There are many joys experienced in marriage and fatherhood, but I’ve found that an incidental one is the social respectability that goes with them. A man sitting alone on a park bench could be Ted Bundy, but put a wife and kids around him and he becomes Mike Brady. Try to get out of work because you have to go to a party and see what happens, but ask for the afternoon off to take your child for a dental checkup and there’s a different response. Show up at an invitational event with an acquaintance or neighbor and you’ll get weird looks, but show up with your spouse and you’ll fit right in.
I point all this out not to gloat about my personal situation or to crow about traditional values; I mean no disrespect to gay people, or to people who by choice or circumstance are single or childless. Instead I want to point out how, notwithstanding our broadened standards of diversity and inclusion, there are still significant advantages conferred by monogamy and parenthood. Some of these are found in bureaucratic regulations (tax breaks, insurance coverage, admission fees, and so on), but others occur in day-to-day interactions. I’ve struck up friendly conversations with guys I’d otherwise have nothing to do with, except that our kids are taking turns on a slide; I’ve built constructive associations with female colleagues who can trust that I won’t be hitting on them during lunch hour. I may not be the world’s best father or an exemplary husband, but just being a father or husband at all has cut me a lot of slack.
It’s true that this privileged standing may not always be warranted. Seemingly upright family men have occasionally been revealed as violent sociopaths, just as outwardly charming people can still turn out to be predatory con artists. Conversely, it’s happened in the past that loving parents and loyal partners have been shafted by the system just because they had the wrong accent or skin color. Today, though, there is a widespread sense across society that the conventional versions of wedlock and child-rearing are still the best ones, despite decades of our accommodating divorce, serial and same-sex relationships, and various permutations of same. Most elected officials, including Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, are married with kids; so are most prosperous professionals. (Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 shows how marital stability correlates with social class.) This continued recognition also flies in the face of a lot of popular culture, which has often portrayed nuclear households as inherently dysfunctional or oppressive, e.g. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and Norman Lear’s All In the Family. The special status afforded to blood and conjugality has stayed pretty strong, even as armies of sociologists and lifestyle advocates maintain that their theories of “acceptance” or “community” are just as valid.
The extra consideration I receive from strangers when they see me as a husband or father reflects this: my flaws as an individual can be overlooked next to the social capital represented by my obligations to spouse and offspring. At some instinctive level, most of us assume that long-term romantic and domestic commitment signifies a security and a dependability not found in the unattached or the independent, the same way we assume the little old lady will be a more cautious motorist than the teenage boy. Obviously those without children or significant others can be good citizens and good people; it’s just that they have a heavier burden of proof. Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society – there are individual men and women, and there are families,” which may have been a bit extreme, but it’s a distinction that seems to be popularly acknowledged, at least in our economy, our politics, and on our park benches.