This Sunday, neighbors, husbands, and especially children should lift a glass to the mothers who have managed to get and stay married to the fathers of their children. For, despite the fact that single motherhood never seems to go out of style with the media, motherhood typically works best — for our nation’s neighborhoods, children, and even most moms — with a wedding ring.
You will not read any of this in the New York Times, which seems to think sperm-donor-dads are just fine, but married mothers serve our nation’s neighborhoods, children, and even themselves better than any of the dizzying array of alternatives to married motherhood. This truth was abundantly clear to me after surveying the social-scientific literature on marriage and child well-being with 15 other family scholars for a recent report, Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences.
Take crime. Mothers who manage to get and stay married are much less likely to produce boys who end up terrorizing playgrounds, parks, and little old ladies walking home from the grocery store. One recent Princeton study found that boys who grew up in an intact, married family were half as likely to end up in prison as young adults. After studying murder and robbery rates in our nation’s cities, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson observed, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.” This is why neighbors should thank the married mothers on their block.
Or take psychological well-being. Children who are fortunate to grow up with a married mother and father are much less likely to find themselves in serious emotional trouble. By contrast, children who grow up without their father are significantly more likely to suffer from depression. And for some children, it gets much worse than depression. In the last half-century, suicide has more than tripled among teens and young adults; one recent Harvard study found the single “most important explanatory variable” behind this disturbing rise in youth suicide was the “increased share of youth living in homes with a divorced parent.” This is why children should thank their mothers for getting and staying married.
Or take a mother’s relationship with her sons and daughters. No one is surprised to learn that divorced and never-married fathers typically have poor relationships with their fathers. After all, most nonresidential fathers do not even see their children once a week. But even mothers are much more likely to have poor relationships with their children when dad is not in the picture. One study found that young adults whose parents were divorced were nearly twice as likely to report that they had a poor relationship with their mother compared to young adults who were raised in an intact, married family (30 versus 16 percent). This is why mothers, who usually make great efforts to have good relationships with their children, should also make every effort to get and stay married.
This is not to say that mothers should endure abusive or adulterous relationships, nor is it to devalue the heroic sacrifices that many single mothers make on behalf of their children. (Full disclosure: I think my own mother did a wonderful job raising me and my sister all on her own.) Indeed, the best social-scientific evidence suggests that children do better when their parents part ways if their relationship is characterized by serious physical or emotional abuse.
But the sad fact of the matter is that most divorces — two-thirds, according to a recent book by Penn State sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth — do not involve such abuse. All too many divorcing spouses “grow apart,” take an interest in an attractive coworker, or decide that their personal happiness is more important than the happiness of their spouse and children. And, according to Amato and Booth, these divorces are precisely the ones that are most devastating to the children who have to endure them.
Why does marriage matter so much for children? Typically, two parents bring more social and economic resources to the parenting enterprise than does one parent. Two parents offer one another mutual support, encouragement, and relief when a child is difficult, disobedient, or depressed. For instance, a husband can step in and relieve a wife who has grown angry or exhausted with her children. This, by the way, is one reason married moms are more likely to have children who report good relationships with them; because of the financial, practical, and emotional support they receive from their husbands, married moms are more likely to be affectionate and authoritative — and less likely to be abusive — than are single mothers.
Marriage also binds children to their fathers, who usually find it very difficult to maintain consistent and positive relationships with their children without the support and encouragement of their children’s mother. Finally, children who are fortunate to have married parents who are considerate of and committed to one another enjoy a measure of emotional security — not to mention a model of adult love that gives them hope for their own marital future — that their peers in broken homes do not.
So, this Mother’s Day, lift a glass to dear old Mom, and lift it especially high if she honored the vows she made on her wedding day.
— W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.