Unhappily Ever After


Boston. -- I have been waiting for someone to notice.

After all, when Murphy Brown got pregnant the whole country followed her progress from testing kit to delivery room. Dan Quayle singled her out of the TV pack and started a national flap about unwed and uppity mothers.

But Roseanne's sister Jackie gets pregnant on a first date with a friend of Dan's. She loses a game of contraceptive roulette with a broken condom. She determinedly goes down the road to motherhood on her own. And there isn't an analytical peep from the zeitgeist watchers.

Could it be that we've finally stopped talking about sitcom characters in, um, "reality-based" discussions about public policy? Could it be that we have different attitudes toward the working class, the upper class, the underclass?

Or could it be because this grittiest of sitcoms raised a real-life issue that seems peculiarly absent from the current debate about the economics, morality and cultural messages around unwed motherhood? It raised the issue of the unhappy marriage.

In a recent episode, Roseanne, hoping to push her reluctant sister closer to the altar, invited the unwed father-to-be for dinner. But her matchmaking impulses were chilled before the main course. Suddenly she discovered that her own parents' marriage was the result of a pregnancy. The mismatch that produced the unhappy home that Jackie and Roseanne grew up in began with Roseanne's conception.

For one moment, I could feel the recoil from the old shotgun marriage. In that moment, it occurred to me that this has become a rather rare sensation.

In a society focused on the current disaster of single-parent families, we seem to have developed a cultural amnesia about the earlier disaster of forced marriages. We forget how much of the social change has come from an attempt at shotgun control.

I bow to no one in my wish that every child have two loving parents. I share the national dismay at cultural messages glamorizing unwed motherhood.

But I worry that we fuse all single parents -- unwed and divorced, deliberate and accidental, responsible and irresponsible -- into one worst-case profile.

Pre-marital conception has always been with us. For much of time, we dealt with it by post-conception marriage. We have more than halved such marriages in the past 20 years. One reason we put the shotguns away is that more of us began worrying about marriage as a temporary license on the way to divorce. Another reason is that more of us also worried about the side effects of unhappy families on their children. Have we forgotten that piece of our own social history? Have we forgotten why we tied our cultural tongue?

Today, singleness is talked about as the most widespread dysfunction of family life. We live with an economy that requires two incomes for one middle-class lifestyle. Psychologists tell us again that children need two parents for one sense of security.

In such a climate, our public attitudes are turning around, and perhaps too broadly. The cry of an unhappy marriage is often now regarded as the self-indulgent complaint of adults who won't put the best interests of their children first. People who stay together for the sake of the children are virtuous, and single mothers are foolish. If not "tramps."

Maybe it took Roseanne -- the model of a tenacious marriage, cemented with love and humor -- to honestly remind us of other troubled homes. To remind us that parents who stay together for the children eventually have to answer to the children.

If sister Jackie is more afraid of a bad marriage than single motherhood, she learned at her parents' knees. If I were the scriptwriter, I would write love into her life, and marriage with the father of her child. It would be a pleasure.

But real life isn't manipulated so easily. Real life is not a single episode, it's a long-running series. And anyway you look at it, an unhappy marriage is still not a happy ending.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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