The advice columns of newspapers are good windows into the conscience of a culture. There you will find a field guide to what is considered socially acceptable and unacceptable. One of the advice columnists for the Washington Post, Carolyn Hax, is consistently sensible and solid in her suggestions. Straightening out busybodies, drug abusers, interfering in-laws and ungrateful children with equal aplomb, she’s usually a pleasant read with the morning coffee.
But not always. A recent response to a letter from “Grandmother-to-be” provides an example of the collapse of social wisdom on the subject of marriage and childbearing. “My 26-year-old son’s girlfriend — of four months — is pregnant,” grandma wrote. “I have very mixed emotions about this, mainly because he just met her, and I do not know her. They work and live across the country. I am disappointed in their behavior. How do I tell my friends the news? I am embarrassed.”
If I were an advice columnist, I would start with the reminder that telling one’s friends is a low priority at the moment, while acknowledging that feeling ashamed of her son (not the young woman, as she has no relationship with her and thus cannot justifiably feel disappointed in her) is understandable under the circumstances.
Next, I would have pointed out that since the couple will be parents, the very highest priority should be to encourage them to marry as soon as possible. A shotgun wedding? Obviously not. Those days are gone. But for all concerned — most particularly for the unborn child — a stable family is now essential.
Hax indeed began by dismissing the friend worry but with a very different emphasis. “There’s a child on the way, and this is your big concern? ... American adults overwhelmingly choose premarital sex. ... Plus, birth control isn’t perfect, so you have statistical permission not to single this couple out for shaming.”
Well, if shame were still attached to getting pregnant outside of marriage, it would be no bad thing. But fine, Hax seemed to be going in the right direction with the next sentence. “Any big concern belongs with the stability of the home that will welcome this baby ...” But then, instead of recommending an immediate and tasteful elopement, she wrote, “If they plan to raise the baby as a couple ...”
If? For so many 21st century Americans, that’s the way it’s done. A child on the way will not affect the couple’s decision about marriage. They may move in together. They may not. She may move into her mother’s house. He may visit every day — for a while. She may try to raise the child by herself. It may not be her first or his. The fate of the relationship is regarded as utterly separate from the fact of the child’s existence.
Many, many young adults who already have babies and toddlers will explain that they “aren’t ready” for the commitment of marriage, or that they haven’t found the right person. How have we managed to get so confused?
The collapse of marriage among the lower and lower-middle classes is rapidly tapping our national strength. Women from wealthier families get it. They basically wait until they’re married to have babies. They know that two parents create stability, financial security and the social structure to optimize the chances of rearing happy, healthy and productive new citizens. The illegitimacy rate among women with college educations, while it has tripled since 1960, is still only about 8 percent.
As Kay Hymowitz noted in Marriage and Caste in America, “Virtually all — 92 percent — of children whose families make over $75,000 per year are living with both parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: Only about 20 percent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.”
The failure to marry on the part of the lower and lower-middle classes, not the tax code, Wall Street or competition from China, is what is aggravating inequality in America.
The toll is incalculable. In every way that social science can measure — school performance, drug abuse, unemployment, suicide, poverty, depression, dependence on government handouts, mental illness, violence and far more — children raised by single parents (especially when their parents never married) are at a severe disadvantage. The failure to form families is devastating our schools, exacerbating inequality and diminishing happiness on a grand scale.
So yes, “Grandmother-to-be” should be worried — not about what to tell her friends, but about what will become of her grandchild if his/her parents choose to join the ranks of the great unwed.