You Are Enough: How Justice Kennedy's Idealization of Marriage Failed Single Parents

Marriage does not complete you — you complete you. 

Last week, the Supreme Court wrote a love letter to marriage. In the court's majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, Justice Kennedy waxed poetic about the dignity, grace, and intimacy of the institution. 

Kennedy's romantic description of marriage quickly made judicial history. "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family," he wrote. "In forming a marital union, two people become greater than they once were."

As beautiful as Kennedy's opinion was, and as proud as I am of this landmark ruling, I winced just a little bit when I read those words. 

Marriage should be equally available to all couples regardless of sex, and you'll never see me argue against that. But marriage isn't all that Kennedy has made it out to be. No one enters into marriage and becomes whole; there is no magical superpower that's granted alongside the marriage license. Marriage is simply two imperfect people who choose to come together in an imperfect union. That union can be remarkable and powerful, but it can also be dysfunctional and excruciating. Sometimes, it's even abusive. Marriage as an institution encompasses everything from Britney Spears's 24-hour Vegas nuptials to the Duggars' legacy of abuse to that sweet old couple who still holds hands in the grocery store 50 years later, and no two marriages are alike. 

I used to believe, like Kennedy, that marriage would cure my loneliness and give me strength in numbers. But I eventually learned that loneliness and strength are an inside job. You can be heartbreakingly, desperately lonely as you lay in bed beside your spouse, and you can be strong and powerful on your own. Marriage does not complete you –– you complete you. 

I understand, of course, that Kennedy had to prove the importance of marriage in order to justify the court's decision. But this idealization of marriage isn't confined solely to the pages of legal opinions. Even as millennials are turning away from marriage in droves, preferring to settle down and even have kids without getting married, popular culture still promotes marriage as the ideal. Especially where children are concerned. 

In Obergefell, Kennedy used a four-pronged approach to analyze the importance of marriage, and one of them was "safeguarding the family." When gay couples are prevented from legal marriage, Kennedy wrote, their children "also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples." 

Harm and humiliate the children. Not because their parents are gay — but because their parents are unmarried. And just like that, this moment doesn't feel quite so progressive anymore. 

As a single mother, I am endlessly, relentlessly reminded that my children deserve two parents. There is always an underlying assumption that children deserve two parents. While that ideal can be a mom and a dad, or even two moms or two dads — it's always two. If you find yourself parenting alone, it becomes almost impossible to believe that you can be enough. Just you. Not two. 

Now that my oldest kids are nearing adulthood, I am finally able to hear their experiences of their childhoods in their own words. Not surprisingly, it wasn't the years I raised them alone that caused them turmoil and pain. Instead, it was the dads who came in and out of their lives. I hurt them the most by re-marrying and trying to give them the "best."

It's easy to say that this was our experience simply because I married the wrong men. To some extent, that's true. I didn't do the work I needed to do to stop repeating the same cycles, and my failed marriages reflect that. But, at the same time, it's just not that simple. In those years, I wasn't equipped to enter into a healthy relationship. The best choice for my family would have been for me to parent my children alone. But I can't recall ever being told that I was enough for my children. Friends, family, and even people who barely knew me offered stories about all of the men they knew who married single moms and became great dads. It was OK, they told me — I would find a good man to "help" me.

The problem with this idealization of marriage is twofold. First, it pretends that somewhere out there is a perfect partner just waiting to swoop in and help you raise your children. The reality is that blended families can be intensely painful for everyone concerned, and many single moms simply do not have the time or energy to date in the first place. Very few people turn away from healthy two-parent households (married or otherwise) to become single parents: they walk away from abuse, neglect, and dysfunction, or they simply make the decision to parent alone from the beginning. 

Second, it is predicated on the belief that single mothers need help to begin with. The idea that a single mother can successfully raise her children alone without needing a spouse to add legitimacy to her family should be commonplace, but it's anything but. When Kennedy wrote that unmarried households subject their children to an "uncertain" and "more difficult" family life, it was just another drop in the bucket. The promotion of two-parent families as the ideal household makeup sends a clear message to single parents that they simply aren't enough for their children. 

I remember watching the news as a teenager and listening to Dan Quayle (remember that asshole?) blame the TV character Murphy Brown for setting a bad example by becoming a single mother. I joined my first activist and support groups for gay rights back then, too. And while my heart runneth over with joy over the progress we have made in gay rights, I just had to write another article about another Republican asshole who still thinks single mothers are the problem. Twenty years later, we are still blaming single mothers and even the highest court in the land just claimed that our children suffer from humiliation, shame, and uncertainty because we aren't married. 

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no magical formula for success. There is, however, a perfect recipe for failure, and that is telling someone that they simply don't measure up. That their love just isn't good enough. 

I know many wonderful, healthy, and strong families — they are married, unmarried, single, gay, straight, and poly. All of these parents love their children with every ounce of their souls, all of them give massively of their time and hearts, and all of them make mistakes. We are all deeply flawed, and we all want to be better parents, no matter what the makeup of our households. None of us corner the market on strength and stability, and it is nonsensical to continue pretending that love only comes in one shape. 

At its heart, Obergefell radically altered our legal, and perhaps even philosophical, concept of marriage. It embraced love, and it expanded our right to autonomy and even intimacy. But it did so under a surprisingly traditional umbrella that marginalized some even as it included others. Gay couples do not deserve the right to marry because marriage is the ideal choice, they deserve it because marriage is one choice — and we all have the right to choose.   

Fellow single mothers, let me be the first to tell you that marriage is not a panacea. Single motherhood isn't a problem in need of a solution, much less a spouse. Single motherhood can look however you want it to look, but your household is already complete and whole. And whether you have one child or seven, your love will stretch to encompass each and every one of them. Sometimes it may be lonely, and sometimes you may not feel strong, but you are strong and you are enough.

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