Posted: March 24, 2008
ver the past four decades, American adults have seemed more concerned with enjoying their own existence than with the generation and welfare of children. Kay Hymowitz's Marriage and Caste in America and David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage address the consequences of this failure to attend to nature's scheme. The first book compiles Hymowitz's essays, most of them previously published in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Without footnotes or bibliography, it is less a resource for studying the issues than a lively discussion of the family today, which may appeal to those who are part of the problem but could be part of its solution.
Hymowitz contends that marriage's separation from reproduction and its redefinition as a "state-stamped intimate relationship between two adults"—the work of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution—has made children "incidental," no longer the focus of a union devoted to their rearing. Yet there is a vast divide between the educated middle-class women who are more likely to marry before bearing children and the less educated, frequently black, women who constitute the bulk of single-parent families. Hymowitz tells us that "children of single mothers are less successful on just about every measure than children growing up with their married parents regardless of their income, race, or education levels: they are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse, to crime, and to school failure; they are less likely to graduate from college; they are more likely to have children at a young age, and more likely to do so when they are unmarried."
Soaring divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births (37% of U.S. births are illegitimate) have made ours a nation of separate and unequal families. On one side is the middle-class woman following a life script of schooling and preparation for work, leading to self-sufficiency, then marriage, and only then children. On the other is the lower-class, less educated woman for whom sex, babies, and life just happen. "Children in the top quartile," Hymowitz explains,
have mothers who not only are likely to be married but also are older, more mature, better educated, and nearly three times as likely to be employed (whether full- or part-time) as are mothers of children in the bottom quartile. And not only do top-quartile children have what are likely to be more effective mothers; they also get the benefit of more time and money from their live-in fathers.
This is the same two-family nation examined in James Q. Wilson's The Marriage Problem (2002, a work Hymowitz might have mentioned); Wilson depicts America, in Disraeli's famous words, as two nations that are "ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."
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But is the picture so rosy for children on the upper side of the divide? In our no-fault divorce culture, these children, although born to married parents, often end up being raised by a single parent. In fact, the propensity to divorce is apparently correlated with two-income families; Hymowitz notes that "traditional families, with breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife, had the lowest rate of divorce." Women employed 80% of the time since the birth of their first child are twice as likely to be divorced as stay-at-home moms are.
In her essays "Dads in the 'Hood" and "The Teen Mommy Track," Hymowitz gives little hope for the renewal of a marriage culture on the inner-city side of the divide. The poor black men she describes are "neither searching for, nor expecting, durable companionship with the opposite sex." One adolescent explains: "I just can't see myself being with one woman." But these young men do want children insofar as they provide status as proof of manhood, even though most inner-city dads come around with diapers and money only occasionally. Four years after giving birth, 80% of young single mothers are no longer romantically involved with their child's father, who has often moved on to other women and babies. Compounding these mothers' dilemma is the fact, noted by James Wilson, that "educated, affluent African-American men are no more likely to marry than their poorer counterparts."
The "baby mamas" of the hip-hop song ("cause nowadays it's like a badge of honor / to be a baby mama") cannot be explained by the lack of sex education, says Hymowitz. The cultural mores socializing these girls include early sexual experience and motherhood, but not marriage. One pregnant 14-year-old explains: "All my friends have babies. I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn't have one too." These words reflect a subculture which, "unlike elite culture, values motherhood over career achievement," Hymowitz writes. But she concedes that "nothing could be more natural than a sixteen-year-old having a baby"—commonplace especially among African-Americans, though up until the 1960s young mothers were usually married.
The urge to reproduce is hard-wired into most living beings. There is merit in what Rutgers professor of anthropology Lionel Tiger asserts in his book The Decline of Males that these girls are choosing Darwinian reproduction over Marxist market production. "I am unwilling," he says, "to accept the notion on face value that having a baby is less valuable than acquiring a law degree or a small business. It is not self-evidently better to become a lawyer than a mother." Perhaps some of the women who followed the feminist script would agree with Tiger insofar as they enjoy market success but face an ever-diminishing chance of marrying and bearing children. In her essay "The End of Herstory," Hymowitz observes that "there are no Feminists in the throes of fertility anxiety" and that an increasing number of mothers are opting out of the workplace to return home. The older career woman, who sacrificed her marital and maternal prospects, and the baby mama in the 'hood, each responded to the message of her subculture. But both the baby mama and the single woman who uses a sperm donor to achieve motherhood are acting selfishly, treating babies as commodities to satisfy their own needs while denying them a marital home with two biological parents.
Revival of a marriage culture depends on convincing women on both sides of the divide that marriage should precede childbirth and that children need their biological fathers at home. This culture would re-stigmatize illegitimacy, reform divorce laws, and enforce mores that uphold sexual intercourse as the reward of marriage. Citing evidence of disgust with the sexual revolution and the determination of children victimized by divorce to do better than their parents, Hymowitz concludes that Americans are now "earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture.
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For those endeavoring to protect traditional marriage, David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage is an invaluable resource. The founder and president of the Institute for American Values, Blankenhorn is a forceful critic of the divorce culture. He analyzed the disastrous effects of fathers' departure from the home in Fatherless America (1995). Now, he addresses same-sex marriage, thoroughly weighing the arguments on both sides. A self-identified Democrat and liberal who has frequently debated same-sex marriage advocates, Blankenhorn expresses concern—even anguish—at opposing their demands. He does so because he believes that to grant them would destroy marriage as a public institution dedicated to the production and rearing of children by their two biological parents.
