“I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago,” wrote former First Lady Barbara Bush, in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly a few weeks before she died in April this year. The decades-long marriage of George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce yielded six children, two Oval Office occupants, two governorships, several books and seventeen grandchildren. It’s not far-fetched to say that the stability of the Bush marriage became the groundwork of ambition and endeavor for the entire clan.
All marriages don’t have the Bush yield, but a stable marriage reflects not only the outcomes of future generations within a family unit, but also in society. Studies show that marriage and family are important predictors of educational achievement, economic mobility as well as mental and physical well-being.
“In many respects the way the family goes, society goes, and we see that happening around the world,” said Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News, speaking on Nov. 30 at a Brookings Institution moderated panel on American Family Survey’s latest findings on relationships, marriages and family in America.
According to the survey, a good 64 percent of Americans believe that marriage makes them better-off financially and 59 percent think that marriage creates strong families. A majority of Americans hold to the ideology that society is better off when people are married.
While stable families create favorable economic conditions, the data also confirmed that lower income respondents (less than $40,000 annual income) were less likely to be married, leading to the assumption that poverty is both cause and effect of unstable families.
Most interestingly, calling oneself a “parent” or a “spouse” is more meaningful to Americans than identifying as Catholic or Asian or Republican.
“People still want to be at a dinner table and have a conversation and many of their choices, social choices, come from that unit of family in all its forms,” observed Wilks.
All this intuitively makes sense. Wealthier people tend to be married. Two paychecks at the end of the month are far better than a single one. Children thrive within stable family units and those raised within two parent units are more likely to go to college and graduate.
These views readily correlate to immigration topics. When it comes to how the U. S. government treats visa holders and asylum seekers, Americans overwhelmingly believe that keeping families together is the right thing to do, whether it is to favor family immigration and naturalization for spouses and children, or detaining children with their parents.
The findings, while not revelatory, reinforced the idea of marriage and family that we tend to take for granted. Marcy Carlson, sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, said that “marriage is something that people aspire to.”
But not necessarily so in San Francisco.
There are fewer married households in The City. According to census data only 34.7 percent of households are married ones. San Francisco also has the least number of kids out of the top 100 major cities in the US. A mere 18 percent of households have children as compared to the national average of 30 percent.
San Francisco residents who are between the ages of 28 and 32 are less likely to have been married than residents of Philadelphia or New York City.
Sure, marriage and family can be complicated with more sleepless nights, more arguments and more tuition payments. It requires the ability to commit and hold steady and presumes a capacity for self-sacrifice. All tough.
But, on the other hand, marriage is a reservoir of resources. There are more hands for diaper changes, more money for Nike shoes and more in-laws to draw upon for date night. Marriage can be an emollient to loneliness; a diving board for ambition; a platform for compromise; and a framework for companionship.
And then there’s romance.
The fabled meet-and-marry sequence of the Bushes is well-known. They met when George was 17 and Barbara was 16 . “I thought he was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on,” Barbara recalled, according to reports. Before getting married, when the two found themselves separated during World War II, they regularly wrote letters to each other.
I, too, met my husband when I was 16 and he was 17, and I recall feeling overwhelmed with emotion at the time. We lived in different cities, went to different colleges, and we sent handwritten letters to each other as we grew out of our teenage years, embraced adulthood and took on jobs before signing a marriage certificate.
My husband and I celebrated our thirty-first anniversary a few months ago. We are not even halfway to the Bushes seven-decade record, but even so, I feel fortunate to have someone I can sit beside while watching reruns of SVU.
In her 1990 commencement speech at Wellesley College, Barbara Bush emphasized the link between family and well-being. “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal,” she said. “You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
Her message is a supplication to all of us.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan