When a three year old asks you "what is 'married,'" it sends you down a surprisingly difficult and philosophical spiral. Just what is the basic "essence" (in quotes, because I hate this word) of this particular human relationship, which we set apart from other human relationships as unique, and grace with special social status and legal rights?
Now, I am not one of those parents who is squeamish or reluctant to chat to my toddler about body parts and where babies come from. When Clare made the intuitive leap that babies in big round bellies exit from their mama's bellybutton, the cuteness of her toddler logic did not stop me from correcting her misunderstanding of this important biological process. Babies come out of vaginas, and she will gladly tell you so, and add that that is a-MAZ-ing.
But for all that, when Clare asked me to define 'what is married,' my toddler-sized definition did not include an explicit reference to sex, or where babies come from. I think I could have managed a version for her that was not alarming and made some kind of sense, but I didn't.
Instead I cobbled together something like, "when two people love each other so much, and they want to be together all the time, they get married and live together in the same house and share everything." Clare's first reaction, after digesting this information for a couple days, was to let me know that she wanted to marry me. Actually, she clarified, we're like, already married, because we love each other and live in the same house and share our things. And now, as I've noted, I've been replaced--she is determined to marry her BFF S---- from school. Because if that's what getting married means, well, that's how she perceives these relationships.
Obviously my definition has some flaws. My little toddler polygynist is just logically applying the information (though she seemed to miss the part about 'two people'). But to be honest, I like it. Particularly because the sexual aspect of the marriage relationship isn't entirely missing--it's implicit, rather than explicit. Share everything.
In the context of these toddler dialogues, NPR's recent piece on challenges to DOMA just highlights the way in which opponents of "redefining marriage" are themselves seeking to literally "redefine marriage." It seems to me that to arbitrate which relationships count as marriage and which don't, on the basis of what sort of sexual acts are engaged in, is to discount as irrelevant everything I included in my definition of marriage for Clare. Is that a "defense of marriage?" (And, let me pause for a parenthetical tangent and note how absurd the name for this law is. "Defense" of marriage? Because people who love each other so much that they want to be together all the time and live in the same house and share everything are the metaphorical equivalent of a terrorist threat? Yes, clearly these people sound horribly deranged.) I thought that marriage is supposed to be a unique and sanctified human relationship, something that the biblical text dares to use as a metaphor for our relationship to God and God's relationship with humanity and Jesus' relationship to the church--but it seems to me that in so vigorously "defending" marriage, the definition of what it is that's being defended has been stripped down to the bare naked sex act. Defense of "marriage" is just defense of the holy and singular privilege of penile penetration of female passivity.
This is not a marriage my daughter would recognize as marriage. And I intend to keep it that way.