Culture At Large

Parenting is not a covenantal relationship. Marriage is.

Tamara Hill Murphy

I don’t know if it was the provocative title - “How American parenting is killing the American marriage” - or the actual content, but something about a recent Quartz article caused 47 of my friends to share it on Facebook. Maybe it was the opening sentence: “Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America.”

While the cultural timeline might be accurate, I’d argue the underlying root of idolatry is not new at all. Most telling was the caption under the photo of a yawning newborn: “It’s hard not to worship them.” In any typical marriage, we pretty quickly lose the misplaced desire to worship our spouse. In our attempt to regain relational security, it’s very tempting to turn that affection onto our children. In between the widening chasm of our hopes for a life-long love and our fear of being left alone, we lean on our children to bridge the gap. 

The Quartz article caught my attention because I am smack in the middle of a humbling season of parenting, during which my kids leave home and begin to indicate how our parenting prepared them for adulthood. Many nights my husband and I sit down to dinner, look at each other across the table and wonder whether those vows we said nearly 25 years ago got used up in the sheer exhaustion of sustaining four human beings.

I think we’re going to make it, but I know and love many people who don’t make it, so many who dedicate themselves to their children for life but their spouses for the short term. I don’t take for granted my own proclivity to place the weight of my need for love and identity onto my relationships with my children.

If parenting is killing marriages, it's because we've mixed up two forms of affection.

In Telling Secrets, pastor and author Frederick Buechener confesses his own guilt in placing this sort of weight on his children: "I, with my eyes wide open, closed my eyes for years to the secret that I was looking to my children to give me more than either they had it in their power to give or could have given without somehow crippling themselves in the process. I thought that what I was afraid of more than anything else was that something awful would happen to them, but the secret I began to glimpse was that I was really less afraid for the children than I was afraid for myself."

Scripturally, we see language describing parental affection as a natural, God-imitating instinct to love that which we’ve created. The language used for marriage is about making covenants and keeping vows. This, too, imitates God, not in His capacity as Creator but in His commitment to keep the vows He made, first to the nation of Israel and then to all of us who enter in as the Bride of Christ. 

From the moment we bring our children into the world, we begin the process of growing away from each other. We release our need to be made whole by them and their life choices as an act of hospitable, unconditional love. Marriage, on the other hand, is a covenant relationship that seeks to shrink the gap between two people - not to diminish the personhood of either, but to instead together form a new entity, with Christ at the center.

If American parenting is killing the American marriage, it is because we have mixed up these two affections. We say it’s all for the sake of the children, but really this twisted dynamic makes it all about us. Both parenting and marriage reflect our Creator and covenant-keeping God, but the two are not interchangeable. True love demands we understand the difference.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America, Home & Family, Family, Marriage, Parenting