Couples reject the mainstream
I was 21 when I got married in the early 1960s, and not a moment too soon. I felt I was on the cusp of being perceived as an “old” bride. My older sister had married a month after her 19th birthday a few years before.
Virtually everyone I knew was married and had become parents twice over before their 30th birthdays. I had my two at 25 and 27. Fertility problems were rare, because women’s fertility peaks between the ages of 15 and 25.
The American writer John Updike published a wonderful story in The New Yorker: “When Everyone was Pregnant.” That’s what my world was like when I was in my twenties: Everyone was pregnant.
Statistics Canada has just published its 2006 Canadian Family Portrait, and not only is everyone not pregnant any more, it seems that marriage is now unfashionable. For the first time in the census’ history, more Canadian adults—more than 51% of adults—have never been married. Even 20 years ago, more than 60% were married.
Common-law families—the most popular arrangement in Quebec for many years now—have surged by 18.9% since 2001, and lone-parent families, 80% of which are headed by women, jumped by 7.8%.
The number of households without children has risen sharply, by 11.2%, and so has the number of one-person households, by 11.8%. Lots of gay people are forming households, as might be expected with the legalization of gay marriage, even though only 16.5% of Canada’s 45,345 same-sex couples actually chose marriage.
Diversity seems to be the theme in 2006: marry, don’t marry, live common-law with no kids, live alone and have kids, or just live alone.
There is no template for “coming of age.” Still, notes Anne Milan, senior analyst with Statistics Canada demography division, even though fewer Canadians are getting married, marriage remains “the single most common foundation on which Canadians build a family.” Marriage overall “remains an important family structure.”
For how long? How long can an institution remain important when it is not privileged, either in law or in the reigning ideological discourse, as more worthy than other lifestyle choices?
Ms. Milan’s words sound more wistfully hopeful than optimistic. More and more, marriage is beginning to look like a kind of vestigial ritual undertaken by those from certain ethnic communities or out of respect for one’s old-fashioned parents, one without any particular inherent social, moral or civic status to make of it an aspirational goal or an achievement of any special kind. The state does not reward you if you marry; it doesn’t penalize you if you don’t. Society doesn’t think more or less of you, whether you have a wedding ring or just live together.
Why were we so eager to marry in the past? I mean, aside from the obvious reason that one was allowed to have sex without guilt, with finally a place of one’s own to have it in. (There were people who bravely lived “in sin,” but not in the same city as their parents; the scandal would have been too much for them to bear.) It was because in marrying, we actually felt we had changed. We had crossed an existential threshold and became a contributing member of society. Marriage was perceived as an exciting adventure and a symbol that one was at last mature, ready for responsibility, worthy of respect. People who failed to marry by their thirties were pitied. It was assumed there was something “wrong” with them.
Looking back, I have to marvel at the eagerness with which we gave up our freedom and turned our backs on the idea of other options. It was because society made us feel we were more important than we had been before, as single people. We were important because we were going to have children.
Society approved of that. Trickling tributaries before, we had joined the mainstream.
We’re all tributaries now, free to meander here and there in freedom, which has been, since the 1960s, the reigning value in Western society. But when tributaries feel no compulsion to seek the river, the river slows and muddies.
We’re drying up as a society, because we have turned our backs on the idea of marriage as meaningful, as the step to children and regenerating society. We have turned our back on the mainstream.