NICOLE RUSSELL: The American family is dying before our eyes

We’ve known for a while that the fabric of the traditional, nuclear family unit has been changing for some time. About 41% of first-time marriages end in divorce; about 60% of second marriages do. These statistics aren’t terribly new, but a new Pew Research survey revealed some new opinions about family, marriage, and kids that are stunning.

In a report, Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family, Pew revealed few Americans think that having children and being married are key to a happy life. About 26% think having kids is an essential part of fulfillment and just 23% think being married is a key component of happiness. Instead, in the survey, Americans mostly pointed to high job satisfaction and even close friendships as far more fulfilling than being married or being a parent. Over 70% of people said having a career is important to achieve life fulfillment and over 60% said they’d factor in close friendships when evaluating that metric.

One can at least understand why people divorce, but it’s harder to understand why so few people aspire to parenthood, or see it as a factor for overall life happiness. Being a mom has been one of the great joys of my life.

In 2010, New York Magazine ran a headline that, as a mother of two kids under three years old at the time --- now I have four children under 16 years old --- caught my attention: “All Joy and No Fun, Why Parents Hate Parenting.” The early years of parenting are full of physical labor. Until a child reaches at least five years old, he needs help doing everything. If a parent has more children --- at one time I had four children under six years old --- the mere physical labor involved in getting through segments of the day is exhausting. I used to joke to friends that when the kids were little, we spent all morning getting ready for morning only to nap and then spend all night getting ready for evening.

When they become teens, that’s a different beast entirely and is much less physical but far more emotional: Now the kids’ decisions, and yours, have consequences. They want to drive cars, date, get jobs, and go to college. It makes the younger years look easy in terms of the stakes, but still difficult, because parents are still getting far less sleep.

Of course, there are innumerable moments of joy throughout parenting, from all the Big Firsts, to the mundane trips to get ice- cream, and thousands like it in between. The love a parent has for a child is pure and ferocious. Done right, parenting requires every bit of energy parents have. A parent would die for his child without thinking.

But living for your children, really living and thriving --- taking care of your children is another thing entirely. Thriving with children who don’t know (and may never know) the magnitude and breadth of what parents do for them, from supporting them financially, to bearing the brunt of a sarcastic remark, is one of the most difficult things parents probably do, save for endure a terminal disease or, God forbid, death.

It is hard to be a selfless person, much less a selfless parent towards a child who can’t see and acknowledge everything their parent does for them. This is very difficult for some people and so it makes sense that these parents find little satisfaction in being parents, because they lack that capacity to give of themselves. We have also become a society that values self-happiness and self-fulfillment above all and that pushes other priorities that require this trait much farther down.

It is also true that even the most selfless parents find parenting grueling, either because of their marital situation, financial situation, health, lack of support, and more. Both political parties know that the family is the bedrock of our society and both struggle to implement policies that will help families thrive. Democrats’ solution is often to throw more money at more programs so families remain dependent on welfare aid and fail to find their footing. While Republicans often inwardly scoff at families who need help or, at the least, do not wish the government would intervene as much as it does in family life. Childcare costs alone are extraordinary now and an example of a problem that continues to rear its head while solutions are hard to come by, either public or private.

Both our government and our culture need to work to help families so that people value parenting again. We need children to thrive. If we really value family as much as we say, we need to encourage the private and public sector, non-profit organizations and the state, to implement ideas, plans, and programs that will help parents function in parenting and thus once again, embrace the work and the joy.

Image: Title: Dying american family


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