By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Children rank as the highest source of personal fulfillment for their parents but have dropped to one of the least-cited factors in a successful marriage, according to a national survey to be released today.
In a study that shows how separately marriage and children are viewed, Americans expressed great passion for their sons and daughters but clearly did not see them as the glue of their adult relationships.
On a list of nine contributors to success in marriage, children were trumped by faithfulness, a happy sexual relationship, household chore-sharing, economic factors such as adequate income and good housing, common religious beliefs, and shared tastes and interests, the nonprofit Pew Research Center found.
"Marriage today, like the rest of our lives, is about personal satisfaction," said Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociology and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, noting that there are mixed consequences for the changing views of marriage.
"It allows us to grow and change throughout our lives, and most Americans value that," Cherlin said. "On the other hand, our relationships are much more fragile, because we think we should leave them if they become unsatisfying."
The 88-page report, bringing together demographic trends and survey results from interviews of 2,020 adults this year, underscores a widening gap between parenthood and marriage -- at a time when living together out of wedlock has grown increasingly common and nearly one in four births is to an unmarried woman.
As Sarah Vassiliou, 42, of the District described it: "When I think of marriage, I don't think of children at all. I have them. But with marriage, I think of a husband and a wife, and I don't think it's the children that make it work."
Her views are reflected in several statistics. Asked about the purpose of marriage, for example, Americans said by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio that it is the "mutual happiness and fulfillment" of adults rather than the "bearing and raising of children."
When given the list of nine features to consider as part of a successful marriage, 41 percent of Americans said children were "very important," compared with 65 percent in 1990, a 24 percentage-point drop the report calls "perhaps the single most striking finding from the survey." The other major difference was in chore-sharing, which went up in importance by 15 percentage points to 62 percent.
This might be explained by a greater emphasis on soul mate relationships in marriage and an increasing recognition of the stress involved in raising children, said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. There is also a more widespread belief that having children is a choice, she said.
"Marriage and kids were kind of hyphenated before," she said, "and now the hyphens have been removed."
However, parental love and appreciation are not in dispute.
About 85 percent of parents with children younger than 18 described those relationships as a top source of personal fulfillment -- slightly more than relationships with spouses and partners and much more than relationships with mothers, fathers and friends. Free-time activities, along with careers and jobs, were cited as the lowest-ranking sources of fulfillment.
And although marriage for the sake of children is on the wane, many parents talk about how much better a healthy marriage gets when children are added.
In Takoma Park, Dianne Mock, 38, said the decision to marry was not based on having a baby. At the time, her husband said he did not want children. Now, nine years later, they have a 15-month-old son, she said, and "it didn't necessarily improve our marriage -- the marriage was great -- but it opened up a whole new area."
The Pew report says that blacks and Hispanics were much more likely to list children as a key to marital success but that both groups are more likely to have children outside marriage and are less likely to be married in general.
The report also says people with lower education and income levels of any race or ethnicity were more likely to describe children as being important to a successful marriage in addition to good housing and adequate income.
Americans expressed a high regard for marriage overall, the report says, even as it loses ground. Births are up among unmarried mothers, not because of teens giving birth but because more unmarried women in their 20s are having children. Nearly half of people in their 30s and 40s have lived with a partner, the study found. And overall, about half of "cohabiting" relationships end within five years, the study notes, and those that last longer often lead to marriage.
Doreen Byrne, 53, a Baltimore nurse who was part of the survey, remains a believer in marriage despite hers ending in a painful divorce after 23 years. "There aren't a lot of things that people can commit to and stick with," she said. "It's the fact that it's a constant, and I think that in our lives we need that; it grounds us."
Not everyone is happy with the changes in family life. More than 65 percent of Americans say single women having children is bad for society, and 59 percent say the same about unmarried couples. The public is more accepting of divorce when parents are unhappy with each other.
Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said a child needs a home with a mother and a father to grow up happily.
"I feel like marriage is so important for the parents and the kids," said Temika Stover, 27, of the District, who was interviewed by researchers. "I feel like life will be so much better if people just do it the right way."
But in her own circumstances, Stover acknowledges a certain reluctance. For much of the past 11 years, she has lived with the father of her three children, and they have not married.
"That's a lifetime commitment," she said. "I want to make sure we are strong enough as one before we sign those papers."
It is that sort of complexity that underlies many of the changes presented in the study.
David Joyce, 57, of Forestville, who was also interviewed, said his views have shifted over the years. "I thought children were very important to a marriage, and then I had kids, and I realized that the two people have to agree on things, and if they can't, the children aren't going to help at all," he said. "Having another stress factor isn't a solution."
Joyce, a father of two, has been married 29 years. "Marriage is not a picnic," he says, but it's worth the bumpy road, the highs and lows -- and he laments what he sees as a self-centeredness that has taken hold.
"I think what we're running into a lot anymore is people saying, 'It needs to be about me.' And it doesn't. It needs to be about 'us' or about 'we.' Anything that's based on a 'me' scenario isn't going to last very long."