As one might have predicted (like newly canonized Pope Paul VI), there is an epidemic of loneliness spreading all over the developed world. So many people lack human connection and meaning in their lives. They have no children—or none that love them enough to see them—and they have no friends or relatives to stay with them; they only have endless options for entertainment and consumption, which can distract them from their condition, but never improve it.
The problem of loneliness has become so bad that England has created a Minister of Loneliness to confront the problem. Japan even has businesses that specialize in scraping up the decomposing corpses of lonely people who died without anyone noticing. Germany and Scandinavia report similar events, indicating that this is a global phenomenon affecting many communities, not just the curious behavior of a few introverts.
Ironically, this all happens at a time when people have more means of connecting than ever before. In reality, the proliferation of such means probably deludes people into thinking they have friends and family when they only have the cheap virtual facsimile. By its very nature, social media flattens relationships into aligning interests and preferences, and users choose to content themselves with the quantity of their friends more than the quality of those friendships.
It seems evident that young people witnessing (and frequently contributing to) the growing desolation of older generations would try to avoid this fate and have families and close friends of their own. Instead, they seem intent on staving off these things at all costs, either preferring the “freedom” of a single unattached life or waiting unreasonably for the “perfect partner” to answer their every whim.
To most young and not-so-young adults, the prospect of marriage and children is the most oppressive thing imaginable. They think of it as the end of everything they could possibly want. Marriage binds them and children enslave them, both keeping them from better lovers and unrestrained indulgence. For too many of them, even the horrors of abortion and abandonment seem like lesser evils.
In place of starting a family, people now find joy in their 20s and 30s by traveling, job-hopping, epicureanism, and playing on their phones. Instead of taking their children to the park, they take themselves to Europe to take selfies in front of the Mona Lisa and feel enlightened; instead of building a career or starting a business to provide for their family, they sample different jobs like wine and hope to find one that not only pays them more than they deserve, but also makes them happy and supplies them with a cool set of friends; instead of enjoying simple pleasures like long talks on Saturday morning or reading a book to a toddler, they enjoy complex pleasures like imbibing craft mead and eating gourmet hotdogs in uptown; instead of cultivating loving relationships with their spouse and children, they settle for addictive trash on their screens.
Popular culture has obviously encouraged this kind of lifestyle, particularly in recent decades. Gone are the days of Chevy Chase taking his family to Walley World; now, it is Zoey Deschanel or Mindy Kaling bemoaning, and yet celebrating, their interminable adolescence. None of the highest grossing movies (a.k.a. those based on comic book heroes) really feature married men or women, or even the possibility of it. They may have flings here and there, but they stay resolute in their solitude and never ever grow old.
Naturally, young people pick up on this, and even become self-righteous in their decision to forego marriage and children. They do not conform to the narrow-minded ways of the world, but instead exhibit bravery and depth in their willingness to truly forge their unique identities through a toxic mixture of unbridled autonomy and lack of discipline. Plus, they do the world a favor by sparing it of human contamination—and even believe that the planet will thank them for it. For them, a life of pure selfishness and self-absorption somehow becomes the opposite.
Sanctimony and bad logic aside, single adults are right to say that this kind of life really is free of worries. Single people do not have to endure the stress that comes with marriage and children. They do not lose sleep from a crying baby, or pick up Tupperware that a toddler has strewn about the kitchen, or ask permission from a spouse to run an errand or travel for work. But, neither do they have reason to appreciate or enjoy their apparent freedom. In his essay “Woman,” G. K. Chesterton argued against social engineers who hoped to liberate women from the worries of domestic life by pointing out how women worry about these things because they actually care about them. Taking away husbands and children and replacing them with idle living and stupid office work only replaces things that make life worth living with things that do the opposite.
This crucial fact is what lies behind the hidden joys of marriage and children: they give a person someone to care about. To be fair, the majority of parents and married couples do a horrible job communicating this. Rather, they complain about the lost sleep, the dirty diapers, the lack of novelty, etc.—sometimes they do this with full sincerity, but mostly they do it to curry sympathy. For the sake of curious single people who really want to know what it is like, these whining parents need to stop taking their blessings for granted and start debunking the falsehoods about family life.
First and foremost among those falsehoods is that it signals an end to a person’s life. In truth, it ends the dependent immature state of childhood and ushers a person into the opposite state of adulthood. Marriage and especially children will certainly challenge men and women in all kinds of ways (spiritually, mentally, emotionally, even physically), but this challenge brings about growth and fulfillment. Married couples become immeasurably more accomplished and wise through their experience with one another and the children they bring into the world. This does not happen when they stay alone.
This truth debunks the other great falsehood that those who marry and have children forever regret missing out of the advantages of unattached living. This is like saying that people who run a triathlon end up regretting the junk food they could have eaten and all the time they could have lain on the couch instead of all the dieting and exercise they did instead. The ephemeral (and frequently unhealthy) pleasures they gave up are nothing compared to the real accomplishment of running, and maybe even winning, a triathlon. Drunken hookups, couch-surfing in Europe, and playing Call of Duty all night, and all the ephemeral joys of single life are nothing compared to the lasting love of another person, the fascinating development of a child, the discipline that comes from living for others, and all the permanent joys of married life.
Some might object that those who have come out of failed marriages and fight over custody for their children might have a different view, but even among these people, most of them will attest to joy of family life. True, married people are tempted into the illusory joys of single living, but they find out just how “fun” it is before the inevitable desperation and loneliness set in. Rather than stay single and continue swinging, they will either renounce dating altogether and become celibate or remarry. Far from being realistic, as Pope Francis and the Argentinian bishops would maintain, legitimizing the act of remarriage is actually quite idealistic, vaunting the virtues of marriage and children despite the selfish intentions of the people involved.
Let no one be fooled, marriage and children are great goods in life. Even with the current scandal of Catholics remarrying and taking communion, the Church recognizes this fact more than anyone else. If Catholics hold fast to their devotion to life and true love, they may avoid the very unsexy decline of secular culture around them. There is nothing cute about a man trying to stay a child; by contrast, there is nothing cuter than a new little baby smiling back at his parent.