So if you look at past columns you will see that I usually adopt a sort of free-wheeling, stream-of-semi-consciousness approach to my writing that doesn’t lend itself well to factual data, or second drafts, or pretty much anything beyond SpellCheck (and even then …).
This is not one of those columns. I’m actually going to try to make a serious point here. Don’t get used to it though; I plan to get back to being thoroughly irresponsible and gratuitously inflammatory as soon as possible.
Okay, so the title alone is enough to get right-wing types all hot and bothered to the point where they are soiling their nineteenth century bloomers, but hear me out. There is a method to this madness. But first, the background upon which I am basing my argument.
It is a fondly held belief in some conservative circles that the most stable family is one in which Dad goes to work, Mom stays home and takes care of the house, and Wally and the Beav get into harmless, yet somehow charming and endearing, boyhood mischief with Eddie Haskell[i]. Under this arrangement, the bills get paid by Dad, the house is always spotless and smells friggin’ awesome courtesy of Mom, and the kids always have a safe, solid home base from which to venture forth into the world.
I am not going to argue this is or is not a stable environment for children; there has been scads of research to support the contention that it is (it is important to note, however, that the same research holds that this is not the ONLY stable environment for children). I am also not going to debate the merits of this arrangement, since I grew up in a household similar to this (the most notable exceptions being that my dad didn’t wear cardigans and we had a Volvo station wagon instead of the OldsmoBuick Behemoth Deluxe) and am therefore predisposed toward this sort of thing.
However, it got me to thinking: how come we don’t see this family structure as often these days?
There are some who point to abortion, the pill, the sexual revolution, gay marriage, global warming, sunspots, the inherent evil of Democrats/Republicans/other, the end of the draft, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 … the list goes on and on. But I think it actually comes down to a very simple premise.
We just can’t afford it.
Consider: even in the early 1970s, when I was a kid, the number of families in my neighborhood that had the mom also working outside the home, even if it was part time, was pretty high. And this wasn’t some downtrodden, sketchy part of town, either … the vast majority were military families, most of whom were officers educated by their respective academies. My dad, for example, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1960. Most of the other families were Air Force, but that had more to do with the proximity to Andrews Air Force Base than anything. The point is, this was a solidly middle-class neighborhood in the Washington, DC suburbs, with good schools, a relatively low crime rate, and an annual Mother’s Day Boy Scout Pancake breakfast at the entrance to the development that had the most awesome pancakes ever.
Since then, however, it has become more and more difficult for a family of four to maintain a middle class lifestyle on a single income. Wages have been stagnant for over a decade, while the cost of everything just keeps going up. The job market is still in the doldrums, and households with two incomes have become the norm.
The problem is that, now that both parents work (and I’m not even addressing single parenthood, either through choice, accident, death or divorce), more and more children are left at the mercy of a day care system that is poorly regulated, mind-bogglingly expensive and at times highly inconvenient for the working parent(s). It also reduces the amount of time children have at home and leads to a transient, peripatetic lifestyle that, quite frankly, sucks. Participation in extracurricular activities is more difficult due to transportation issues. It becomes a rarity that a family gets to sit down to dinner together at home; more often than not it’s a pizza being delivered or a burger at the Little League snack stand.
One option that has been floated is that families hire help. However, this is also very expensive, it’s risky because you never know if the person you hire is Alice from “The Brady Bunch” or Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and it means that, if the person you hire also has kids, then those kids are getting the short end of the stick.
Fortunately, I have a solution: legalize plural marriage.
I’ll wait while you gasp in disbelief.
Done? Good. Now, I can anticipate the hand-wringing that will be going on right about now: this will trivialize, and thus destroy “traditional marriage”; it’s but a slippery slope to bestiality, free love, and kids with names like “Rainbow Equal Freedom McAllister” and “Joyous Celebration Perkins”; and on and on and on. So before we start with the rending of garments and tearing of hair (with my hairline and clothing budget, I can’t afford either one of these), let’s consider the following points.
First, this would change the status of the stay-at-home person from “hired help” to “member of the family”. I realize that there are households with live-in caretakers who are considered to be members of the family, but in a legal sense they are not. By allowing them to actually be a family member, they would have the same rights as any other spouse, including:
- Rights of survivorship.
- The right to make medical decisions on behalf of minors in the family.
- The right to be claimed as a dependent spouse on the working spouse(s)’ tax returns.
- The ability to participate in the employer-sponsored health insurance from the working spouse(s).
- The right to participate in the working spouse’s retirement plans.
- Spousal Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Second, extended families have been a part of human society for thousands of years. There was a time when it was not at all uncommon to find a household, presided over by one or both grandparents, with their children and families all living under one roof (this model is still practiced in many non-Western cultures). These extended families became communities unto themselves in the larger framework of the communities in which they existed. The children growing up in these families had no shortage of caretakers, they were able to see the world from several different viewpoints, and often they had numerous cousins the same age with whom they could play and learn social skills. Later these extended families moved out from under a single roof, but were still within the same community. In the post-Civil War era of American history, it was not at all out of the ordinary for a child to have his aunts and uncles living next door and his grandparents down the street.[ii]
Fast forward to World War II. Immediately after the war, the idea of a nuclear family began to take hold: a small, completely autonomous, self-contained family unit that (thanks to the democratization of the automobile) was able to pick up and light out for a completely different part of the country. A trip to Grandma’s, which had previously been a short walk down the block (or at most a Sunday drive across town) now became an eight or nine hour trek that the family made once or twice a year. Families that previously been located within walking distance to one another now lived in separate time zones.
