One extreme tends to bring on the other.

Idyllic – I did not live through the 1950s (born 1961), but it would seem that many of the TV shows presented a kind of idyllic picture of marriage and family life. To be sure there were shows like “The Honeymooners” that showed another side. But shows like “Father Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” and “Leave it to Beaver” showed the American Family on its best behavior.

Cynic – Some who lived in that time, like my parents (now deceased) said the shows were very popular, but also bred a kind of cynicism, because unrealistic expectations often cause resentments when they are not met. “Why is my family not like that?….”Why are there all these nuts falling out of my family tree?…..Why can’t my Father be like Ward Cleaver?” And lets not forget the lovely June, doing her housework in high heels, a lovely modest dress and pearls gracing her snowy neck.

I don’t know somehow I think I did get a little of that idealism growing up in the 1960s. We lived in a decent neighborhood in a house not unlike the Cleavers. Mom did often wear a dress and Dad came home round 5pm. I had a flat top crew cut and rode my bike with friends.

But them came the War and dad was off to Vietnam. He came back, a year later and the war had changed him somehow. The military moved us away from Chicago, and things went south by my estimation. By 1969 the cultural revolution and the nihilism of Haight Ashbury was reaching the suburbs, no-fault divorce was sweeping the land and shredding families, and the sexual revolution was devastating innocence.

By High School in the mid 70s the revolution was in high gear and the idealism of the 1950s was replaced by an increasing  cynicism of and toward traditional values, including marriage and family, a cynicism that has reached a kind of peak today when more women 25-40 are unmarried than married, and more then 40% of children are raised in single parent families.

There were many songs that singled the shift in the 1970s toward cynicism. One of them was a rather melodic, even gentle song by Carly Simon called “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.” I don’t suppose I ever paid much attention to the lyrics back in the 1970s (few of us really did). But frankly the words are a bitter dismissal of marriage, dripping with disenchantment and resentment. They speak of darkened homes, distant and out of touch parents, and married friends living phony lives that hid desperation and a loss of self-identity.

Consider the words:

My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still;
I walk by, no remark.
I tiptoe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call sweet dreams,
But I forgot how to dream.

But you say it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me –
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.

My friends from college they’re all married now;
They have their houses and their lawns.
They have their silent noons,
Tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they’re not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.

But you say it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me –
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.

You say we can keep our love alive
Babe – all I know is what I see –
The couples cling and claw
And drown in love’s debris.
You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds,
But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf –
I’ll never learn to be just me first
By myself.

Well O.K., it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me –
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be,
You want to marry me, we’ll marry,
We’ll marry.

Hmm…. Welcome to the modern world. If perhaps the 1950s presented an extremely idealistic picture (at least it called us to come up higher), the reaction of the 1970s and later was the other extreme, an extreme that confirms the worst and says that everything is just phony. It neither inspires nor dreams, it just depresses and calls forth cynicism.

And yet, how many have one extreme or the other about marriage today. Either people have highly idealistic (and unrealistic) notions of what marriage can and should be. Or they are utterly cynical about it.

The idealists often struggle to find the “right” (ideal) person of their dreams. And even if they do, in wanting their marriage to be ideal, when there is any ordeal, they quickly want a new deal. Illusion gives way to disillusionment.

As for the cynics, they just dismiss marriage and live in serial polygamy.

But what if marriage was just like the rest of life…a mixed bag? What if it had some good things about it and some challenges too? What if imperfect marriages and families could still be good families and that imperfection was an acceptable outcome? What if, instead of having the perfect family I was willing to have the family I actually have, realizing that good and bad are often mixed together, and that all are sinners in need of mercy? What if I could accept that my family is imperfect first of all because I am in it? What if, instead of waiting for the perfect or the better I worked with what was reasonably good and tried to make it better?

Well you get the point. I’m not crazy about reality but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal. And there’s just something about reality that’s a good starting point when it comes to living life. Idealism may have its place, but be careful, for too often it ushers in resentment and cynicism when its promises are not fulfilled.

I’m not sure its fair to say that 1950s TV was completely unrealistic, (I did experience some of what it portrayed), but there were aspects that were perhaps too idealized. The reaction it set in is still visible on the hideous, crass, boorish, broken-down “family” sitcoms of today, that hold up only garbage and dysfunction and tell us that the family in nothing but laughably stupid. It’s Carly Simon’s song on steroids.

