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Feature – Newsweek Gets it Wrong on Relationships

Photo: Nicky Johnston/ First Response, Great Britain

Photo: Nicky Johnston/ First Response, Great Britain

Ms Garraway, 46, is fronting a campaign to encourage young women to think about fertility and giving birth much younger than “her generation”. As part of the campaign, Ms Garraway spent a day being transformed into a heavily pregnant 70 year-old by Adrian Rigby, a prosthetic make-up artist, to “shock and provoke debate about how old is too old to have a baby”. [UK Telegraph]

LOOKING at relationships, I find it telling that casual writers on the subject give marriage advice that hinges on bringing back the feminine mystique years and suggesting marrying younger would solve the problems that only better and smarter choices can conquer. Megan McArdle is the latest to jump into giving this type of very bad relationship advice for Newsweek magazine.

It runs smack into the latest commercial campaign in Great Britain that encourages British femmes to get pregnant younger, warning them what will happen if they don’t. The “Get Britain Fertile” campaign, sponsored by the pregnancy testing company First Response, which should be the tip off for everyone but isn’t, is being accused of “shaming” and scaring women without providing the realities of why women wait to have a child. They’re a commercial pregnancy testing company, so why would they want to give the whole story?

From Think Progress:

Get Britain Fertile ambassadors Garraway and Zita West insist that they are not trying to push women into a panic over their ticking fertility clocks. Yet the campaign, which officially launches June 3, would do well to extend beyond the caricature of the old woman. Thus far, First Response has not suggested they will explore ways to bridge the vast disparity between the average cost of raising a child – roughly half a million dollars in the US, not including college tuition – and the employment prospects of the average 25-year-old couple. In the US, the average college-educated 20-something earns $45,000 a year, while their unemployment rate is far higher than their older counterparts. Highly-educated young people are also increasingly finding it difficult to find jobs that match their very expensive education. In the UK, two-fifths of all unemployed people are younger than 25. Nor does the campaign touch on the UK’s childcare costs, which are the second highest in the world.

In the U.S., studies show that women with fewer economic advantages are having children before they find a man to marry at an increasing rate. Not wanting to miss out on childbirth, but having no guarantee that the available men from which to choose will stick around and honor the commitment of marriage, with divorce an equally perilous financial course as single parenting, these women are making the decision to get pregnant and take their chances. The result is disastrous for the children and for our society.

Children are important to women, and when the prospects for a “good” marriage or high earnings seem far out of reach, many women figure, what am I waiting for? Yet the costs to society and to their children in higher risks for poverty and all its associated problems are too high. Society must both work harder to instill the message that having children when you’re not yet financially or emotionally ready is a huge risk to the child’s future well-being, and to support these children after they’re born to ensure that they do not fall into a poverty trap for another generation–because those costs are equally high. – The Costs to Society and Children of Unintended Pregnancy [Knot Yet]

What are the costs of these bad choices?

“If all unintended pregnancies were prevented, the resulting savings on medical spending alone would equal more than three quarters of the federal FY 2010 appropriation for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs and would be roughly equivalent to the amount that the federal government spends each year on the Child Care and Development Fund.” [Knot Yet]

McArdle’s solution? Start marrying younger again, so that at least a woman will be married when she has a child. It’s a back to the future philosophy: to solidify today, we must go back to when everything worked magically, never mind that it didn’t.

She gives an example of one girl whose choices are the problem, not the fact that she didn’t marry younger before making them. A woman named “Molly” who is clearly unstable, which means everyone in her wake will be victimized. A trusting, horny, irresponsible guy that doesn’t take his own precautions is as stupid as the choices Molly makes. So why should we be surprised when it ends in a train wreck? McArdle is shocked that it ends better for the man, “Alexander,” than “Molly,” even though she caused her own problems.

Shortly after Alexander moved to New York, he met Molly while playing pool in a bar. (“Alexander” and “Molly” are not their real names.) She was a fast talker, and cute, and said they had graduated from the same university. (He later discovered she had dropped out.) Pretty soon, she’d moved into his place. They didn’t need to use condoms, she told him; she was being careful.

This is how most of the poor single women that Edin studied ended up pregnant; they said they weren’t trying to get pregnant, but they also weren’t using birth control.

McArdle makes no assessments of the ridiculously irresponsible choices of these two people. A girl who was looking for a guy who was stupid enough to put his life in her hands in the first place by abdicating his own responsibility during sex is where the problems started.

You’d think McArdle would at least serve up the “trust but verify” standard for this relationship. It’s so obvious. If you don’t know the person you’re sleeping with why are you trusting them with your future? It’s not complicated, but yet McArdle wants to twist everything into a social nightmare that actually begins with jettisoning basic common sense.

We’ve been talking about unintended pregnancies for generations. But articles like McArdle’s in Newsweek continue to pour out from smart outlets like the Daily Beast without first stating that the problem is not just with women, whatever their economic class. Men still aren’t wearing condoms, because of the age old complaint that they diminish pleasure, while leaving all the responsibility to women.

Unbeknownst to McArdle, evidently, marrying younger won’t solve this problem.

