AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Mother’s Day comes on the same weekend as a great many educational institutions are celebrating commencement exercises. That coincidence has become more and more meaningful over the years to this college professor. For it illustrates a central truth about life that has been obscured in our time. That truth is that one of the main ways that graduates can be happy and have success is to pursue the majestic titles of “Mom” and “Dad.”
This is not a common conception in most of our public life—especially not in education. Most of the emphasis is on preparing students for the workforce or, at best, the workforce and civil society. It’s not that these are not important. Far from it. Much of the chaos in our country at the moment has been caused by selfishness, misbehavior, and ideological insanity in the worlds of business and government.
But perhaps one of the reasons our institutions have been so unsuccessful in preparing young people for the vocations of market and civic leadership is that they have long since ceased to prepare young men and women, even tangentially, for those much more important vocations of husband and wife, mother and father. True, not everyone will marry or raise children, but the majority ought to. For those who do, a flourishing family is much more central to a happy life than a corner office. Graduates are often left with the impression that family is a secondary concern; serious students should be focused laser-like on the next step toward their chosen careers.
This is a problem for both men and women. But it is particularly a problem for women, who have been catechized for several decades now that the idea of aiming at marriage and motherhood is a ticket to unhappiness—and have been getting married later (if at all) and having fewer children. The late philosopher and lesbian feminist Claudia Card famously wrote a 1996 article titled “Against Marriage and Motherhood,” which opposed these institutions because they did not allow adult women to live atomized lives of pursuing the ownership of stuff and erotic pursuits without any sort of commitments.
She’s not the only one. Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, wrote a book in which he interpreted research from the American Time Use Survey as indicating that women are made unhappy by marriage. He summarized his findings in 2019 thus: “Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable.”
Unfortunately, he had misunderstood the survey data he was speaking about, a mistake even left-wing Vox reported on. The survey was not asking women about how happy they were while their husbands looked on and then asking again once the husbands left the room. It was asking women whose spouses no longer lived with them. In other words, women whose husbands had left reported high levels of unhappiness, and married women reported high levels of happiness.
Dolan similarly misunderstood the data on the benefits of marriage, according to Gray Kimbrough, the economist who caught Dolan’s other mistake. It’s not that women aren’t benefitted by marriage, as Dolan seemed to think. It’s that while women benefit from marriage, men benefit even more. This fits with other research on marriage finding that those who marry will:
- Live longer
- Have fewer strokes and heart attacks
- Have a lower chance of becoming depressed
- Be less likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis and more likely to survive cancer for a longer period of time
- Survive a major operation more often
What goes for marriage goes for motherhood, too. While there is plenty of talk about how motherhood makes women unhappy, Pew Research data from 2022 shows that while mothering is difficult and tiring, it is both pleasurable and rewarding: “Overall, 83% of moms say that being a parent is enjoyable for them most (56%) or all of the time (27%). Eight-in-ten moms say being a parent is rewarding most or all of the time, with 37% saying this is the case all of the time.”
While much of the modern world’s depiction of mothering makes it out to be unimportant work that narrows the woman and wastes gifts that could be used on a broader stage than the family, the reality looks different. One of the big reasons that mothering is rewarding is that it offers the chance of giving oneself in a way that is not possible in other aspects of life, even in careers involving the care of children that teach important but narrow lessons such as how to solve linear equations. This was G. K. Chesterton’s point when he asked, “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.”
Perhaps one of the best signs that a mother is everything to her children can be found on the television cameras that pan the sidelines of football games every fall. Players who see the camera on them almost always say two words in their direction: “Hi, Mom!” Muscular giants, some of whom are headed to stardom and multimillion dollar contracts, nearly always want to communicate with the woman who taught them about the universe.
The longer I have taught college students, the more I try to encourage them to think not just about the careers they think they might have in mind, but about the possibilities of marriage and family that are no longer assumed and in too many places no longer even encouraged. Especially for young women, who often desire marriage and motherhood but feel slightly embarrassed by that desire, I have tried to tell them that these are goods that probably will have much more to do with their long-term happiness than will the type of jobs they get.
We need economic producers and citizens in the public square, certainly. But we need that institution that precedes all politics and ultimately serves as the foundation of politics: the family. As Chesterton also wrote, “The triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.”
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.