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Family By Any Other Name

Ask a twenty-something about marriage and family these days, and you’ll likely get an explanation of why the two don’t require each other: marriage is  completely optional, and having kids is kind of unrelated. Everything is a roll of the dice, anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Here in the US, the number of couples living together out of wedlock has grown from 500,000 in 1970 to more than 5 million today. For the first time, a majority of households are headed by unmarried or single adults, according to recent census data. So, we have a redefinition of family that has been formulated outside the legal and religious standards that brought us into the last century with rules much the same as in the previous 30 generations.

“Unmarried mothers gave birth to 4 out of every 10 babies born in the United States in 2007, a share that is increasing rapidly both here and abroad…” NY Times, May 13, 2009

So it isn’t simply a heathen thing, an American thing or a white, black or Hispanic thing. Iceland has over 60% births to unmarried women. (It is clearly not, however, in any way an Asian thing: Korea has less than 2% out of wedlock; Japan less than 3%.) Yet here we are, only 70 years after the rate of “illegitimate births” in the US was at 3.8%. Sure, there were tons of shotgun weddings in those days, but everyone knew that you got hitched when you knocked her up.

What has given us this 1000% increase, even as cheap, effective, female-centered birth control became the norm fifty years ago?

Those of us who came into adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s would likely have assumed that there would be a big jump in numbers of people who stay single. But even we are surprised at the size of this spike. Though we would have reasoned that lots of our contemporaries wanted to keep changing partners and doing user-friendly, non-violent drugs and raising children to do the same, we wouldn’t have imagined that religious tradition and social expectation would so easily roll over.

I’m thinking this phenomenon is less the collapse of a former society than it is a quick-time, evolutionary adaptation to reality. Children of divorce are unalterably scarred and so, reasonably, they get to be suspicious of breakable marriage contracts and their aftermath. Still, I have been surprised that they are willing to institutionalize uncertainty. At least, I have reasoned, if you stand up with a some witnesses and a preacher or a judge, you have a few more people pulling for you, cheering on your chances as a couple for life.

[Oh, I almost forgot. Full disclosure: I married and divorced the same woman twice. In at age 19, out, finally, at age 42.  I am happily married now to a woman upon whom the ironies of my connubial elasticity are not lost. So, this writing is nobody’s lecture.]

The willing extension of the family that is marriage, that contract of availability, was clearly designed to have value to the children. There was a formal line of shared responsibility including all relatives, assumed to offer more safety for the child. If someone gets sick or goes broke there is actual help available, almost legally required. But those who float freely without a marriage certificate today, bouncing a baby on each knee, would argue that they have that level of security anyway, without the tenuous lines of connection. Besides, who wants to formalize the web of relationships among dad and his three ex-wives, mom’s latest boyfriend who beats her less often than the last guy, four grandpas who think you’ve lost your mind and three grandmas who weep for your lost soul? Better to stay close to your mom or your sister and let them help you with the baby and order that pizza delivery for you. People of child-rearing age now were, in their crucial growing-up years, subjected to an avalanche of crumbled expectations and moral disenchantment with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and popular heroes alike.

So, when that same group of relatives and fallen icons attempts to offer advice or presumes to cluck tongues to shame the pregnant, unmarried woman, it seems quite reasonable that her eyes would glaze over. In her mind, she has, at the very least, an equal chance at a decent life for her and for her child by making a private deal with the man in her life. Or going it alone. And, by deciding to have the child, she makes a commitment to someone, that little person beholden only to her, who may actually appreciate her and see her as a person important enough to respect forever.

Evidence suggests that, for many a young woman in 2011, these are dice she’s willing to roll, even if such gambling is still illegal and shamed in many parts of her world.

And two people living together? Even more clearly None of My Business, it turns out.



Posted on Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 01:01PM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

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