Pray for families, pray for marriage. Work also at and for both.

32 Responses

  1. Warren Jewell says:

    Yes, vanity is the problem – MY ideals, si, non from any other. Except the only ideals worthy of the consideration are tied to God’s will. MY ideals are more like MY expectations, to which I really have no right. However, still, yes, I can be so vain.

    When long ago, forty-five years ago, now, a lady now gone Home sat across my car seat from me and just glowed of humble prayerfulness, and God’s will won my heart in the gift of her, my Sharon, my Little One. She wasn’t around nearly long enough, but she left behind one who regrets any vanity left in him; and I did manage to learn that ‘vain is vain’. So, I touched on the idyll and I can never be the same. That didn’t come from having the ideally perfect, but from taking each day, in its joy and in its sorrow, as it came from God’s hands. Today is fine, as was yesterday, the day before and probably tomorrow, because with God nothing is impossible, even that I love Him by accepting His will; and He never delivers less than His best.

  2. Jan says:

    I like this song; it’s fun to sing. It is kind of sad because it’s such a vivid portrayal of that particular generation and their screwed up ideas of life and love. I’m referring to people born in the early-mid 40’s through the early 50’s. The ones who were the hippies of the 60’s, where the men burned their draft cards and the women burned their bras and they all got liberated. The woman in the song clearly has some misgivings about marriage and family, yet she still agrees to it. She does this in spite of the most telling line of the whole song: I’ll never learn to be just me first, by myself. Today there is still idealization of marriage among young men and women, but there’s also a lot of the “me first” part. Our kids have been taught that either self-fulfillment or stuff is more important than being in a cohesive family unit.

    You have to live some before you finally understand that life and marriage are indeed a mixed bag.

  3. R in Indiana says:

    I often long for those idealized sitcoms. After watching what we have today, I’m appalled by the cynicism and negative family attitudes that are portrayed. However, I hadn’t thought of the fact that those idealized television shows could also breed discontent. It’s a good point. As always, you have to be careful what you wish for.

  4. tz says:

    And yet, their parents survived the depression and world war 2, and it was almost perfectly “till death do us part”.

    • Veronika says:

      Amen tz. Because theirs was the generation of giving, of sacrifice, of service, love of faith and family, of unconditional love. They knew nothing was perfect but they weren’t going to cry about it but try and make it work. We need more of that today.
      Problem is we are selfish, the post me generation, well into the turbo/mega-me generation.
      You know, it’s about what capital I need, are MY needs being fulfilled in this ‘living together arrangement’ with ‘my partner’ because marriage is for fools, career is first, trips and trinkets too nonsense. Bleech.
      What a disaster!
      I was born and raised in the early 70s….ethnic parents who had less than nothing and fled the evils of Communism in eastern Europe.
      All they had was God and each other. And that was enough. Period.
      I look to them for inspiration in my own marriage.
      I can also say my childhood was almost as idyllic as the ‘Beave’s’ and I resent it when I meet cynics who are aghast that I would admit that.
      I must be in denial they say. How sad for them.

  5. Ann says:

    Thank you for this article Msgr. As a daughter who continues to live through the ruins of her parents’ divorce, I wish we talked about divorce half as much as we talked about other social ills.

  6. Peter Wolczuk says:

    They never got dirty. Children came in from play as pristine as when first dressed in the morning. Dads wore suits to work and came home as if freshly groomed. No construction worker fathers taking muddy boots off at the door. When mother finished preparing supper the kitchen counter may have had a knife and cutting board on it but, that was about all.
    If there were any blue collar workers seen then they were always clean and tidy as if dirt was an evil. However, the mud on a construction workers boots, as he heads home (he/she these days) is a sort of fulfillment of the day’s work. If the muddy boots are still on the feet and dirty clothes on several hours later, well probably not so good.
    No intangeable dirt either. Never heard of a Playboy found hidden under a son’s mattress. No whiskey bottle hidden under the basement stairs. Would either of these have been evil? Boys are curious as puberty comes to them and many fathers can have a drink or two and remain functional. Well, hiding things seems not so good.
    The vanity, and the expectations which it generates, mentioned by Warren Jewell reminds me of a slogan; “expectations are resentments waiting to happen”
    Yes, the “paradise” which the secular world tries to sell to us, through many venues, does indeed have trouble and lurking resentments in it.
    How to avoid vanity? Is it to love truth? Not as a pseudo god but, as a gift from God that we should seek? Not as a thing to mention superficially, like a sales spiel, to con someone into submitting to my vanity. Not just in John 8:32, but also in Proverbs 23:23 and in Jeremiah 5:1. It seems like quite a challenge to “promtly admit” when we’re wrong but, bravely rising to it can make room for the loveable truth of God which can set us free from slavery to sin.

