The debate surrounding Measure 6, the shared parenting initiative, has been illuminating for me. I have spoken with mothers who were scared the measure would make them split parenting time with the father and fathers who were scared the measure would make them split parenting time with the mother. I’ve spoken with mothers and (mostly) fathers who were hopeful that this measure would allow them to be a part of their child’s life. I’ve spoken with young adults who believed they would have benefited from more shared parenting and others who believed shared parenting was detrimental to their upbringing.
What’s been far more striking than the arguments on either side of the measure, however, is the incredible amount of pain and anguish that each of these people have communicated. Even those who believe they ended up with the best possible custody arrangement still bear the emotional scars of a broken family. Child custody law was clearly intended to make the best of horrific and awful circumstances when they could not be avoided. It was never meant to be a part of every day American life engulfing nearly half of our children.
If the conversations I have had about Measure 6 are any indication then the chart above represents over 40 years of growing and spreading misery as stable families become less and less common (and that’s for those lucky enough not to be among the millions of children murdered before birth in that same time frame). How did we get here? And perhaps just as importantly what are we prepared to do to really fix this?
There have been a lot of ups and downs in the country’s economy over the last 40 years and none of them seem to have done anything to slow down the decrease in the percentage of children being raised with both parents together in the same home. This is probably not a problem with an economic solution.
It was once common to hope that increasing access to contraceptives and advancement in contraceptive technology would solve these types of social ills. The hope was that children would more often be conceived only by parents who had chosen to have them and the parents would only choose to have them when they were in a stable relationship that could provide a family for the child. As the chart above shows that has not turned out to be the case. This is probably not a problem with a technological solution.
There is, of course, a totalitarian approach to this problem. But I hope and trust that all SAB readers share my complete abhorrence for that approach. Besides, just over forty years ago nearly all children grew up in a home together with both of their parents and that didn’t require total government control of our reproduction.
Ultimately the only real solution to this problem is probably cultural. We might consider returning to a cultural expectation that you shouldn’t participate in baby-making activity if you’re not willing to go all the way through raising a child together in the same home. We might revive a cultural expectation that people who have made a child together should follow through on that commitment even if one or both of them aren’t enjoying the relationship anymore. We might consider trying to raise our children to meet those expectations.
Some people will not live up to these expectations, that has always been the case. Sometimes separation really is necessary and what is best for the child, that has also always been the case. But we can do better than this mess we have created where broken families have practically become the norm. We have done better in the past and we can do so again. The first step is to admit it’s a real problem and one that we want to address.