Two cultural factors are also in play here. The rise of the “capstone” model of marriage is one such factor, as Cherlin has noted. All Americans, not just the college educated—watch the same TV shows and movies and pick up the idea that adults have to have all their ducks in a row—a middle-class lifestyle, a soul mate relationship—before they settle down. This model sets a high bar for marriage and minimizes marriage’s classic connection to parenthood. So large numbers of less-educated twentysomethings who view the capstone model as unattainable end up having the child before the marriage.
Second, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, many young adults have been scarred by the divorce revolution—which hit poor and middle American communities harder than upper- and middle-class communities—and have become gun-shy about marriage. They have seen too many friends and family divorce to have the trust required to move forward with a wedding. So, living amid a climate characterized by a trust deficit, they often choose, or drift “unintentionally” into, parenthood with partners who are not marriageable or who seem good but to whom they are not yet ready to marry.
Melissa, a 31-year-old single mother, had this to say about why she has never married any of her boyfriends: “I just never felt that anyone’s as loyal to me as I am to them,” she said. “Even when I feel like I’m in a good relationship, there’ll be little things that they’ll do that will make me start wondering, ‘Do they really have my back?’ ”, according to the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, a study of Middle American relationships in a small town in Ohio. What’s striking about Melissa’s comment—which is all too representative—is that it’s not just the bad guys who give her pause about marriage; it’s also the good guys. She just seems to harbor a general suspicion about the possibility of lifelong love and the whole institution of marriage.
So what can be done to bring women like Melissa and the “good guys” back together? Progressives are right to point to the importance of shoring up the economic foundations of family life in middle America. New infrastructure projects, better vocational training, and the elimination of the marriage penalties built into many of the nation’s public policies serving lower-income Americans are all steps that could help to boost the fragile foundations of middle American families. President Obama was right to call in his State of the Unions address for measures “to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples.”
But conservatives are also right in calling for a new ethic of parental responsibility that is equally binding on all Americans and all parents, regardless of their income, education, or gender. We need a national campaign—like we have had around teen pregnancy—encompassing public, civic, and pop-cultural efforts (yes, Lena Dunham should get in on the action) to encourage twentysomethings to wait until they have a plan and a partner who will enable them to give their children the life and family they deserve. Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says young adults need to treat parenthood, not marriage, as the capstone.
This is because becoming a parent, for both mothers and fathers, is a big deal, arguably a bigger deal than getting married. Young adults owe it to their children to try to bring them into a home with two loving parents who are ready to support them and one another in the exhausting, exhilarating, and quotidian adventure that is parenthood. And, at least in the United States, that’s most likely to happen within marriage.
The bottom line is this: Today’s twentysomethings need to approach parenthood with the same seriousness that they approach marriage. For some, this will mean postponing parenthood into the later 20s or 30s, after their ducks are all in row. But for others, this will mean marrying earlier to someone with whom they are in a “good relationship.” But either way, contemporary young adults need to be more intentional about sequencing the baby carriage after marriage, just as the country needs to be more intentional about stabilizing the fragile foundations of family life in poor and middle American communities across the United States.