  7. Jim says:

    It is amazing. I have observed most older folks (45+) are peculiarly cynical about most things, and very declarative at that: All politicians are corrupt, everybody is a criminal they just haven’t been caught, and even “I don’t sin” (which is dreadfully common and cynical). It seems to be always an us-against-them mentality that spreads deceit and lies as a matter-of-course.

  8. Christian says:

    I was born in 1957. This song had a huge impact on me as far as being both realistic and hopeful about marriage. As I wrote in a blogpost awhile back:

    “If you check the whole song you’ll see that in spite of assorted substantial misgivings, she still accepts marriage as the adult model of love. Pretty remarkable for 1971; but Simon, 12 years my senior, was raised in a more normative culture than I was.”

    http://platytera.blogspot.com/2011/02/griswold-vs-music.html

    • Pattie says:

      I, too, knew these lyrics and they terrified me. I shared them with my boyfriend (now beloved spouse of thirty-plus years) and to him they were just background noise to the sort of lite-rock that he didn’t have much use for (more of a Metallica/AC-DC/Aerosmith sorta guy, then and now!)

      I knew how much I loved him, but was afraid to become the parents in this song. In my youth and ignorance, I thought this song was a prophesy for those of us wrapped up in young love. I was afraid-very afraid. So afraid that I broke off our relationship!

      The Lord touched my heart in a big way a year later, and we were engaged and married within four months of finding each other again . I learned that love can follow a different path in marriage, especially in a Catholic and sacramental marriage. Only decades later did I see how the song came from Ms. Simon’s excellent instincts concerning the particular man in question, who was a serial womanizer whose adultry started less than a year after the wedding ceremony. So, thanks to God and Marriage Encounter, after all these years I am married to my very best friend, the husband of my youth, and as OUR children (married) have found….

      THAT’S the way they ALWAYS heard it should be!!

  9. Joni says:

    Right-on Monsignor! I love your paragraph, “But what if marriage was just like the rest of life…a mixed bag?”. You have turned cynicism into hope. Thanks!

  10. Shayla says:

    I’m well over 45 and my cynicsm is fed by knowing that our Thanksgiving celebration will involve avoiding elephants in the room of my 2 lesbian nieces (one with “life parther”), the daughter who will be bringing her live-in boyfriend, and the brother-in-law who refuses to stay on his meds (who is coming with his live-in-ladyfriend). They are all good people by the usual standards, and I love my daugher dearly, but this isn’t what I had aimed for in my life. So, does it matter that I did do what I could to foster an honest, loving Christian Catholic approach to life? It doesn’t seem so, but I will keep on loving them as best I can.

    • Veronika says:

      Shayla. This is so honest. God Bless You. Remember the Saints, like Saint Monica, surrounded by pain and suffering in her own family, until theytoo found God later in life. God bless you as you handle the ‘elephants in the room’ with clearly great dignity and love.

  11. Todd Flowerday says:

    It’s a fantastic song, and even more so that a person in love can look beyond the potential pitfalls of relationships, and still marry.

    My pastor has the measure of sacramental marriage, and he preaches it at almost every wedding.

    People today, and in many ages past, look to love, the sacrament, and to another person for what they can give them. This person will fulfill me. This person will complete me. I’m not convinced that people don’t often look at God in the same way. Jesus will love me. Jesus will save me. Jesus will make things right.

    What sacramental (or successful) marriage will do is move the individual from “What will this person do for me?” and into “What will I do for the other person?” (And of course, our response in faith, adult faith, is how we can lead others to Jesus, and not what Jesus will do for me.)

    The answer to Carly’s dilemma, “But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf – I’ll never learn to be just me first. By myself.” is that she will allow him to soar, and he likewise will do the same for her. And there is the evangelical component: that their love will be so generous and overflowing it will overflow to include others, many others.

