kidding that husbands are the partner more likely to have a higher income in a divorce suit. And her objections to shared parenting can be solved pretty simply: don’t divorce, or award primary custody to fathers and be done with it. Again, somehow I don’t think she’ll cotton well to this idea either.

So we see that Mr. Douthat’s unfortunate failure to dig deeper into the root causes of marital instability only results in more calls for government intervention, intervention that will further sideline marriage, promotes marital dissolution, and appears to feed the solipsistic egos of women like Ms. Egeli who think that mothers alone are the relationship that matters most, and fathers are an accessory, value-added, fashionable, helpful (at times) but not critical. I suppose I can’t fault her, though. Our social policy for the last 100 years has taught her that she’s right.

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