Why My 80-Something, 60-Years-Married Parents Totally Rock (and what it has to do with sexual politics…)

I’ve been grazing online, looking for a place to host my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.

When I talk to event organizers at venues, you can hear them stop short, and take in their breath, in awe and admiration:  “SIXTY years?!” they say. “Wow. I can’t imagine it.”

What’s my parents’ secret?

My dad only gave me advice when I was planning my wedding:  “There are just three things you need for a good wedding,” he intoned. “Peanuts, punch, and a gown.”

My mom occasionally tried to edify me. She said of marriage, “In my day, we didn’t really have anything else or anything better to do,” and that “you made your bed and you lay in it.”

Her best marriage advice was to chide me when I’d spurned another Nice Future Son-in-Law:  “Honestly,” she said. “There are worse things in life than being bored and unfulfilled.”

She’s right, of course. I don’t have a problem with the unfulfilled part. It’s the “bored” part that gets me.

But the secret to my parents’ persistence in other ways is the opposite of status quo thinking. They embraced modernity.

At each step, when they might have made other choices more easily, they allied themselves with the 20th century--with more opportunity for women, more equality between husbands and wives, less bigotry, and less intolerance, even though it must surely have cost them something to make that choice.

Being a “liberal” for my parents took a lot of courage and was no small feat.

My mom grew up in the segregated south, where that milieu of discrimination and racial hierarchy felt as obvious as the seasons.

And, to choose to reject that racist culture as a white person, for whom a sad social privilege and capital attached simply to being white? When they opted for a northern lifestyle, and joined the civil rights movement, as they did in my dad’s early days as a minister, they rejected a known, discriminatory power for an unknown chance at something that seemed more just to them and perhaps more socially beneficial—a level playing field.

Same thing with patriarchy. My father was a dirt-poor Depression era child; my mother was only somewhat better off.  In a world where status attaches just to being a man--the king of your castle--and to masculinity, where “your” family is the  place where you might feel socially powerful and sovereign, what if you gave that up, and cast your lot with the expansion of individual equality? What if you tried to have a marital partnership on equal terms?

My mother was a housewife for a while, a minister’s wife. Then, when I was young, she joined the momentum of the women’s movement. She got a Master’s degree in a field she adored—and my dad proudly paid for her education, and supported her career by pulling his load at home, doing the dishes, cooking for himself, and so on.  

They gave each other time apart to develop their own interests. My dad spent months sailing the intra-coastal waterways, to get his captain’s license; he switched careers a few times with my mother’s support as well.  

My parents lived by an ethic of good manners, and tolerance. I think this ingrained habit of manners in civil society allowed them to continually adapt and learn from other people.

The church they now attend has a large population of gay and lesbian members, and while this isn’t anything they’d been familiar with in their lives, they made new friends in that community as 70 year olds. They’d brunch at the gay-oriented cafes with church friends. My dad opined to me years ago that “gay marriage is a new civil rights frontier.” I’m quite sure that “gay marriage” was nowhere in his life before his 70s.

Their views, and lives, in their 80s are hipper, more tolerant and au courant than those of some 30-year olds.

None of this was prescribed by the worlds they grew up in. They had to choose it. What was prescribed for them—and what they didn’t choose—was a world where women and men had immutable places and followed tradition.  Today, a reality that’s often missed in feminist discourse, there are populations of women who believe that wives are religiously destined for subservience, and they don’t find that remediable or all that notable.

My parents embraced modernity; modernity rewarded them. They lived comfortably and joined the middle class. They were able to put all three of their children through college, and took deserved pride in that, especially since one of those colleges (mine) is among the most expensive. Their economic mobility was, in part, a function of their cultural mobility, or even something like "ideology mobility"--an openness to new opportunities and attitudes.

We hear a lot about a “war on women.” But I believe that war, such as it is, is actually one front in a larger “war.” It’s a war on the 20th century in which the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the right to privacy, and a regulatory role for the federal government in many areas, including the markets,  played key parts.

Conservative politicians today are out of sympathy with most if not all of these 20th-century transformations. Rick Santorum voices the common view, which I’ll try to represent fairly, that innovations such as birth control, feminism and the sexual revolution have undermined the social foundations of family, because they privilege individual freedoms, and weaken incentives to form families, or to raise children within marriage. Santorum has said that the family, not equal individuals, are the basis of American society. Birth control allows for no-strings sex, for example and that weakens the institution of marriage.

Some of his views are extreme, but Santorum’s aversion to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s is fairly idiomatic among contemporary conservatives. 

My view is the opposite. The modernization of marriage, the emergence of women’s and spousal equality, the loosening of gender prescriptions, equal opportunity in education and career, legal prohibitions on domestic violence, abuse, and marital rape, and sexual freedoms has unleashed individual potential and the latitude to forge marital bonds that work.  Maybe this is why the professional classes, who took the most advantage of these movements and opportunities, are marrying more successfully today than other groups.

I know that other couples have lived by other values, and made it to their 60th anniversary as well. But as for my parents, their story counts too, and it’s a story of success through modernity.

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