Published February 21, 2012
A New York Times story during the weekend begins this way: “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”
The story goes on to point out that “motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America.” The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group. The Times points out “the surge of births outside marriage among younger women—nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30—is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.” Researchers have “consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.”
In all of this I’m reminded of the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1995 was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. To which Moynihan replied, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This tectonic shift has occurred, Moynihan said, “in an historical instant. Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”
We have moved from a fracturing of the marital ideal toward what scholars call a “post-marriage” society. The causes for this are complicated, including shifts in moral and social attitudes, the after-effects of the sexual revolution, government policies on welfare, dramatic shifts in family law, the influence of popular culture, and modernity/post-modernity itself. Regardless of the root causes, the consequences of living in a society in which marriage is devalued and out-of-wedlock births are normative are not good, especially for the most vulnerable members of the human community. And so we have to recover our commitment to an institution that is, for much of American society, submerging like Atlantis.
In his 2001 book, The Broken Hearth, William Bennett put it this way:
The blessings that come to us through marriage and parenthood—I speak here of the deepest kind of human fulfillment—are immeasurable and irreplaceable and … incomparable. We live in an age in which we are continually being torn away from that which is priceless and enduring. This means that ours is the task of reminding ourselves, and each other, not only of what we have lost but of what, when it comes to marriage and the family, is still ours to regain.
Marriage and parenthood are not the sources of happiness and meaning for everyone, of course, and they can involve their own struggles and heartache. But for most people, marriage and parenthood are well-springs of great happiness. As for how to get to where we need to go, it does not require us “turning back the clock.” It requires us to renew the inward things of the heart, to take steps toward progress. To understand the distinction, listen to the words of C.S. Lewis:
I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive … [and] going back is the quickest way on.
On matters of marriage and parenthood, then, we all need to begin to walk back to the right road, not in hopes of recapturing an Ozzie and Harriet world but for the sake of our society, human fulfillment, and the well-being of our children.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.