WaPo Part 1: The Myth that Myths About Marriage are Myths

June 14th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
As a general rule, we can expect the mainstream news media in the United States and elsewhere to get it wrong on topics related to marriage, family, childcare, divorce, child custody and the like.  This opinion piece by Stephanie Coontz is no exception (Washington Post, 5/25/12).

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, in their ground-breaking work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, persuasively made the point that mainstream news outlets have an important role to play that goes unmentioned in high school social studies classes.
 That role is to manufacture consent among the populace for elite policies, values, etc.  To that end, the MSM marginalizes or ignores ideas, opinions, facts that diverge from those of political, military, economic and other elites.  Therefore, for example, talk radio and television programs will reliably include only guests who don’t rock elite boats.  Reading newspapers and listening to broadcast news with Chomsky and Herman in mind can be very educational.

So it’s interesting to notice which elite values find a forum in the MSM and which don’t.  Take marriage, for example, as Coontz does.  Given that her article appears in one of the more influential (at least in some circles) large-circulation dailies, it follows from Chomsky and Herman’s thesis that at least a broad swath of elite opinion finds marriage to be unimportant and divorce benign.  That’s only reinforced by the misleading and sometimes downright incomprehensible approach Coontz takes to her topic, which is “Five Myths About Marriage.”

Her first “myth” is that “people don’t value marriage the way they used to.”  If that’s a myth, Coontz offers no evidence for the proposition.  Indeed, she admits that “modern Americans do put less emphasis on marriage as an institution…”  That’s putting it mildly given our 42% rate of non-marital childbearing, but her “evidence” that people value marriage isn’t that at all.  What’s important to Coontz is that people value “fairness” in marriage now and what that means is marital fidelity.  Leaving aside the fact that “fairness” in marriage and marriage itself aren’t the same things, a fact that Coontz ignores, her sole evidence for her claim about fairness is that “92 percent believe it is immoral for a married man or woman to have an affair…”  Yes, but some 20% of men and 15% of women (depending on the survey) actually commit adultery, so a fair number of Coontz’s 92% either aren’t telling the truth or are acting immorally by their own terms.

Her paragraph following that point is essentially incoherent.  It has nothing to do with how people view marriage in 2012, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what Coontz was thinking when she wrote it.

What she fails to mention is that today, 42% of children in the United States are born out of wedlock.  That’s an all-time high and it’s a figure that’s increased steadily for about 40 years.  It’s true that the divorce rate has dropped a bit over the past 30 years or so, but Coontz neglects to admit that those are people who have been married.  She ignores altogether those millions of Americans who aren’t married and probably never will be, but who procreate nevertheless.  Simply put, it doesn’t fit with her thesis, so that massive body of data goes unmentioned.

Her second “myth” is that “married women who work put in a ‘second shift’ at home.”  Well, at least she got that one right, but it’s the oldest of old news.  People who pay attention to the actual data on who does what and how much time they spend at it have long known the concept of the Second Shift to be patent nonsense.  It is now and always has been the confection of those who want the government to pay them for caring for their kids.  The fact is that, when paid and unpaid work are aggregated, men and women spend statistically the same amount of time working.  Even a casual glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey makes that clear.

Last year, it was a source of some amusement to me and others that several commentators in the MSM “discovered” the fact that’s been around for years had any of them cared to notice.  The New York Times and others ran articles that said frankly that all those claims about lazy dads forcing their long-suffering wives into a Second Shift at home were just so much bunk.  What was entertaining about those pieces was their air of discovery, their attitude of “now we know.”  Again, that’s nonsense.  We’ve known it for many years, but apparently we don’t really know it until certain people admit it.  I guess Coontz thinks she’s one of those.  The idea that she’s debunking a “myth” that no longer exists is just part of that same “Eureka!” attitude, with as much validity.

But what’s equally funny is Coontz’s “discovery” of yet another marital inequality besetting women.

The real gender inequality in marriage stems from the tendency to regard women as the default parent, the one who, in the absence of family-friendly work policies, is expected to adjust her paid work to shoulder the brunt of domestic responsibilities.

Here we have the notion that mothers enslave themselves.  Coontz avoids mentioning the fact, but the main people who “regard women as the default parent” are women themselves.  Is she really unaware of the studies on maternal gatekeeping that examine the tendency of mothers to sideline fathers in childcare?  Has she not seen the countless articles by women bemoaning their lack of children or wallowing in guilt for working too much and being apart from their kids or worst of all actually losing custody to the child’s father?  It’s true that fathers tend to fall into line behind the Moms and play second fiddle in childcare.  But it’s also true that they’re following the mothers’ lead.  The decision-maker about who does what regarding the kids is usually Mom.  And finally, it’s true that fathers are far more involved in childcare than they used to be, again as much social science shows.

But that’s social science Coontz doesn’t mention, again because it’s inconvenient to her narrative.

Then she offers this:

Women who quit their jobs or cut their hours suffer a wage penalty that widens over the years, even if they return to the job market and work continuously for two more decades. Over a lifetime, even a temporary absence from the workforce can cost a woman hundreds of thousands of dollars, making her more economically vulnerable in case of divorce or the death of her spouse.

That’s part of her paragraph talking about “gender inequality in marriage,” but she nowhere explains why the above has anything to do with gender inequality.  Do men who quit their jobs or cut back their hours not “suffer a wage penalty?”  Well, the truth is that neither men nor women suffer a penalty.  Not getting paid when you’re not working isn’t punishment for idleness, it’s, well, not getting paid for not working.  And I promise you, when men don’t work, they don’t get paid, and the same holds true for women.   And when they don’t work for many years, it puts a real crimp in their standard of living, their savings, retirement income, etc.  There’s nothing unequal about it.

It’s true that the ones to take off work to care for kids are more often women than men.  My suggestion to them would be “if you don’t want to do that, don’t.”  But they haven’t asked me my advice, likely because they don’t need it.  I’m going to guess those women understand that when you don’t work, your boss stops paying you, and, knowing that, they stop work anyway.  That’s because mothers value motherhood and don’t want to turn the job over to strangers; they want to see little Andy or Jenny grow up; they want to see the first steps, hear the first words.  More and more men want the same thing.  As many studies show, the most highly educated women – e.g. lawyers, MBAs, those with PhDs in science, technology, engineering and math fields – drop out to care for their children.  Those are women with the resources to make other decisions and the intelligence to know how, but still they opt for childcare over the corporate grind.  I say, “more power to them.”

But to Coontz, as to countless feminist excuse-makers, the choices women make and the consequences they bring just aren’t fair to women, even though the same thing happens to men when they make those choices.  No, it doesn’t make sense, but when you’re trying to manufacture consent for elite values, you do the best you can.

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