Last night I watched "The Pursuit of Happyness". It was an adorable movie about dedication and perseverance to a dream, overcoming the odds to become successful. This dad loses everything and ends up sleeping in a bathroom in a subway station with his five-year-old boy, but they struggle through and end up multi-millionaires.
The story is cute and inspiring, but what really stuck with me about this movie was the mother’s story. She hates her life. She is tired of struggling, wondering if they can catch up on the back rent and the IRS payments, working double shifts and trying to be a wife and mother. I can really feel for her frustration, but what I don’t understand is what happens next.
He is late getting home and when he calls from a payphone to let her know, she informs him that she won’t be there when he gets back. She is just not happy anymore. He comes home to an empty house.
So, my question is: How does that make things better? The debts don’t disappear, the bills don’t disappear, communication breaks down, coordinating childcare becomes harder, and now – since you were so stressed out about not being able to afford the rent – you get to pay another rent.
She moves to New York because her sister’s boyfriend might have a job for her and we don’t see her the rest of the movie.
How can she walk away from family: her five year old son and a loving husband? The lesson here is that life sucks. Expect it. Deal with it. Leaving (because she wasn’t ‘happy’) did not make her happy, because – guess what? – life still sucks!! Her troubles did not leave her because she left her husband. The only things that changed were that they no longer shared their struggles and that she could no longer blame him for her struggles. To quote Thomas à Kempis, “whithersoever thou comest, thou bearest thyself with thee, and shalt ever find thyself,” or, in the vernacular, “wherever you go, there you are.” The way to be happy is not to have the perfect plan to avoid suffering. That leads to disappointment. The way to be happy is to expect both joy and suffering and embrace them together.
[NOTE: I don’t know what the mom in our story was seeking and I’m sure that she wouldn’t be happy with Hollywood’s portrayal of her, so I’m only reacting to that portrayal and its thinly developed character. Perhaps a better development of the mother’s character would have left me less jarred and better able to enjoy the rest of the movie. Or perhaps not.]
After stewing on that all night, today I read Heather Mac Donald’s “Too Poor to Marry?” and it has me thinking. She references a NYT article that tries to explain illegitimacy rates by explaining that many people just can’t afford to get married. Not that they can’t afford a fancy wedding, but that women can’t afford to take care of a husband in addition to their illegitimate children. “Money helps explain why well-educated Americans still marry at high rates: they can offer each other more financial support, and hire others to do chores that prompt conflict.”
Sharing chores, sharing a dwelling, and sharing child-rearing responsibilities are money saving features of marriage. And, as Heather MacDonald says:
“The notion that being a married parent requires more financial resources than being a single one is wrong not just as a matter of economic arithmetic but, more importantly, in terms of what married biological parents bring to their child — not money, but a 24/7 partnership in the extraordinarily difficult task of child-rearing. Household wealth is the least important reason to form a two-parent family; the idea that raising children as a single mother is on average in any sense easier than doing so as a couple, even in the stormiest of marital relationships, is absurd, and ignores the enormous strains of being both the sole bread-winner (or even welfare-collector) and the sole source of authority for your child. A second parent in the home provides back-up support in discipline when the other is at the breaking point, and a doubling of the emotional, intellectual, and moral resources that a child can draw on. You don’t need to be wealthy to offer that complementarity; poor married parents have raised stable, successful children for millennia.”
This leads me to Walter Williams’ four steps to avoid poverty:
My personal conclusion: Grow up. “The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.” ― Peter De Vries. I don’t care to argue the chicken and egg argument whether people don’t get married because they are emotionally immature or they don’t have to grow up because they can avoid marriage. Marriage and assuming adult responsibilities are both Good Things for a myriad of reasons, including happiness. Both are individual choices which can be encouraged but not mandated. So, when you see someone being irresponsible in a movie or book, point it out. Fight against the downward spiral of our culture, not by boycotting or trying to ban irresponsible images but by spotlighting them. Perhaps you’ll make someone else think twice before doing something stupid.