Foreword: The topic discussed in this article is a sensitive one. This piece is in no way intended to condemn or to chastise. Instead, my hope is to spark much needed conversation around the state of Black marriage in our community. My only request is that those of us who desire marriage read the piece (in it’s entirety) with an open mind.
“Nobody Comes Before My Kids” is a statement I’ve encountered in the Black community more times than I can count. I guess I just always assumed it referred to the outside world. And why wouldn’t my son come before some stranger on the street, right? Well,the other day I learned that my interpretation was way off when a friend posed the question:
“If a woman marries a man who is not the father of her child, who comes first? Spouse or child?”
Almost unanimously the group chat lit up with comments proclaiming that children come before any spouse. Period.
The overwhelming justification, well spouses can leave at any time, but children are forever. I was flabbergasted. In what world were children actually children forever? Where did people adopt such a convoluted philosophy as it pertained to parenting within the confines of marriage? And could this mentality be contributing to the constant decline of stable households in the Black community? One thing I know for sure is that this philosophy isn’t just incorrect, it’s harmful and needs to be addressed. So, let’s address it.
The ugly truth is that most of us didn’t come from healthy, two-parent homes or have healthy relationships modeled for us throughout our childhood. That’s right, most. Married-couple families declined from 78% of all Black families in 1950 to 48% in 1991 and didn’t stop there. Today, only 34% of African-American minors below the age of 18 live with both parents, and that number accounts for both married and cohabiting couples. The fact that a portion of us grew up with great fathers does not remedy the reality of fatherlessness in the Black community. I can recall from as early as 5th grade that my father stuck out like a sore thumb at parent teacher conferences. I’d ask my classmates nonchalantly “Your daddy didn’t come again?”, only to be met with a mixture of irritation and embarrassment. My family dynamic was not the norm. And some of you will scoff at this, proclaiming that you, the product of a single parent home, turned out just fine. While that very well may be the case, we would be remiss to overlook the importance of healthy familial modeling for children. The social phenomenon known as modeling says children primarily learn values, roles, behaviors, etc. within their family structure and by relying on parents as the models. When family structures are unstable, when parents are absent, emotionally distant, or preoccupied, these lessons can become distorted, incomplete, or go untaught altogether. Essentially, we’re showing up to take the exams having missed all of the necessary lessons. And how can we be expected to model healthy, functional relationships for our children if we fundamentally don’t know what they look like? I don’t believe we can.
When two people are in a healthy, committed relationship they begin to lay the foundation for a stable home, one conducive for raising children. As children are later introduced to the home, the pair maneuver the journey of parenthood together, further bonding over milestones, challenges, memories, events, and experiences. Essentially the two experience the highs and lows of parenthood as a unit, although the child is present along the way and is ultimately the focal point of the journey, the child is more a beneficiary than a contributor. In contrast, many women who experience pregnancy without the consistent support of a spouse/partner describe identical bonding experiences with their children. Developing partner-like relationships as opposed to parental relationships, ultimately viewing their child as equal parts support system and dependent. Relationships like this can confuse children well into adulthood, many finding it difficult to form their own intimate partnerships out of fear that they might alienate their parent. This dynamic also cripples the parent who now has an unhealthy, unrealistic attachment to their offspring. One that makes maintaining intimate adult partnerships exceedingly difficult. How does someone come into your life and fill a role that isn’t vacant?
Silver divorce, also known as gray divorce, describes the growing number of divorced couples ages 50 and over, a number which has more than doubled since the 1990’s. Sure, more women can support themselves financially, and in some instances, this has made divorce less of a deterrent. On the other hand, there’s less stigma surrounding divorce in general meaning less people are willing to remain miserable for the sake of saving face. But the most common complaint between silver separators is lack of commitment. Not to be conflated with infidelity, lack of commitment refers to a lack of commitment to the marriage itself and this isn’t just an older couple problem, this accounts for 73% of all divorce complaints. What we see is that couples devote the most formative years of their marriage to everything except their marriage. And it’s not just the children getting in the way, we’ve birthed a society that promotes individual social climbing above all else. Our jobs pay well but we can have more money. A Masters’ degree is good but why not grab a PhD while you’re at it. By the time the kids move on and we’ve attained as many accolades as our social media profiles can carry, we realize we no longer recognize the person we started the journey with. Neglected marriages turn spouses into roommates living parallel lives and when the dust settles, we find that most of our marriages have pretty much dissolved themselves.
Marriages that are not tended to do not survive. Too many of us learned about marriage from television and fairytales, mediums that only chronicle the challenges of partnership up until the wedding. So, it should come as no surprise that most of our marriages end right after the ceremony. There is no happily-ever-after that you don’t create for yourself and neglected spouses are not selfish babies grumbling over big pieces of chicken. Spouses deserve to be listened to, considered, consulted, tended to, compromised with, appreciated, and prioritized within the confines of a marriage and when this happens, children benefit by default. This isn’t opinion, this is fact. The research is clear that the social, health, emotional and economic benefits of marriage extend to everyone, especially our children. Children raised in healthy two-parent homes outperform their peers in every measurable category. From overall academic performance to building healthy social and intimate relationships to exhibiting emotional and behavioral stability. The healthier the marriage, the healthier the children. No one benefits from a marriage that does not prioritize itself. No one.
My fear is that the validity of this article won’t sink in until many of us become silver divorcées ourselves, sitting across the table from familiar strangers with whom we share a name. Yes, children should be of high importance within the home, that goes without saying. But very little of what children need consists of what we tangibly provide for them. Outside of food, clothing, and shelter, most of what children need to grow healthy and happy comes from watching the people around them. Raising children isn’t just about how much we give them, it’s about what we show them. Are your children learning self discipline? Are they learning compromise? Are they learning healthy relationships through modeling? Are they learning to focus on effort as opposed to perfection? Are they learning emotional intelligence? Are they learning to form happiness habits? Outside of learning that they’re your King or Queen, what are you modeling for your child and who are you modeling it with? This isn’t about religion or gender roles or societal pressures to be married and create the stereotypical picture-perfect family. This is about our community holding firm to beliefs that breed dysfunction and refusing to deal with the fallout.
Let’s be real. Some of us don’t want to acknowledge that we use our children as emotional safety nets for failed relationships. Investing our all and then some into our children because we believe parental relationships are the only relationships through which we can experience reciprocity. But we cannot maintain partnerships with our spouses if our children are in their place. The time to focus on marriage is not at the tail end of it and your children do not suffer because you do so. I didn’t suffer because my father prioritized my mother’s physical upkeep and ensured that she felt beautiful and cared for. I didn’t suffer because we only ate meals with both parents present and waited every Christmas for my dad to return from church, no matter how long we had to stare at our wrapped gifts in agony. My father was my mother’s priority, my mother was my father’s priority, and as a unit they made sure that we were cared for. Surprisingly, not a single one of their children ended up starving or hanging from a hypothetical cliff. Marriage is work, work that doesn’t end when you say I do and work that won’t be put off until you decide you have time. We’re a generation that won’t admit that we don’t really know what it is we’re doing but the state of our community is yelling it on our behalf. I, for one, think it’s about time we listened.