My Happy, Childless Marriage
A new study is being hailed as proof that kids make a marriage stronger. Rachel Shukert on what the researchers got wrong—and what people with kids should never say to childless couples.
As someone who has now been married longer than I attended university, but has as yet failed to produce children—or more accurately, grandchildren, of either the “great” or “regular” variety—I find myself frequently on the receiving end of childbearing wisdom. I’ve heard rhapsodies about the transcendent splendor of parenthood, how manufacturing a tiny human capable of stuffing hunks of saliva-damp banana into your disc drive catapults you to personal fulfillment. I’ve heard how my hesitation to do so belies an inherent streak of selfishness in my character. I’ve even heard that failure to give birth by age 30 has been linked to a higher likelihood of developing certain cancers. (As of this writing, I’ve got about six weeks to deliver.)
But now, apparently, even my marriage may be threatened by my joyless, selfish, cancerous reluctance to let my husband fill me up with his little babies.
Apparently my marriage may be threatened by my joyless, selfish, cancerous reluctance to let my husband fill me up with his little babies.
According to the recently released results from the Marriage and Cohabitation Study, begun by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002, 79 percent of couples who had a baby within eight months of getting married were still together in 10 years. Some 54 percent of couples that conceived a child together before getting married made it to 10 years, as did 55 percent of couples that already had a child prior to marrying.
And the percentage of childless couples that celebrated a 10th anniversary? 34 percent.
“While we don’t have any direct measures of the quality of a marriage, I think you can infer three things from this data,” said Bill Mosher, a statistician at the CDC. “One, not having children during a first marriage can sometimes be an indicator that there is stress within the marriage. Two, an inability to have children can cause also cause stress on the relationship. And third, once children do arrive, they often become a strong reason for people to stay together.”
On their surface, I don’t think anyone would argue with the probability of these inferences. They do, however, make for an interesting contrast with the data from the extensive National Survey of Families and Households, which found no significant difference in reported happiness between childless couples and couples with children, or with the findings of another study carried out by two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that reported that while men seem to get happier as they move into middle age, women’s happiness levels peak in their twenties and sharply decrease from there. From this data, one could also reasonably infer that parenthood is like any other difficult, stressful job, and not an automatic, unrevoked plug in to some metaphysical Na’vi Dead Relative Sex Tree of Bliss.
Is that truly the case? Who knows? The larger point is that it’s possible to interpret the data in whatever fashion best supports the interpreter’s point of view. For instance, since women’s happiness supposedly takes a dive around the age women tend to become mothers, why not infer that motherhood makes women miserable? It’s also worth pointing out that surveys on other subjects rarely seem to garner as much soul-searching. Boulder, Colorado, is consistently rated the “happiest city in America,” yet never have I read an op-ed hysterically demanding that we all move to Boulder, or, for that matter, one full of righteous indignation at the very suggestion that Boulder has some undeniable charms. But because society still feels entitled to exercise diktats about how relationships and childhood are best ordered (and also because there is scarcely a publication in America that can resist telling women how they’re failing, especially under the guise of “friendly advice”), studies like these are ascribed an importance that, frankly, they do not deserve.
Statistics are just that: statistics. If the data claims that statistically, a couple with children is more likely to stay together than a couple without, then that is inarguably, quantitatively true. But to see these percentages as portents of an impending heartbreak is to forget that love is not based on numbers. Relationships are made up solely of people, each of whom bring their own unique strengths and failings to the table. A CDC-funded government survey can’t measure how you light up every time your wife enters a room or how your husband is the only one who knows how to talk you off the ledge, nor can it quantify how she doesn’t listen to your needs or how he makes you feel useless or trapped.
I don’t debate the fact that these studies are worthwhile, from an administrative point of view, which is all they are really there for. But to assume that unless I have a baby, my marriage has a 66 percent chance of total destruction is to employ the same paranoid, reductive thinking that makes some people think that, say, same-sex marriage poses an existentialist threat to their own. None of us are responsible for anyone’s relationship. My marriage does not live or die on the strength of yours, and yours is not dependent on the success of mine, unless we happen to be sleeping with each other’s husbands.
And if that’s the case, I’m not sure a baby is going to save us.
Rachel Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories. Her new book, Everything Is Going To Be Great , will be published in August by Harper Perennial. Follow her on Twitter.