I caught the tail end of a report on the local news last night that sent me off to the internets, to find this story from CNN on the latest stats on “out-of-wedlock births,” conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. According to the study, in 2007, almost 40% of babies born in the United States were not the children of married couples. It’s 25% more than were recorded in 2002.
The response has varied from stern, furrowed concern, to outright panic. My response is “Mm-hm. So how are the mothers and their children faring?” I’m no big fan of teenage pregnancy, and I’m all for planned and wanted children. No arguments there. But there’s some hand-waving going on here around language. ”Out-of-wedlock births” does not necessarily mean “unwanted or unplanned births.” So it’s not clear to me why that designation,”out-of-wedlock,” is important.
Oh, wait, yes it is. It’s important because how else will we know which women deserve to have children? A woman called Sarah Brown, who heads up the National Campaign of Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, glibly opines:
“I wish people spent as much time planning when to get pregnant, with whom, under what circumstances as they do planning their next vacation. The stigma [of out-of-wedlock births] has eroded, and these numbers made me feel perhaps it’s disappeared altogether.”
You know what women need more of? Shaming and stigma.
Stupid, stupid women, thinking about where to summer and gettin’ themselves knocked up all over the place! Stupid babies, robbing bastardy of its cultural power to create an exploitable underclass! Ms. Brown, your privilege–to say nothing of your mean spirit–is showing. I looked around the NCPTUP’s website (no links from me!), and on the surface, I’m down with their mission to promote education and contraception and, generally, lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies. But this goal rubs me the wrong way:
to help ensure that children are born into stable, two-parent families who are committed to and ready for the demanding task of raising the next generation.
Yeahhhh, no. I’m probably in the minority of people–at large, if not at this site–who really doesn’t care what or who makes up a “family.” I’ve read the data that children of two-parent families suffer less poverty, do better in school, commit fewer crimes, etc., but I’m never going to get on the “kids need a mom and a dad, and need them to be married” boat. Those studies look at straight married couples with children vs. single parent (usually mother-headed) families. They ignore parents who are unmarried but cohabitating, those who are non-cohabitating but committed to their child/ren, all lesbian and gay parents, as well as co-parenting arrangements and relationships of other stripes. They also generally have focused on marital status as the prime indicator of family stability, and socio-economic status as an outgrowth thereof. For the record, I think that is exactly backwards.
Do children do generally do better when more than one adult is there to support and provide for them? Yes. But I dont believe that the “best” way is the traditional, heteronormative household. It might be a good way, but marriage is no guarantee that a relationship will be healthy, supportive, or stable, anyway. Marriage is not a good in and of itself. (And regardless, aren’t women usually doing the bulk of labor involved in raising children, anyway?)
Pilgrim Soul has mentioned her interest in making alternative family structures (with or without children) more acceptable and supported, and I’m with her, 100%. David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project, however, bemoans such things, even when they are carefully chosen, for fear they will become more generally acceptable, even fashionable. “‘So many people are doing it, why shouldn’t I just go ahead? It’s part of a slippery slope,” he says.
Oh noes! Unwed mothers will drag us into the muck! I’m struck by the fact that throughout the article, the concerns voiced are primarily about marriage. Not really about what’s best for children and families. Not about men’s personal responsibility or abdication thereof–they barely warrant a mention. And of course, it’s not about what’s best for women.
I don’t plan to be a mother at all. I honestly don’t recognize or even understand all the “ticking clock” and “baby-hungry” memes going around. Nonetheless, as a feminist, I am only too happy to let other women make their own choices about when and with whom to procreate. Even if that means they make choices that I disagree with. I feel safe assuming that most women want children, and I know that most women have children. Since women are individuals, however, they want them for different reasons, and under different circumstances. Some women want to have children with their husband. Others, with a wife. Some want to be, plan to be, single mothers, or end up creating a cooperative arrangement with other families, to the benefit of all.
This focus on “out-of-wedlock” births is misplaced. Marriage confers a host of benefits and responsibilities, it’s true (which is why I am in favor of same-sex marriage), but it isn’t a magic bullet. Rather than pushing for more marriage, longer marriage, I’d like those who are really interested in the welfare of American families to push for health care and education, instead, so that women (and yes, men) can truly make free choices about what sort of families they want, and when they want them. But that’s probably because I’m an unmarried slut with no values.
P.S. I’m explicitly not dealing with the role of fathers in their children’s lives here. The more people truly invested in a child, the better. But despite what marriage-at-any-cost advocates would have to believe, men do not need to be married to the mother of their children in order to feel (or act) responsible for and loving towards their offspring.
P.P.S. Don’t read the comments to that CNN article, unless you want a parade of sexist and racist banner-waving: “women today are loose,” “why buy the cow?”, “welfare mothers raising bastards on my taxes!”, “anchor babies,” etc. My disgust is only slightly greater than my lack of surprise. It’s more evidence that the debate going on here isn’t about family welfare, but about women’s sexuality.