Analyzing the historical record, Blankenhorn describes the origins, purpose, decline, and attempted recovery of marriage, and he demonstrates that the institution will be further damaged if same-sex marriage is made legal. While same-sex marriage advocates focus on the needs of adult homosexuals, Blankenhorn focuses on children:
What children need most are mothers and fathers. Not caregivers. Not parent-like adults. Not even ‘parents.' What a child wants and needs more than anything else are the mother and the father who together made the child, who love the child, and who love each other.
To be sure, heterosexuals eroded this ideal, converting 1950s marriage culture into 1970s divorce culture. Today, more than 40% of all first marriages end in divorce (the rates for second and third marriages are even higher), and more than half of all U.S. children will spend "at least a significant part of their childhood living apart from their father." But redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, Blankenhorn argues, "would eliminate entirely in law, and weaken still further in culture, the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child," the precise purpose for which marriage was created. Same-sex marriage advocates deny this, arguing that sex and children are not at the heart of marriage, which they redefine as simply "a commitment between two people" in an "intimate, caring relationship." This definition, says Blankenhorn, is "wildly inadequate." He demonstrates that marriage developed as an institution in all human societies "to bridge the sexual divide, facilitate group living, and carry out reproduction." Essentially, "marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man" within a relationship structured so that "any children resulting from the union are...emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents."
Blankenhorn analyzes, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of the institutionalization of marriage in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (1870-1860 B.C.), one-third of which concern marriage and reproduction. He presents a wealth of material from philosophy, anthropology, and evolutionary biology and psychology to show that "without children, marriage as institution makes little sense." Some of his sources naturally stand out. John Locke, writing in his Two Treatises of Government that God "put strong desires of Copulation into the Constitution of Men, thereby to continue the race of Mankind," defined marriage as "a voluntary Compact between Man and Woman," consisting of "a Communion and Right in one another's Bodies, as is necessary to its chief end, Procreation" and calling on them to unite their care and affection towards their common offspring, "who have a right to be nourished and maintained by them, till they are able to provide for themselves." Anthropologist Helen Fisher puts it succinctly: "People wed primarily to reproduce." Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of anthropology, established that in every culture there is "the rule of legitimacy," requiring a father and a mother for every child; "in all human societies...the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is not a sociologically complete unit." "The human family," says Malinowski, "must consist of the male as well as the female," and because the "father is defined socially," "in order that there may be fatherhood there must be marriage."
Because the human infant remains immature and dependent for many years, notes Blankenhorn, helping the infant grow "into a flourishing human being is the most difficult, time-consuming, and important work of our species." Human evolutionary adaptation met the infant's need for constant care through biological innovations (e.g., unusually large male penises and female orgasm, with its accompanying release of the bonding hormone oxytocin) to make sexual intercourse more enjoyable and "bind together the man and the woman who make and raise the child."
The material blankenhorn amasses establishes that far from a private relationship to satisfy adult needs, marriage is a social institution to meet social needs. Against this argument the case for same-sex marriage cannot stand. Same-sex marriage advocates' crucial contention is that marriage will secure "social endorsement" for the homosexual couple. As Andrew Sullivan puts it, "only marriage" will assure the homosexual that "his love has dignity, that he does indeed have a future as a full and equal part of the human race." But, replies Blankenhorn, accepting same-sex marriage means accepting same-sex parenthood, by whatever means a child is acquired. This will deny the child the very benefit marriage was instituted to confer on him. Blankenhorn characterizes Sullivan's argument as "reeking of narcissism" and demanding that "we worry less about children and more about adults."
The Future of Marriage does not predict the outcome of the same-sex marriage debate. Some developments do favor traditional marriage: divorce rates have declined slightly; 59% of adults believe it should be made harder to divorce; teenage pregnancy rates have declined significantly; and an increasing number of mothers are leaving the workplace to raise children at home. This last development indicates that some women are rejecting the feminist ideology that gave same-sex marriage its plausibility. But is this enough to make it implausible? Surveys show that younger members of the population are most supportive of same-sex marriage. This is unsurprising. As children, they were indoctrinated to be politically correct, non-judgmental, and accepting of the feminist teaching that there are no important differences between the sexes. Although they believe that divorce hurts children, many reject the importance of child-rearing by both father and mother, perhaps because they grew up knowing many single-parent families and two-income families.
Blankenhorn himself bows to political correctness in using the female pronoun as a general referent. Why would the author of Fatherless America adopt this academic conceit and patronize the feminist belief in ongoing female oppression? He knows that our problem is to fortify the declining male, not the ascending female. Young women, who graduate from college at much higher rates than men and earn more than men in our largest cities, do not need to have the female pronoun waved in support of their cause.
Blankenhorn opposes same-sex marriage reluctantly. His diffidence is suggested by phrases like "Dear Reader" and "Gentle Reader," which almost beg the audience to indulge a dubious narrator. His work, based on vast research and compelling analysis, needs no indulgence. He seeks it perhaps because he believes that "gay marriage would reaffirm society's commitment to social justice and equal treatment under the law." He fears, then, that he is arguing for a denial of equal justice. He is not. Refusing a benefit to those who lack the qualifications for receiving it is not a denial of equal treatment, and Blankenhorn demonstrates beyond doubt that homosexuals are unqualified for the defining duties of marriage.