By allowing plural marriage, the concept of an extended family could be reintroduced in a way that would actually make sense in the modern climate of both economic and geographic diversity. But let’s consider a couple of scenarios.
First, we’ll look at Alex and Michele Jones. They met in college, married shortly after graduation, and after a few years started having kids (ending up with three). Alex works on commission, so some months are lighter than others. Because of this, Michele also works a full-time job as a graphic artist for a fairly large printing company. This drives her nuts, because she would much rather be at home with the kids; it’s just that they can’t afford to do much more than scrape by on Alex’s salary alone … and the health insurance offered through his employer is incredibly expensive and not very comprehensive.
As a result, each day they have to get the kids up, fed, dressed, ready for school, and out the door to day care by 7 AM. They will then pick them up around 6 PM, so that they can get home, throw together some kind of quick dinner (or just order pizza, if it’s been an especially stressful day), and get the kids washed, teeth brushed, pajamas on, homework done and in bed by 9 PM. And if one of the kids has Little League or a music recital or anything like that, then it becomes a mad scramble to get anything done at all before bedtime. Only then can they even think about taking care of laundry, cleaning up the dishes, etc. before falling into bed to grab a few hours sleep for the next day. Often they will go for two or three days without a meaningful word between them because of all this.
Now, let’s consider this same scenario but with the addition of a third person, Debra[iii]. Debra is a dental hygienist for a fairly prosperous dental practice in town. Her salary isn’t the greatest, but the health insurance is fantastic and she gets five weeks of paid leave each year. With Debra in the picture, Michele can stay at home and take care of the house and kids, like she really wants to. She loves to cook as well, and this would allow her the freedom to find and try new recipes. Alex doesn’t have to worry as much about the “lighter” months, since they have Debra’s salary to back them up. Debra enjoys greater financial and emotional security being a part of the family than she would living on her own. The kids aren’t being jammed into day care for up to eleven hours per day in the summer. They are also given ample opportunity at home to do homework, etc. before dinner. Speaking of dinner, this tends to be a healthier proposition, since the family isn’t as rushed and therefore relies less on takeout and delivery.
With three parents in the home, it becomes easier to handle if one of them doesn’t feel well, had a horrible day, etc. It also becomes less dictatorial, since all three have to be in agreement on parenting issues, etc. … which has the added benefit of teaching the children by example the value of working collaboratively. The children enjoy greater security and stability, since there is always a parent at home.
Now, I know what most people are going to ask about now, which is “How do they handle … you know … s-e-x? Do Michele and Debra share Alex on separate nights, or is it a free-for-all romp?” The answer to this is, of course, none of your damned business. All anyone needs to know is that there is no coercion involved, and that the children are not being exposed to any inappropriate behavior.
Look, If you want to be in a marriage with one man and one woman, that’s fine. I am the last person to tell anyone who they should or should not marry. If your marriage consists of two men, or two women, or a man and two women, or a woman and two men, or three woman, or two men and three women … the exact configuration doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the following concepts are always present:
- All parties are there of their own free will.
- All parties have the same level of commitment to the family.
- Everyone involved is an equal partner. This extends to everything – financial decisions, parenting, etc.
- There is no abuse, period. Physical, emotional, financial, sexual … none of it.
- Each person is an individual and not a faceless part of some collective.
If, in the scenario above, Alex decides he wants to dedicate one corner of the rec room as a shrine to the Boston Red Sox (and let’s face it, who could blame him?) then he should be able to propose that without fear of being dismissed out of hand (of course, if he tries to build one to the New York Yankees, then that would be considered grounds for divorce, if not assault in self defense). As with any family, the most important thing is mutual love and respect, something that (sadly) is lacking even in many “traditional” families.
I know this isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. I would be the last to try to force anything down someone’s throat. All I’m advocating here is that one of the most intimate parts of a person’s life – who he or she chooses to partner with, or how many hes and or shes that is – should remain private and outside the scope of government regulation.
I gotta lie down.
[i] Interesting bit of trivia that I just made up: Eddie Haskell is actually John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, notoriously inappropriate lead singer for the seminal 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols.
[ii] Granted, there were downsides to this arrangement. It made it very easy for people to adopt insular, exclusionary attitudes and foster a “us vs them” mindset that made it difficult for children to broaden their horizons.
[iii]It is important to point out that Debra could just as easily be Donald, The genders don’t really come into play here, since we are talking about the legal, financial, and parenting ramifications of a third parent being part of the household. Similarly, Donald could be the stay-at-home parent while Alex and Michele work outside of the home.