But McArdle writes on economics, not relationships. Yet this is what she serves up without a hint that she understands the irony of her statements.

Economists and policymakers have been trying for decades to figure out a way to restore the kind of broad middle-class prosperity that characterized most of the 20th century; so far, the consensus is “Beats me.” Nor does anyone have any good way to change culture. The intense stigmas that used to support family formation–on spinsterhood, on sex and children outside of marriage–imposed terrible suffering on those who didn’t marry early and reproduce on schedule. And even if we wanted to bring them back, it’s hard to see how we could. Especially when, for the working classes, there’s no longer hope of an economically stable future to wait for before having children. What can those communities say to prospective parents: that failing to use birth control consistently will delay your promotion to assistant manager at the Walmart? Given that the majority of first births to Walmart’s labor pool now occur outside of marriage, that’s not even necessarily true.

We’ve got a jobs crisis in the working- and middle-class. It’s now mirrored by the crisis among the well educated class that has so much student debt, coupled with fewer jobs at the salary they expect so they can’t pay back what they owe, which is hampering relationships, because we’re turned off by a partner with huge debt. From a national survey of “5,500 unattached adults 21 and older”:

65% would not date someone with credit card debt greater than $5,000; 54% would not date someone with substantial student loan debt. [USA Today]

McArdle goes on to cite Ross Douthat, someone who also has no clue about the glue that holds relationships together. They’re both bound by ideology, which is fine, but not when giving relationship advice that ignores financial practicalities.

For some time now, conservatives have been arguing that the changes wrought by the 1960s have been good for elites, who have the social capital and resources to navigate the new sexual landscape, but bad for the rest of the country. Elites have plenty of resources to negotiate this brave new sexual world. It’s easier for them to get and use contraception consistently and to pay for abortions if they make a mistake. But for people who don’t have so much financial and social capital, conservatives argue, this has been disastrous. The failure of upper-middle-class liberals “to preach what they already tend to practice,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it, has resulted in an exploding number of children being raised in fragile, unstable households.

So, what’s McArdle’s advice? Is it to move more manufacturing back to the U.S.? Is it foster better economic policies that don’t concentrate wealth in the top 1%? No, it’s to get married earlier so you’ll have someone to share the bills!

But that shouldn’t keep us from trying some sort of change–to inch the age at first marriage down, and the age at first conception up, until the lines once again cross. The average age at first marriage can’t keep rising indefinitely, yet professional educations and careers keep demanding a longer and longer time to get established before we cap it all off with a wedding. And for women without those opportunities, or aspirations, the problem is even more dire. Unless something changes, we are heading for a situation in which a huge number of American children–possibly the majority–are growing up without their fathers.

Cultural change is not easy. But it is not impossible, either. The first step, of course, is admitting we have a problem. Perhaps the second step is telling people on the cusp of adulthood that, hey, you should maybe start looking for someone to spend the rest of your life with.

That is the closer of her article.

The culmination of advice from an economic conservative who offered not one idea about how relationships are ignited, cultivated and nurtured, which leads to them lasting.

It’s fitting this is rising in the 50th anniversary year of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a book whose research is a fountain of discovery all these years later, especially as we hear conservatives giving marriage and relationship advice that is premised on “changes wrought by the 1960s,” which they’re alleging was great for “elites,” but is hurting the working- and middle-class.

It’s not cohabitation that’s hurting people.

It’s not sexual liberation that destigmatized sex before marriage and set women free to enjoy sex and make smarter choices when it comes to husbands and life long partners.

It’s not feminism that’s a problem. It set women free to be individuals who do something, instead of just be feminine as the ultimate outcome of personhood.

It’s not postponing marriage that’s causing single motherhood to rise.

It’s amnesia and the perpetually forwarded fallacy that the 1950s was a time where everything worked. It only “worked,” because women had to remain silent since we had no alternatives and no way to live other than in a marriage, whether it was good or bad. It only “worked” for children, because no one talked about the unhappiness inside families that gave rise to the historic divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s. It only worked in our society, because men were writing the reviews.

The biggest thing that’s missing in the equation today is the economics of the middle class. With the social and economic liberation of the late 20th century in full swing, women and men are competing for jobs. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a conversation until recently about the partnership required from two people in a marriage of economic equality, where women need a man to extend his partnership duties beyond provider and protector.

Men aren’t going to change the very nature of who they are and the purpose they have when in a relationship. To protect and provide is ingrained. However, that in no way means he has to be the only or primary breadwinner of a family. But it does require a partnership in the true sense of the word, which goes much, much deeper than McArdle’s Newsweek article.

We cannot deny the freedom and equality both sexes have today, but we do need to talk about it, because while women are overworked, men have become overwrought by the societal and economic changes.

The answer is not to declare a “war on men,” as Suzanne Venker did. It is to accept we’re redefining our partnerships in a modern era that more times than not requires both people in it to work full time to make ends meet. This is done to make sure children have all they need, including the chance to shoot for their dreams, whether through college or learning a skill or trade. We can’t keep looking back to the “good old days” that “worked,” because they actually didn’t, at least not for most women.

