Beyond exploring the difficulties of love and marriage, Jones dissects the demands and expectations of parenthood throughout the novel. Jones challenges and redefines conventional notions of parenting, ultimately presenting it a commitment that transcends bloodlines. In An American Marriage, parenthood requires conscious effort and great maturity. It is the mindful choice to provide for and support a child—and a choice that must be continually re-made.
Varying conceptions of fatherhood, in particular, are present throughout the novel. Roy is named for his biological father, Othaniel, at birth. When Othaniel then abandons Roy and his mother Olive, however, Roy is adopted by Big Roy, who changes his son’s name to Roy Jr.—reflecting the seriousness with which he takes his newfound parental duties. Indeed, from childhood into adulthood, Big Roy is the most significant male figure in Roy’s life.
In contrast, when Roy goes to prison and eventually realizes that his bunk mate is in fact his biological father, he refuses to call Othaniel “dad” until the latter has proven himself worthy of the title. While Othaniel was not a reliable parent to Roy as a child, however, he is able to provide Roy advice about the unfamiliar world of prison. Through this support, Roy eventually comes to see Othaniel as a father figure in his own right, as is evidenced by the fact that he signs his farewell letter to him as his “son.” Andre has a similarly fraught relationship with his father, Carlos, throughout his childhood that mends somewhat by the end of the novel. When Andre seeks his advice regarding his relationship with Celestial, Carlos supports his son as best he can and, in his own subtle way, reveals his desire to have a closer bond with Andre by promising to have a present for him under the tree that Christmas. Through these relationships, An American Marriage highlights the complicated humanity of even the most absent of fathers and suggests that it is never too late for these men to form strong bonds with their children if they step up and provide support in whatever ways they are able.
Motherhood, too, is presented as something that must be actively pursued throughout the novel. Just after Roy is incarcerated, Celestial discovers that she is pregnant. Though she is conflicted about what to do, she and Roy agree that it’s best she not give birth to a child while Roy is in prison and she has an abortion. In later letters to Roy, Celestial implies that he forced her into this decision because he wouldn’t be present to father the child. For his part, Roy seems to believe that Celestial made the decision because she did not want to raise a child as a single parent for what they assumed would be the first 12 years of the child’s life. In either case, the decision to terminate the pregnancy was a conscious one, made in light of the serious responsibilities inherent to raising a child. Roy later laments that a child would likely have kept the couple together throughout his sentence, but ultimately realizes that children must not be used as a means to cement a relationship. That is why he accepts his eventual fiancée Davina’s wish to not have any more children at the end of the novel, given that she has already experienced the devastation of being estranged from her incarcerated son Hopper.
Celestial does become a parent during her time with Roy in one sense: she creates dolls, each crafted in the image of her husband, and, in many ways, as stand-ins for the child they didn’t end up having. She devotes much of her energy to the dolls, as a mother would a child. Each is lovingly stitched by hand, and Celestial reveres them for both their beauty and their flaws, certain that the right adoptive parent will love each doll as much as she does. In this way, Celestial assumes a version of parenthood while Roy is incarcerated, creating “children” that she can mold as she sees fit before passing them on to others. In the novel’s epilogue, Celestial reveals to Roy that she is pregnant with Andre’s child—suggesting that she is finally ready to take on the responsibility of motherhood in a way she never was with Roy.
Through these relationships, An American Marriage shows that being a parent involves much more than simply producing a child; it requires care, compassion, and consistent effort. Parenthood comes with great responsibilities, and all parents risks losing their status if they fail to satisfy those conditions. In portraying the variety of shapes that parent-child relationships might take, Jones suggests that parenthood goes beyond blood and demands conscious dedication. The bond between parents and children is powerful but never a given; on the contrary, it’s importance is reflected by the fact that it must continually be earned.
Parenthood as a Choice ThemeTracker
Parenthood as a Choice Quotes in An American Marriage
But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.
Grandmamma would tell Evie to hush and remind her that getting left by a man was not the worst thing that ever happened to somebody. And Evie would say, “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me.” She said it so much that she came down with lupus. “God wanted me to see what misery really was,” Evie said. I didn’t like all this God talk, like He was up there toying with us. I preferred more of the tenderness and acceptance my grandmother promised in her hymns. I told this to Evie when I was a little boy and she said, “You got to work with the god you were given.”
You also have to work with the love you are given, with all of the complications clanging behind it like tin cans tied to a bridal sedan.
But that was when we thought incarceration had something to do with being guilty or at least being stupid.
Now Mr. Davenport was loyal to Roy above his own daughter. In a way, the whole black race was loyal to Roy, a man just down from the cross.
“You say you want my advice. Here’s what I have. Tell the truth. Don’t try to cushion the blow. If you’re bad enough to do it, you’re bad enough to tell it. You can ask you mama. She’ll tell you she was so unhappy because I didn’t drop lies into her morning coffee. The whole time she knew exactly who she was married to.”
“Is it love, or is it convenience?” Gloria asked me that Thanksgiving Day after my father had stormed upstairs and Andre went to gather our coats. She explained that convenience, habit, comfort, obligation—these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes. Did I think this thing with Andre was maybe too easy? He is literally the boy next door.
The son that Celestial and I didn’t have would have been four or five, I think. If a kindergartener slept in the backroom, there is no way Celestial would be talking about how she’s with Andre now. I would say, “A boy need his father.” This is a scientific fact. There wouldn’t be anything else to talk about.
But as things were, there was a lot to talk about, more words than could fit into my mouth.
But I was sorry. Not for what was between Celestial and me, I would never regret that. I was sorry for a lot of things. I was sorry for Evie, suffering from lupus for so many years. I was sorry for elephants killed for their ivory. I was sorry for Carlos, who traded one family for another. I was sorry for everyone in the world because we all had to die and nobody knew what happened after that. I was sorry for Celestial, who was probably watching from the window. Most of all, I was sorry for Roy. The last time I saw him on that morning before his mother’s wake, he said, “I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did.”