The minute I read the New York Times article this weekend, “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage,” I knew I had to write a response because the issues in the piece hit so close to home.
The fact is, when I first picked up the newspaper and started reading, I was thrilled. The article lead in is:
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.
I was delighted. We have many close friends that had kids without being married. Some of them had kids very young (surprise!), and for others, marriage is just not something they are into. So at first blush, it seemed that a national trend that made it easier for people to choose not to marry was a damn good thing.
But then I dug further into the article, and my feelings changed. It turns out that the trend line we’re looking at is not that more women are feeling empowered to have children outside of marriage. The trend line we’re looking at is that marriage rates, as at least as they correlate with children, are falling for everyone but the well off. The facts are these:
About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends. … That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education. “Marriage has become a luxury good,” said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
David and I grew up in a very poor area. We grew up around families that were on the brink: they didn’t have money, didn’t have opportunities, and often they were struggling in ways you can’t even imagine from the outside. We saw a lot of emotional and physical abuse. We saw a lot of kids lacking the basic emotional support that parents provide. We saw a lot of shattered families (and by shattered, I don’t mean divorced—I mean an emotional wasteland of hurt, which was pretty equal opportunity). And because of all this, our high school friend group functioned in many ways like a substitute family. Whenever we could, the teenagers supported each other in a way that many of the grown-ups around us could not. As a result, we’re still very close to many lots of people we grew up with because substitute families are like that.
When it comes to our hometown friends, not a ton of people have gotten married (and at thirty, we’ve already been through a wave of painful divorces). And, as you do when you grow up in tough circumstances, we’ve learned to laughed it off. “You’re dealing with nine wedding inviations this year? Well, not us. Our friends don’t get hitched, we grew up in a poor area.” “Your friends get married and stay married? What’s THAT like?” And on and on.
But the truth is, the fact that David and I have been happily together for seven years, and happily married for two and a half, is something of a luxury marker among our friends. We’re the kids that grew up with together, educated, supportive families. We got out of our hometown in (more or less) one piece, went to good schools, and then, to top it all off, we got to get married, too. Yes, we worked hard to make good choices and to end up in a relationship with someone who was good for us. Yes, we work hard at our relationship. But we also are very aware that we’re lucky. We ended up equipped with the emotional and practical skills to make a marriage work. We had a better shot, right out of the gate.
I don’t think marriage is perfect institution. I don’t think it’s right for everyone. I don’t think it should be given the social privilege that it’s often given (particularly for women). There is nothing about being married that is somehow better, or more important than being a single or partnered and not married. (Which is why I so adamantly use the title Ms. It’s none of your business what my relationship status is.) But, I’m aware that marriage can be a valuable tool. Studies routinely show that married couples come out significantly better financially in the long run. Marriage can be a boon to long term health and happiness. Kids that grow up in stable long term partnerships tend to be better off. And that’s not to mention the myriad of ways that marriage can personally support you, make you free, and give you wings to fly. Marriage is a long way from perfect, but it’s an institution that I passionately believe should be available to everyone.
And yet. In an era of widening inequality, it seems that marriage too, is becoming a luxury good. For me, the key qoute from the article was from Amber Strader, 27, who said:
“I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now,” she said. “Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”
That’s the story that’s so often told in our hometown. Because it’s not happening (or not happening in a lasting way) for people we know that deeply need and want that stability and partnership in their lives. It’s something that leaves me saddened. Even though, like any kid from a tough area, I’ll make a sharp joke about it if you bring it up. But underneath, I’m empty handed. Bereft.
I don’t come to you with solutions today, just with something to discuss. Does marriage matter? If it does, why? And if it does, how can we make it a choice more available to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their education, regardless of their socio-economic status?
Picture: Emily Takes Photos