According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who consider children to be “very important for a successful marriage” has dropped to 41 percent, down from 65 percent since 1990. Satisfying sex (70 percent), sharing household chores (62 percent) and good housing (51 percent) all outranked parenthood on the marriage meter.
As the parents of two and the grandparents of six, we are clearly way out of step with this social trend. So was Phil Kaiser.
Phil died in May at age 93, and at his memorial service this week, many speakers recalled his professional accomplishments as a diplomat and public official under four Democratic presidents. They were warm and funny and occasionally eloquent. But only his son Bob (a friend since college) and his granddaughter Emily wept as they spoke.
Which raises the question: Who will cry for you? Friends, business associates, tennis partners, therapists – they will all remember you fondly and some will even miss you deeply. But will they weep? Has your impact on their lives been so strong that your passing will move them to tears?
Phil and Hannah Kaiser were married for 67 years. We’re approaching our 41st anniversary, but we totally respect others who made different choices than we did. We have friends and relatives who are happier without spouses or offspring. Others wanted a family but never found the right partner or conceived a child. We are not judging them.
But in our experience, marriage and parenthood are right for most people most of the time. As human beings, we derive our greatest joy from serving others, not ourselves. In the long run, changing diapers is a whole lot more satisfying than changing bedmates.
Sociologists who have studied marriage are not surprised at the Pew findings. Pop culture sends very strong signals – think about yourself first, your needs and toys and pleasures. “Sex and the City” has replaced “The Brady Bunch.” The Magic Kingdom is Las Vegas, not Disneyland. Sports cars are in, strollers are out.
But parents, at least good ones, hardly ever think of themselves first. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a shrewd observer at the National Marriage Project, was quoted by the Associated Press: “The popular culture is increasingly oriented to fulfilling the X-rated fantasies and desires of adults. Child-rearing values – sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity – seem stale and musty by comparison.”
The Washington Post, writing about the Pew study, included this comment from David Joyce, a father of two from Forestville, Md.: “I think what we’re running into a lot ... is people saying, ‘It needs to be about me.’ And it doesn’t. It needs to be about ‘us’ or about ‘we.’ Anything that’s based on a ‘me’ scenario isn’t going to last very long.”
Well said. The notion that the values of “sacrifice” or “dependability” are antithetical to personal happiness gets it exactly wrong. Making sacrifices, being dependable and thinking of “we” create the moments that give marriage its deepest meaning.
Families can also provide life’s most painful moments, and the Kaiser clan is no exception. One son, Charles, described the stress of telling his parents that he is gay. Another, David, detailed his “long struggle” to gain his father’s approval. One speaker joked that Phil was delighted when his three boys were known as his sons; he was less thrilled when he became known, over the years, as their father.
But for us, the highlights of the morning were provided by two grandchildren. Tom Kaiser talked about learning to play tennis with his grandfather and absorbing the old man’s competitive spirit. “He never let me win,” Tom recalled to peals of knowing laughter, “even if I just happened to be nine.”
Emily Kaiser recalled having lunch with Phil and the pride he took in her new project, a book on tea. In their last conversation, she said, choking up, he told her over the phone, “I have a great story for you about tea! It involves a prime minister!”
Perhaps we were touched by these tales because we’ve just spent two weeks of vacation with all of our own grandkids. In keeping with tradition, the baby, now 20 months, slept in our room, and she awoke happily every morning before 6 a.m. Cokie would gather her up and take her down to the beach. The two of them would sit there watching the rising sun emerge from the sea, and the baby would say, “ball.”
That sure beats sharing household chores.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.