By: Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson
I was reminded of this profound responsibility in becoming a new mother again just four months ago.
This little soul—who bears the genetic imprint of the father and mother who brought him into being—looks to us for every aspect of his survival. We are the source of his understanding of who he is, who he can trust, and where he belongs in this world.
In seeing such vulnerability, I am reminded of the pain we have all at some time felt looking into the face of a child who learns that one of the parents who brought him or her into being no longer desires to be married to that child’s mother or father—or the face of a child who yearns to know who his father or mother is, what he or she looks like, what their personality is like.
Such images cut through our abstract ideologies and theoretical arguments. They remind me again that the most important thing we can do for a child is to heal and strengthen the relationship that brought him or her into being and that is the foundation for his or her identity. They remind me that each child is entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. They remind me that although adults marry for many reasons—some better than others—the ultimate societal purpose of marriage is “to protect children—our only real future—by uniting them with the man and woman who made them.”
No child can defend these rights him or herself. It is we—as a society—who must ensure that marriage protects children by increasing the likelihood that they will be born to and raised by their own mother and father. In the words of Maggie Gallagher, we must all work together to help build marriages “strong enough that a child’s heart can rely upon them.”
Any discussion about marriage that diverts our attention from that core concern—and focuses on adult concerns—including adult sexual desires and behaviors—has taken us away from what the real moral concern of marriage ought to be. The rights of children, the needs of children must not be divorced from marriage!
Sadly, our current debates about redefining marriage are not focused on the needs of the children. Instead the debate is framed in terms of adult “rights” and “freedoms” to marry. But in the end, it is children, who will be most affected by how we tamper with marriage.
When we genuinely focus on the needs of children, we will see through the false idea that mothers and fathers are replaceable. Children need more than two parents, even two loving parents. For “all the love in the world cannot turn a mother into a father or a father into a mother.” As a mother, I know that my love cannot replace the unique influence and protection of my children’s father. And their father knows that no matter how much he tries, his love cannot replace the tender nurture of their mother.
Fathers and mothers give their children something else fundamental to their well-being. The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim says it well—“To a child, Father and Mother represent more than caring affection, more than love. They represent the clear and coherent genealogy that allows a child to find his place as an individual. They situate him in a generational chain—a chain that guarantees each individual a place in the world in which he lives because he knows where he came from…”
No wonder then when society weakens marriage, children suffer. Decades of social science research has proved this fact in a frightening manner. We have long known that maternal sensitivity is the single most consistent predictor of a child’s development. But research similarly confirms the significance of fathers. Children from fatherless families experience higher rates of incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and various forms of abuse. When children grow up without their mothers and fathers, something happens to their hearts.
We do not have to be against anyone to be for marriage. And it is not discrimination to ensure that, as much as possible, a child be reared by his or her married mother and father. Every generation is tested. Every generation must stand for something. This is our test. Will we stand for marriage? Much is being said in our society now about being on the “right side of history.” When we stand on the right side of children, we cannot go wrong. May God bless us to be on their side.
Dr. Jenet Erickson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. A member of the National Council on Family Relations and a member and reviewer of the Association for Research on Mothering, Dr. Erickson has published a variety of peer-reviewed, family-related articles and presented at the National Council on Family Relations Conference and the Utah Council on Family Relations. She and her husband, Michael, are the parents of two children.