Marriage is a funny topic in my field. One of the things I learned when I started working with this population—mostly young, low-income, non-white families—was that I had to ask what exactly “marriage” meant. Plenty of people will introduce a partner as their husband or wife. Then you get to the “marital status” section of the application, and they check “single.”
Husband and wife, it’s just terminology. Women will often call a man their husband because, while he’s not the biological father of her children, he cares for them as though he is. Men usually refer to one woman as their wife, to distinguish her from the rest. She is his favorite, “main” girl.
Come on, ladies, who wouldn’t fight for that title?
Very few of the kids I work with have married parents. Actually, only one family has a mother and father, married to one another. (La dee dah.) The rest having a shifting rotation of partners, some long term, some fly by night.
I grew up with a certain view of marriage–it is inevitable. That it is just something you do when you grow up. I had married parents, and married aunts and uncles. (And a couple of married uncles, too.) My friends were in the same situation. I knew couples that were divorced, but of course they at least gave it a try.
I would think, since the kids I work with grow up with a different norm, that their ideas of the future would play out differently. But they don’t. It’s exactly the same talk. “What do you want when you grow up?” “I want to go to college, get a job, and get married.” Huh.
The moms tend to still have this in mind as well, so maybe that is where it comes from. They have had kids, often with a couple of different men. But those men weren’t It. (Not “Pennywise the clown” It, but “Mr. Right” It.)
Some women even talked about partners they had for years, and had children with this way. They weren’t ready to marry this man they had been with for eight years and three kids. They talked about someday finding the right guy, and doing things “the right way.” Getting married. Having a family.
The first few kids were practice runs?
Marriage is status. I have one client who insists on being called “Mrs.” and gets very insulted when people forget this. I was surprised at first, because I didn’t know of any husband.
Well, there is one.
Granted, he lives with his mother, in North or South Carolina, she’s not sure which, and is, according to their daughter, “a crackhead.” Also, this woman had a boyfriend for about ten years. But show some respect. She’s a married lady.
I hear people talk about “the breakdown of marriage” and children born “out of wedlock.” I’ve talked plenty about how difficult it is to be a young, single mother, and how much respect I have for the women who do this.
So when we talk about marriage being sacred, I get a bit tetchy. Especially since it reeks of classism. “My people, we do family right!”
Personally, I don’t care about marriage too much. I don’t have the late twenties obsession I’m constantly being told by amusing, cute actresses I’m supposed to have, and I don’t have the bitter hatred and rejection of the institution that is apparently the only alternative. I just get cranky when I’m told that my uncles’ union is a threat to this sacred institution the world over.
I’m ok with marriage. I’m not ok with weddings. I don’t love being asked to spend a weekend traveling to, and attending, fancy registry gift in tow, an engagement party, bridal shower, bachelorette party, and then all the wedding weekend entails. Question-why do people still register for expensive sets of pots and pans? You’ve also registered for a rice cooker, panini pan, waffle iron, pancake griddle, George Foreman grill…what the eff food is going in these pans, you’ve already got a specific dish for every type of food you would want to make!
OK. I’ve composed myself. And we’re back on track.
We’ve all heard the line. “People these days, they focus on the wedding, not the marriage!” I find that to be true of plenty of my contemporaries.
My clients? They really want the marriage. They talk about making a run down to city hall, not renting out a villa for a celebration of their love. They want the partnership, the support.
The problem is, that’s been ruined by the fairy tale just as much as the wedding has. Who can live up to the marriages that you see on TV and in the movies? Or to the marriage that Will and Jada claim to have? The all consuming love, knowing what the other person is thinking, knowing instantly that you’re right for each other…it doesn’t usually happen quite like that. Which has left a lot of people feeling disappointed.
At least that’s something that reaches across class lines.