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Jewish World Review
May 15, 2009 / 21 Iyar 5769
The Wrong Marriage Debate
The other day I chatted with a pregnant gal at the hair salon.
She was about 20, sweet, pretty, and demure. Because I am always doing
sociological fieldwork, I asked my hairdresser if she was married. No. But
she has a fiance. As always in these situations, you just want to grab these
young people by the lapels and say "Get to the altar! It's critical for your
child." I didn't, of course because while I am a zealot for marriage, I'm
not yet prepared to become a public nuisance.
I thought of that young lady again this morning when I read of
the latest report from the National Center for Health Statistics. It seems
that the rate at which unmarried women are having babies in America jumped
dramatically in the past seven years. "In 2007, there were 1,714,643 babies
born to unmarried women, an increase of 4 percent from 2006, and 26 percent
higher than the number in 2002 (1,365,966)," the NCHS reports. Forty percent
of births in America are now to unwed mothers. Rates are highest among
Hispanic women (like the one at the salon).
Though we had a vigorous national discussion about unwed
childbearing back in the 1990s "Murphy Brown" followed by "Dan Quayle Was
Right" by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in the Atlantic magazine a few years
later our current preoccupation with gay marriage has distracted us. The
issue of greater importance is the degree to which heterosexual men and
women are choosing to become parents while unmarried. "If you see 10 babies
in the room," Stephanie Ventura of the NCHS told the Washington Post, "four
of them were born to women who are not married."
And while popular culture and supermarket checkout mags might
give you the impression that wealthy, successful women are leading the way
on single parenting, celebrities actually obscure the reality. Movie stars
and pop singers do often abjure marriage, but most successful women do not.
In fact, as Kay Hymowitz limned in her 2006 book, "Marriage and Caste in
America," what we really have in this country is a caste system. At the top
are the college graduates who nearly always get married before becoming
pregnant. At the bottom are poor women of all races and backgrounds who
routinely have babies before they marry (if they ever marry). "As of 2000,"
Hymowitz wrote, "only about 10 percent of mothers with 16 or more years of
education that is, with a college degree or higher were living without
husbands. Compare that with 36 percent of mothers who have between 9 and 14
years of education." And the new NCHS data suggest that the numbers have
only gotten worse since 2000. The life prospects for children born into
intact families are so dramatically different from those born into
single-parent homes that it would seem a gross injustice if it resulted from
anything other than the free choice of parents. Actually, it is
a gross injustice to the children even if it is perpetrated by
By the age of 12, 78 percent of children living in non-married
households have experienced one or more years of poverty. For children in
intact families, the figure is 18 percent. Babies born to unwed moms are
more likely to be premature, to face low birth weight, and to suffer other
pathologies. Children who are raised in non-marital households have poorer
school performance, more trouble with the law, more mental and emotional
disturbances, more poverty, suffer more physical and sexual abuse, and are
more likely to become unwed parents themselves. Here's Hymowitz again:
"Children of single mothers have lower grades and educational attainment
than kids who grow up with married parents, even after controlling for race,
family background, and IQ."
Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, among others, has
speculated about why less-educated young women do not wait for marriage.
Perhaps they invest marriage with excessively lofty expectations for
complete personal happiness and fulfillment? One of the unwed moms
interviewed by the Post explained her decision not to marry the father of
her 3-year-old this way: "He's a good dad and a good person, but he's just
not right for me." Another offered that "I didn't want to pick the wrong
person just to have a kid, so I just decided to go ahead and do it and work
on the relationship later."
Young women, especially poorly educated ones, have gotten the
idea that marriage is all about them about their romantic hopes. In fact,
while marriage often does deliver on the promise of happiness for adults, it
is only secondarily about adult happiness. It is primarily about safety and
security for children. The old stigma against illegitimacy was harsh and led
to its own kind of suffering. But it prevented narcissistic young people
from impairing the lives of their children on a grand scale.
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