    Television of both the 50’s and the 90’s fails. But that shouldn’t surprise: we’re talking entertainment and not catechesis. Ward and June were indeed the couple in the first verse of the song. There’s no laugh track. Carly’s mother is perceptive enough to peer past her magazine and notice her daughter top-toeing to bed. She certainly knows her husband in isolation in the dark below. But one must overcome one’s fear to reconstruct a broken marriage.

    We serve marriage and families when we work with them, and perhaps not so much when we flitter at the periphery: what gay people are doing, what benefits non-Catholics are getting, and the like. Moving against civil unions is more like the clinging and clawing–totally missing the point of what is needed.

  12. RichardC says:

    “I’m not crazy about reality but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal.”–did RobertLifeLongCatholic, Monsignor Pope, or s third source coin this saying?

    One thing I realize about 50’s tv families is that I can’t recall any big tv families, no kids for the Honeymooners and just two for the Cleavers, for example–I guess for budgetary and script reasons. I think people were still having more than four kids per family back in the 50’s.

  13. It is interesting to see that a couple of you have a completely different take on the message of the song. I am still not so sure. But the line “We’ll marry” does imply some sort of intent to do it anyway. But I still stand by my thought that the song is excessively negative about marriage and family in talking about children who hate what their parents are not and parents who hate what they are and the line about how marriage will stunt my precious little journey into myself and put me into a “cage”. tearful nights and angry dawns…all that stuff….All too negative and cynical for me. Family life isn’t that bad. Its not as perfect as Beaver et al. either but its not so bad as Carly makes it out to be.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Carly Simon is one of my all-time favorite artists; our voice range is the same and she is great to sing along to. However, when in the past few years I really listened to the lyrics of this song, it just made me sad. I think the part that most strikes me is “all I know is what I see”. Instead of making me cynical, it challenges me to be the light, to show the beauty and the possibility and the truth of God’s plan for married love. And, I am heartened and hopeful by the last verse where her suitor shares his dream of marriage and she reluctantly acquiesces to marry, despite her misgivings. Just like Msgr, I had the blessing of growing up in an intact home, which was a mixed bag (as all of life certainly is). This is EARTH, after all! The key to marriage is to love Christ more than yourself and your spouse. He will never disappoint, whereas humans, even those we most love, will.

    • Yes, I like you have often had to make a transition with the 70s songs I loved. The 70s was a great decade for music (if you ask me) but I must say that when I actually began to listen to the words (something I didn’t really do in my high school years, the words may as well have been Swahili) I struggled to keep liking the songs. The melodies remained so nice and memorable but oh, some of the words. I get a lot of push-back on the Lenon song “Imagine” as well by people who are so mesmerized by the melody that the words are easily disregarded by them. At any rate, I am with you, I still like these songs but am sober about their meaning and also hopeful, as with this one, that there are a few rays of light to be found.

  15. Betsy says:

    Love, love, love the paragraph that begins: “But what if marriage was like the rest of life…a mixed bag?” I believe that marriage vows include the words ‘for better,for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness & in health; till death do us part’. If a couple takes their vows seriously, they will have the opportunity & privilege to experience all of the above. It’s how we respond as a “partnership” during these ‘times’ that counts…the ME first attitude can’t sustain a marriage that strives to live out the vows promised to one another before God. The union, in all it’s forms, is entrusted to the couple by our Creator. Imperfection IS an acceptable outcome to a marriage and in no way implies failure. I’ve been married 31 years & still wake up every day asking the Lord for courage, strength, wisdom, & joy to keep my marriage moving forward…all to the glory of Jesus Christ.

    Btw, Carly Simon was my favorite female vocalist in ’71, & I was given the album, which included the song you refer to, as a HS graduation gift.

