I am a happily married mother. Most days, I wake up before the sun, and even with all three kids in school I spend the majority of my waking hours on tasks related to their needs. I pack lunches and help with homework and arrange playdates and drive to soccer practice and clip fingernails and toenails and purchase far too many fresh white socks on a regular basis. I pray with my kids and sing with them and read with them and eat with them. It is a full and largely pleasant life marked by plenty of tedious tasks and plenty of laughter.
It is easy to bemoan my situation, and I spent plenty of time complaining to God during the early years of diapers and sleepless nights and sick days and snow days. It is also pretty easy to chastise myself for complaining, because I know how blessed I am to have this husband and these kids. I know I shouldn’t take the joys of each day for granted.
Marriage and children make it easy to complain, easy to give thanks, and easy to remain focused solely upon the concerns of the five people who comprise my immediate family.
But what I have only begun to understand recently is how marriage sets us apart as a family. More than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried. As Isabel Sawhill wrote recently for the New York Times:
“For every child lifted out of poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty as a result of the continued breakdown of the American family. If we could turn back the marriage clock to 1970, before the sharp rise in divorce and single parenthood began, the child poverty rate would be 20 percent lower than it is now. Even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it.”
Statistically speaking, marriage provides economic stability for our whole family. Economic stability leads both to emotional stability and various personal opportunities. Moreover, marriage offers me a lifeline. Marriage gives me power, in fact, because it protects me from the vulnerability I would otherwise face as a single parent or as a single woman.
I was oddly but equally struck by the power of marriage when I read Wesley Hill’s recent cover article for Christianity Today: Why Can’t Men Be Friends? Hill focuses upon the possibility of deep and rich friendship among people of the same sex, and he delves into historical examples of these types of friendships alongside theological reasons for pursuing spiritual friendships in our contemporary setting.
Hill describes two types of relationships, according to Maggie Gallagher:
[In one,] "You're mine because I love you." In this relationship, you and I may belong to a special friendship and share many of the joys that friendship makes possible. But such joys will last only as long as my love lasts. If I tire of you or am hurt by you, I'm free to walk away—no obligations, no hoops to jump through, no strings attached.
The second relationship Gallagher describes has the tag "I love you because you're mine." Here, my love isn't the basis of our connection. It's the other way around: We are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn't mean I'll walk away.”
The second one, of course, sounds a lot like marriage (and parenthood), and I would argue that married people are the most likely ones to experience this type of love. And sure, in this type of love there is often intimacy involved. But on a more mundane level, there’s my husband as a dinner companion, and a person to pitch in with the kids when I’m sick, and a helper when the trash is overflowing in the kitchen. When I'm too annoyed to keep cajoling my daughter to brush her teeth, my husband steps in. When he needs thirty more minutes in the office, I still make sure the kids eat dinner. Marriage provides us all--husband, wife, and children--with a backup plan.
What struck me by Hill’s article is that although the church wants to make room—spacious, gracious, inviting room—for the single parents and the single people alike, it is hard to imagine us doing so unless the married ones among us recognize our power and decide to use that power for the blessing of the community.
It is hard to imagine a single person inviting our family over for Thanksgiving dinner (though I will say that single people have invited us over for lovely meals in the past although they had to overcome some natural social barriers to even extend this type of hospitality). It is hard to imagine a single person inviting our family on vaction. It is hard to imagine a single person reaching out to me to ask for the type of practical help and companionship my husband provides. But we have a family into which we could pretty easily receive other people. I'm not suggesting an open invitation to all single people in the church on special events, though of course that would be nice too. I'm suggesting something more intimate--each married couple committing themselves to one or two single parents or single men/women throughout the years, offering an invitation into a spiritual family.
Marriage is a good that many people in our culture do not and will not experience. For those of us who have been given the stability and power that comes with it, my hope and prayer is that we wield it well. That we use it not only for ourselves but for our neighbors, not only for our own comfort but for the comfort of our community, especially for those who are particularly vulnerable among us.
Perhaps if we can wield the power of marriage not to draw a tight boundary around our immediate family but instead to open our family up to others, we will better understand what Jesus meant when he called us brothers and sisters. Perhaps we will better understand, and live into, the family of God.