The biggest problems, which McArdle’s article reveals spectacularly, down to citing Douthat, is that the politics of sex in America, which is the fulcrum of relationship advice in the modern era, is counterproductively divided through ideology. It’s ripping this country apart.

Poorer women who want children, but see no hope in a marriage with a flighty male are making horrific choices to have a child by themselves. That it’s going to be impossibly difficult and cost our society should be obvious. Single motherhood is not easy, in fact, it’s lunacy unless you’re rich. This isn’t a liberal notion or a conservative point of view, it’s basic common sense. But a woman now has the choice to have a child by herself if she wants, especially with men begging off of commitment, but that doesn’t make it smart. But just because a woman wants a child doesn’t mean she should get married younger so there’s a man around.

We shouldn’t be surprised this cycle of bad decisions is not ending well for anyone. But we mustn’t buy into the fiction that marrying younger will change anything for the better.

The idiotic notion that a less economically advantaged woman should get married earlier, so when she gets pregnant there is a father, is an absurd proposition on its face. That the Daily Beast editors published McArdle’s nonsense is an example of the real foundation of our problems. We can’t look back for the answers today. Suggesting marrying younger without a relationship foundation that includes an economic and sexual partnership, the two biggest causes for break-ups, with divorce equally harmful to women as single motherhood, is lunacy. Wishing to have more children, so wistfully thinking starting earlier is the answer, when adoption is always an option and does so much good, doesn’t solve anything.

Then there is how and why women and men choose to have sex with each other. Serial monogamy is a valid lifestyle today, as is cohabitation, but it’s a lot harder to pull off when you’re thinking about children, career and your future, so bad choices have real ramifications. In the modern era, freedom means you have no one to blame for the choices you make but yourself. That doesn’t mean the costs to society won’t be great. The fallout for children on our choices isn’t anything to take lightly, because bringing a life into this world comes with awesome responsibilities and commitment.

It’s not the 1960s that’s the problem. It’s that our country no longer values the importance of a living wage in our society for everyone, which now means men and women.

If we took relationships as seriously as we do business partnerships we’d be on to something, because that’s part of what marriage is. You can’t have secrets. You can’t lie. Truth and trust are the foundation and you wouldn’t sleep with another business and betray your partner, so why would you do so in a relationship, whether it’s marriage or not?

You wouldn’t think of starting a business partnership when you’re very young and before the economics of the merger were discussed. If you also dreamed of expanding your business at some point, known as children, you wouldn’t jump into it before everything was set into place, because you could lose everything.

Better marriages begin with stable people, whether we’re talking a man or a woman. That begins with what makes you, personally, tick. Something that you want to do with your life that is beyond getting married and raising a family, which is very important, but isn’t enough. Each parent must be their own individual, too, beyond the roles they play in the family.

Marrying younger won’t solve anything. It can work. It depends on if the two people involved have their act together, know who they are and what they want and aren’t afraid to communicate that to the person they love. If they want the same things, have an agreement on finances, and like the sex they’re getting, then agree they’re in a partnership they both want to last, no matter what happens.

That’s what it will take for a relationship to work in the modern era and it has absolutely nothing to do with marrying younger.


This post was originally posted on 5.30.13.

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6 Responses to Feature – Newsweek Gets it Wrong on Relationships

  1. secularhumanizinevoluter May 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    “Marrying younger won’t solve anything. It can work. It depends on if the two people involved have their act together, know who they are and what they want and aren’t afraid to communicate that to the person they love. If they want the same things, have an agreement on finances, and like the sex they’re getting, then agree they’re in a partnership they both want to last, no matter what happens.

    This paragraph is the key….no matter WHAT age one is talking about.

    • Taylor Marsh May 30, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      Appreciate you taking the time to comment, secularh.

      I’ve been covering the politics of sex for a very long time, which is different from D & R politics. I’ll be doing more of it from now on.

      It’s amazing how many casual writers on the subject offer such bad advice.

  2. Ga6thDem May 30, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    This way of thinking has been around a long time. I am beyond sick of hearing about the 50′s. If the 50′s were so great then there would have been no 60′s. As far as getting married, yes, it can work when you are younger but the odds are against it. The younger you marry, the more likely you are to divorce simply because most people are just not mature enough at 18 to handle marriage.

    • Taylor Marsh May 30, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      Thanks Ga6thDem.

      You are so right. It’s like there’s collective amnesia.

  3. ladywalker68 May 30, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Great piece, Taylor. There are many quotable quotes, but this is the one that is most on the money: “McArdle’s solution? Start marrying younger again, so that at least a woman will be married when she has a child. It’s a back to the future philosophy: to solidify today, we must go back to when everything worked magically, never mind that it didn’t.”

    BRILLIANT!!! ;)

  4. fairmindedindependent May 31, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Their are going to be alot of women and men for that matter maybe don’t want to have children, its their right not too if they choose so. Women want to have sure that everything is in order and usually its when they are older, that pretty smart. Women never had that choice in the 1950s and before. Women like Dolly Parton and Oprah Winfrey put their careers first instead of having children and god bless them for it.

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