  16. Mick says:

    It’s quite possible that my three-score-and-ten memory is as frail as my body, but I seem to recall the listed American classics quite differently. In fact, it’s been my long held contention that, with the exception of “Leave it to Beaver,” they established an American “family” whose male head-of-household was little more than a bumbling dolt.
    Ward Cleaver was the exception, regularly available with sage advice, a boatload of patience, and a powerful presence. Ozzie Nelson was totally out of his element as a father, much dependent on his wife to address and surmount their sons’ and familial problems in a sane and rational way.
    Anyone who has seen at least one episode of “The Honeymooners” cannot help but realize that both Ralph and Ed are good-hearted borderline morons, fortunate enough to each have found a wife blessed with boundless patience and the wherewithal to extricate their husbands from their numerous mis-adventures.
    At least with “Father Knows Best,” we had a male lead who wasn’t a one-dimensional knuckle-dragger. Jim Anderson was capable of occasionally providing some helpful advice and insight, but (realistically enough) he was capable of poor advice and periodic demonstrations of temper. Nevertheless, there was little doubt that the cornerstone of the family was mother Margaret. She always seemed to have just enough time to take away from her household chores to provide Solomon-like directions to her wayward household.
    The sole purpose of this rant is to demonstrate that an early pattern of familial relationships has morphed into the current TV fair where it is near impossible to find a strong male head-of-household (some married, many not). The current female leads are stronger, louder, wiser, more competitive, and substantially more independent than their early era TV counterparts. And, more often than not, the children (especially the daughters) are significantly more astute than the ‘old man” and ages ahead of their simple-minded brothers.
    I’ll acknowledge that I reside in a very rural area of a tiny red state where single and double-wides are one of the more prevalent modes of housing. Our families (generally speaking) don’t have much resemblance to those seen in the current media. However, there is little doubt that our young men and women are watching these programs; only the future (and the quality of their upbringing) will determine the impact.
    One thing continues to disturb me: if these women are/were, in fact, so bright and practical, why did they ever marry these clowns?

  17. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    The American Heritage Dictionary definition of entertainment: To hold the attention of others with something amusing or diverting. To consider: contemplate. So now we have become a society of victims who blame the our actions, the actions of other people and society, on sitcom television shows of the nineteen fifties and the misconceptions that it wrought. I wouldn’t look to Carly Simon song’s as a clue to the reason that her generation and the ones that followed became disillusioned. There were the ideologies of secularism and socialist ideologies at work in the colleges, entertainment venues “clubs” and many songs were inspired under the influence of drugs, alcohol and bad company. Everyone knows it was the Catholic church of the 1950’s , George W. Bush.and bad parenting that caused all these problems. Thank goodness progressive ideologues have come to our rescue. And that’s why they called it the boob tube.

  18. Steve says:

    There were other shows that had fathers as positive role models. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father was a tender story of a Widower and his young son. The Brady Bunch, although corny, had a positive father rolemodel. and I almost hesitate to say it but Red on that 70″s show. And that was just ten years ago.
    But, look at what we have now. Two and a half men. two brothers raising one brothers son while the other brother tries to sleep with every woman he can. Modern Family which is just messed up! I have never watch it and never will. Look it up for yourself. Primetime cartoons like the Simpsons ( the longest running prime time show on television) and Family Guy also belittle the father.

    • Thanks for these reminders. I had forgotten about the “the Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” It’s funny how some series really got widespread syndication and others sit in vaults waiting to be rediscovered.

  19. Maria says:

    I just wish I could find a dress as cute as the one June is wearing in the picture!

  20. Eddie Mulholland says:

    “I’m not crazy about reality but it’s still the only place you can get a decent meal.”

    My absolute favorite quote of the week!!!

    I have used that carly Simon song at Marriage Prep weekends… is this what you are preparing for? only the grace of the sacrament of marriage and the effort to be faithful to marriage of the sacrament can save us from the mutual selfishness that is destroying marriage.

    If we live marriage as a way to get what we want and little else…(“just me first, by myself”) then there really is no reason not to redefine it. We can’t live marriage in a way unfaithful to its nature and at the same time argue to preserve that very nature…

    Consider what I said about John Cusack’s proposal of marriage in “High Fidelity.”

    http://www.thegregorian.org/blog/you-talkin-to-me

  21. kuryrosemarie2@gmail.com says:

    I did grow up during those times, but there were other TV shows too that I liked particularly American Bandstand with Dick Clark. I think most of us realized that “Father Knows Best” and such were not about real families. Our dads worked hard and some of our mothers also worked. We were enrolled in Catholic schools that at that time really taught the faith and had priests that were true Shepherds who followed the Pope..

    I think too what Carly is saying is that better you get an education (sounds like college kids) and maybe a job for a few years and then marry. Sad to say, a lot of the people she spoke about did exist, but seldom did these marriages get divorces in the 50’s and 60’s, but they learned to compromise. Luckily, some of us were able to pattern our marriages after our parents and stayed together. We’ve been married for 47 years and there have been ups and downs, but then we didn’t expect our family to be like the Cleavers either.

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