The election is over. If you're one of those odd people whose lives are totally consumed in politics, you can try re-engaging in real life again. Which means that I've caught up on the important things I missed during the election season. I'm watching Reba.
Country queen Reba McEntire released a video with rural crooner Kenny Chesney this summer, which I got to see only in the wake of the election results. It's called "Every Other Weekend," and it's sweet enough.
Reba has also been the star of a sitcom that's now a Lifetime Channel mainstay, appearing in syndication. On the show, Reba is, according to the theme song a "single mom, who works too hard. Who loves her kids and never stops. With gentle hands and the heart of a fighter." Reba, naturally, sings this tune, which ends with: "I'm a survivor."
The Reba character is a single mom because her dopey (usually the case in sitcoms) husband cheated on her. His mistress got pregnant, and now the happy couple is living next door, which at least gives him a continued role in his three children's lives. High jinks ensue, naturally, but other, deeper things happen as well. The oldest of the three children got pregnant during the course of the upheaval in the family. She and the father of the child get married, and live under mom's roof. Why am I subjecting you to this soap opera? Because, in a rare move for broken-family TV comedies it's not salacious or glorifying divorce in any way. On this show, everyone, through mistakes and examples, learns. It's a mess, but it's a redemptive one. There's goodness to it, despite it all. These characters' lives are about trying, sinning, forgiving. There is even church. There's love, ultimately: real love, not drive-by satisfaction.
Which is why I was so jarred when I saw Reba's "Weekend" video. She's had songs about nearly every kind of relationship, good and bad. She's been wronged. She's been sad. She's been angry, curious, fed up, persistent. But here, she has her daughter and son-in-law from the "Reba" show acting out her and Chesney's song, a duet about divorce.
It's complicated, as divorce can be, as marriage is. The two characters in the song clearly don't really want to be divorced. She misses him. He needs her. But they think they did the best things for the kids. But they clearly didn't: Everyone's miserable as the kids get shifted from house to house every other weekend.
The kids are not all right, to play with the title of a movie from the last few months. As W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia recently wrote in National Affairs, an invaluable social-science journal: "The divorce revolution's collective consequences for children are striking. Taking into account both divorce and non-marital childbearing, sociologist Paul Amato estimates that if the United States enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960, the nation would have 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, approximately 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 fewer kids receiving therapy, and approximately 70,000 fewer suicide attempts every year. As Amato concludes, turning back the family-stability clock just a few decades could significantly improve the lives of many children."
But it doesn't have to be this way. Marriage in America is not as bad as a music video can make it out to be. Divorce isn't inevitable. Millions of Americans thrive in their marriages — and maybe even more would, if our culture didn't continually send the message that it's a lost cause and divorce is the best answer to marital difficulties. As Carl Anderson points out, talking about his new book, one of the most useful tomes of the fall ("Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street, and the Media"): "There is great hope for marriage in America. Ninety percent of married Americans are happily married. Nine in 10 would marry their spouses again if given the choice. Most first marriages do not end in divorce, contrary to the myth that half do. Americans see marriage as undervalued by society and see it as one of the top priorities in their own lives. There is little doubt that the good of marriage is well understood by Americans and will continue to be so."
He adds: "And this is in the face of a constant drumbeat of social and economic pressures against marriage. What this should tell us is that it's time for our social policies to treat marriage as what it is, the cornerstone of society, rather than something irrelevant and in decline."
Reba sings: "Every other Friday. It's toys and clothes and backpacks. Is everybody in? OK, let's go see Dad." It doesn't have to be that way. Some marriages do end in a situation of "Every Other Weekend." But many of those couples, and the country as a whole — and so often, the children — would be better off with "We Can Work It Out."