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Encouraging Married Parenthood

The buzz generated by MTV’s show 16 and Pregnant may have played a part in the decrease of teenage pregnancies, although it may have also led to more abortions. (Though, the teen abortion rate overall is down.) Jessica Grose at Slate took issue with this finding, pointing out that two other MTV shows — Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 — may have had a different effect. She argues that the young mothers involved with those two shows have attained such notoriety that teens may want to emulate them.

But perhaps the more important issue we should look at is the growing number of single mothers of all ages. We all want to support single mothers – recognizing their dedication and understanding that they could have made a different “choice.” Yet we still have to admit that children growing up without fathers — and fathers shirking their responsibilities — is a tragedy in our nation. What to do?

As the MTV shows indicate, pop culture is a tremendous influence. Going back a ways, while we all wanted to applaud Murphy Brown for choosing to have her baby, Matt K. Lewis has pointed out that it’s about time everyone just admitted that Dan Quayle was right — single parenthood is not the ideal. And everyone, including liberals, should do what they can to promote married parenthood.

This evinces a worldview which sees the arc of history bending in one direction (toward unwed mothers), which assumes that this is a fait accompli. As such, it presents the reader with a world in which liberals are confronting the tough, pragmatic problems of trying to “accommodate the decline of marriage,” while conservatives are tilting at windmills when they try to attack the root problem.

I’m left scratching my head, thinking: “Why not use this as an opportunity to champion reforms that might actually help solve the problem?” — “Why not be all contrarian and give a full-throated endorsement of Marco Rubio’s efforts here, arguing that liberals ought to support ending income inequality, even if it (gasp!) entails supporting culturally conservative policies?”

Ross Douthat admits that promoting marriage without cruelly shaming single parents is a fine line to walk, but doesn’t think it’s impossible:

It seems pretty obvious that there are forms of social pressure that don’t amount to “cruel shunning” and “deliberate cruelty,” but that shape people’s behavior in meaningful ways nonetheless. I think you can see this…in the way that elite culture subtly disfavors out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce (especially divorce while the kids are young) among the college-educated upper class. In neither case are people who violate these soft norms being ruthlessly excluded from society or deliberately punished by policymakers. But in both cases there’s a gentler kind of stigma at work, one that mixes sympathy with disapproval, a promise of tolerance with a warning of negative life consequences, and that seems to have had some real effect on people’s choices without requiring vicious ostracism or abuse.

Now I’ll concede that the soft social pressure on these fronts would probably have to become more explicitly moralistic to influence the deeper trend toward non-marital childbearing, and I tend toward pessimism about the likelihood of that actually happening, given the social-libertarian drift of both political coalitions. But I still think it’s wrong to suggest….we face a stark choice between totally empty pro-marriage rhetoric and cruelly patriarchal, Magdalen-laundry style treatment of unwed mothers. Rather, I think it’s pretty easy to imagine how pro-marriage rhetoric could play a role in rebuilding a non-punitive cultural consensus around the two-parent norm, one that shapes and channels behavior without treating outliers as the absolute worst of sinners. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow … but given where we’re currently headed, I see nothing wrong with giving it a try.

Douthat goes on to suggest how we can make this a part of public policy.


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