According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of American babies born in 2007 were born to unmarried mothers. That’s up from 34 percent only five years ago.
When most Americans hear the expression “unmarried mother,” what nearly always comes to mind is a teenage girl. But that’s not what’s driving the recent increase. In 2007, only 23 percent of the out-of-wedlock births were to unmarried teenagers. The rest were to women in their 20s, and now increasingly, in their 30s.
The increase among older women accounts for the six percentage point increase of the past five years. In 2007, 60 percent of all births to unmarried women were to women in their 20s and 17 percent to women in their 30s.
Or, as Emily Yoffe of Slate magazine put it, “the vast majority of unwed mothers are old enough to know what they’re doing.” Yoffe sees these numbers as evidence of “an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation.”
But what’s behind this “decoupling”?
A significant part of the answer lies in changing ideas and attitudes towards marriage. Marriage is no longer seen as an institution whose ends have a communal, as well as personal, purpose. Instead, it is an expression of private affection whose ends are almost entirely about personal fulfillment.
Thus, getting married is increasingly something you do after the rest of your life is arranged to your satisfaction. You go to school, find a job, get established in your career, and then you think about getting married. As a result, the average age when people first get married has risen by five years since 1970.
But while our ideas about marriage have changed, our natures haven’t. One thing that Christians and dyed-in-the-wool Darwinists can agree on is that we are driven to reproduce ourselves. With a few exceptions, no matter how successful we might be, many feel that if we leave no descendants behind, all the striving is beside the point.
What’s more, our biology doesn’t care about our sense of personal fulfillment. A woman’s most fertile period is her late teens to early 30s—precisely the time when young people are going to school and getting established in their careers.
Thus, the longer we put off marriage, the more difficult it will be to fulfill one of our most fundamental instincts—have a child.
Throw in the complications of meeting “Mr. Right,” getting to know him, and deciding that he’s the person you want to marry, and the “ticking clock” begins to sound like Big Ben.
So it seems that more and more women have decided to have children while they still can, regardless of their marital status. The result is, in Yoffe’s words, a “culture [that] is out of touch with the needs of children.” And I would add that what a child needs most is a stable, loving family with a mom and a dad at the helm.
Re-coupling marriage and procreation will not be easy in this “me-first” culture. That’s because marriage and having babies—as fulfilling as they are—are not about self-fulfillment. They are about love, fidelity, and self-sacrifice for the good of the other—for the spouse, for the children.
That message is a tough sell these days. But it’s a message our culture ignores at its great peril.