February 14, 2005
Like everything romantic, Valentine's Day is a hit-or-miss proposition. If you're happily in love, it's great. If not, hearts and flowers make you feel like everyone else has found happiness, and this time of year is the dreariest.
It doesn't help that we Americans seem to turn love into a competitive sport. Witness the advertisements for high-speed dating, the reductio ad absurdum of rat-race romanticism.
And then there are the ubiquitous examinations of why we aren't as happy as we should be: Today's New York Times op-ed page www.nytimes.com has a piece by Judith Warner, quoting a report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers http://marriage.rutgers.edu/ that claims children are a "growing impediment" to a happy marriage.
In Warner's view, nursing, co-sleeping, and attachment parenting are making husbands and wives alienated from each other.
Warner backs this up with no research whatsoever. Instead, she cites statistics showing that divorce is down slightly, but that married couples report that they are less happy with each other than they were a generation ago.
But the reason for the unhappiness, according to the couples interviewed by the Marriage Project folks, is not too much baby-snuggling. As it turns out, working all the time is getting them down.
Beware overgeneralized analysis that blames parental "permissiveness" and other bugaboos of family-values promoters for our fall from an idealized past.
For a thorough analysis of the oft-cited Marriage Project, by the way, check out http://www.unmarried.org/nmp.html.
But back to that buried reference to couples' real reasons for their unhappiness. Warner says in the Times that from 1973 to 1976, 51 percent of children were living in homes where the parents described their marriage as "very happy." That number fell to 37 percent between 1997 and 2002.
What else happened during that time?
As Juliet Schor reported in her famous book, The Overworked American, the average American was working 163 hours, or a full month per year more by 1992 than in 1972.
Every form of leisure, including family time and meals together, has precipitously declined.
Even the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation is alarmed. The "I'd Rather Be Fishing" folks put out a fact sheet http://www.rbff.org/pressroom/factsheet_report.cfm?id=214 that warns, among other things, that children's play time has declined by 25 percent and "unstructured" outdoor play by 50 percent over the last 20 years. Family dinners have decreased by 33 percent, and fathers are now working 50.9 hours a week, while mothers are working 41.4 hours.
Before anyone jumps up to blame women's mass entry into the workforce, let me point out that June Cleaver is actually not feeling a whole lot better than the stressed-out do-it-all moms of today. Depression among full-time stay-at-home mothers is right up there with shift workers. While married men live longer and are less depressed, married women are more likely to be depressed and don't live as long. Low social status and pressure to meet everyone else's needs still conspire to keep women down. (check out the Reader's Companion to Women's History: http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/women/html/wm_009800_depression.htm)
Couples where both partners are involved in childrearing, household, and work activities, seem to be the most satisfied.
But more than anything, getting off the earn-and-spend treadmill has got to be the key to family health and happiness.
In her most recent work, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, Juliet Schor reports that the manic consumerism of our society continues to fuel this trend. It doesn't look much better for the next generation, as the average kindergartener can identify some 300 logos.
Start saving that allowance money!!!
It seems that too much commerce is the real enemy of marital and family bliss.
So forget about buying stuff today. Give someone a big hug, and take a break from working to be with the people you love.