Raising children has never been easy. For today's parents, however, it has become a conspicuous source of anxiety and distress. A recent crop of books and articles give voice to this complaint. In surveys, parents report lower levels of marital happiness than nonparents.
Why is this happening? Are parents merely whining? Or is there an objective reason for their distress?
As the lead essay in this year's State of Our Unions report by Rutgers' National Marriage Project discloses, there is an objective reason for parental discontent: a dramatic, but until now largely unacknowledged, change in the pattern of our adult lives.
Within living memory, the larger share of the adult lives of most Americans consisted of years spent with minor children in the household. Today, however, the larger share of the adult lives of most Americans consists of the years before and after child rearing. This change is particularly striking in the lives of women.
As a National Marriage Project analysis of Census Bureau data shows, women are now entering their active child-rearing years at older ages than in the past and ending child-rearing years at younger ages. In 1970, 73.6 percent of women, ages 25-29, had already entered their child-rearing years and were living with at least one minor child of their own. By 2000, the share had dropped to 48.7 percent. In 1970, 27.4 percent of women, ages 50-54, had at least one minor child of their own in the household. By 2000, the share of such women had fallen to 15.4 percent.
A growing percentage of women today are not having any children. In 2004, almost one out of five women in their early forties was childless. In 1976, it was one out of ten.
"Child rearing is no longer the defining experience of adult life," says co-director and author of the report's essay, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "Parents today feel out of synch with the larger adult world."
The 2006 report also includes good news and bad news on the marriage front. The good news: for the college-educated minority of the American population, marriage appears to have gotten stronger in recent years. The bad news: For everyone else, marriage continues to get weaker. "The 'marriage gap' is generating a society of greater inequality," says National Marriage Project founder and co-director, David Popenoe. "America is becoming a nation divided not only by education and income levels but by unequal family structures."
The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, 2006, the eighth annual report released from the National Marriage Project, will be released today: http://marriage.rutgers.edu.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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