The Male/Female Problematic and Out of Wedlock Births

Helen Alvare
© Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

In my last column, I concluded that while public and private actors have taken many different and sometimes logical approaches to reducing out of wedlock pregnancies, they have also missed a crucial aspect of the problem: the difficulties men and women are experiencing in their relationships with one another, as evidenced by their unwillingness to commit to one another, even after a baby is conceived. These difficulties surface particularly in qualitative studies/narrative accounts of individual and unmarried-couple single parents. They are also logically apparent, based upon the real differences between the meanings and consequences of decisions about sex and commitment, as between the unmarried and the married. In other words, the very structure of nonmarital childbearing -- i.e. sex within an uncommitted relationship - and as compared with marital childbearing, indicates that the process is very likely to foster (and sustain) conflicts between men and women, and ill effects for their children.

In order to think about who and what might help men and women, I will set out in detail the elements of their present "difficulties," as gleaned both from their own narratives (usually as told to researchers, (See, e.g. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, 2005; Paula England and Kathryn Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children (2000)), and from what is logically implied by a willingness to have an intimate, heterosexual relationship (thus risking conception) without a prior and certain commitment. In a later and final column on this subject, I will suggest which institutions could help, and how they might proceed despite significant impediments to success.

In the most complete narratives revealing the minds of single mothers or unmarried parent-couples, there is very little said about the decision to engage in sex with the other parent. It is almost as if it is not worthy of discussion or debate. One gets the sense, as I suggested in an earlier column, that it is not a decision bearing moral significance for them. There is rather an attraction to the other person, and then there is sex (fairly so, too) as part of this. (See, e.g. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, 2005; Paula England and Kathryn Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children(2000); Christine Coppa, Rattled! A Memoir (2009); Betty Holt, Single Motherhood by Choice (2003); Margaret K. Nelson, The Social Economy of Single Motherhood: Raising Children in Rural America (2005)).

Regarding the subject of commitment, unmarried parents have a whole lot more to say. Females, or both partners, will say they are too young (and they are often very young). Or they will note that the other party is not earning enough to make a marriage possible, or maybe even the wedding they have in mind. Females in particular also regularly claim that the males are not working hard enough or are not actively looking for work, and that they rely on the females for all housing and food resources. Females often say that the males doesn't seem sufficiently interested in taking care of the baby or of the mothers, who are shouldering significant responsibilities. Females comment also that the males don't' seem to understand that life has completely changed for the adults, now that there is a child to care for. Sacrifices of time and money, of "hanging out" with friends on the corner, have to be made. Females also regularly claim that the man is not trustworthy sexually, or is inclined too easily to resort to criminal activity. Males will often retort that the females aren't sexually faithful either, but are simply looking for a deep pocket to bear child support costs. Females also express a fear of relying for emotional and financial support upon the males they once had sex with. They worry about being left in the lurch on both counts, and about ceding some authority to him too, not wanting to be left scrambling for safety at some time in the future. The females have an often used expression that they can "do bad" on their own....they don't need to "do bad" while being drained emotionally and financially by a man. (See Paula England and Kathryn Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children (2000)).

There are also the things that the males and the females are not articulating out loud, but which are "said" by their behaviors, particularly if you contrast these with similar behaviors in a marital context.

By the lack of discussion about the decision to embark on a sexual relationship, and by the frequent practice of having multiple sex partners even during their adolescence, both males and females are saying that they don't see sex as a terribly significant decision. One doesn't have to be older or more reasonable or more knowledgeable to do it. This, despite psychological studies demonstrating that sex is linked with significant emotional and intellectual effects, particularly among young women, and despite the long-term effects suffered by men and women alike from sexually-transmitted diseases.

Both by their words and actions, unmarried males and females indicate that sex is related to forming a relationship, but not in any way constitutive of it. In other words, what the bodies do sexually, even when it they act as "one principle" to form new life, does not mean that the two partners are in fact one unit, one partnership, for any particular length of time. To take this thinking to its logical conclusion, their words and actions indicate that they believe that bodies are separable from persons. Bodies might do things as one, or even procreate children together, but that does not make the males and females whose bodies were involved "one" in any sense. Sex was a discrete act, a temporary behavior, not an indication of any deep need that males have for females or vice-versa beyond sex. This is "proved" by his willingness to leave her and her willingness to be a parent without his help. To get literary for just a moment, the words and actions of the unmarried parents are the direct opposite of those expressed in perhaps the greatest Catholic novel of all time, Kristin Lavransdatter. After an incident of premarital sexual intercourse, they have to part and Kristen thinks "[S]he felt herself grown so wholly his, she knew not how she should live away from him anymore. She was to go from him now, but she could not understand that it should be so." The males and females giving birth to today's out of wedlock pregnancy statistics say rather that "he was to leave her (or she him) but it wasn't really unexpected or it even makes sense in light of matters concerning emotions or money or youth, etc. Their bodily oneness does not factor into their thinking.

The willingness to have a sexual encounter, and even produce a child together, but to share no mutual commitment now, and no partnership in the future, indicates a belief that men and women don't have any intrinsic need for long run complete closeness or even communion, including physical communion with another person. The woman in particular understands that the baby must be loved and served. She feels in her heart that the father should provide care not only to the baby but to her in her motherhood role. The father in many cases feels in conscience he should provide at least for the child. Many single women contemplating deliberate single motherhood in their 30s and 40s feel instinctively that it would be better for both mother and child to have a loving husband and father on the scene. (See, e.g. Betty Holt, Single Motherhood by Choice (2003)). But when "voting with their feet," males and females in these situations vote regularly to have no such permanent connection with the other parent. The numbers of such people are multiplying via divorce and out of wedlock births, and even the new reproductive technologies. Homosexual groups insist that a vowed male/female partnership is no necessity, for life generally, or for parenting in particular.

Of course none of this explains the "happiness studies" materials indicating that vowed, lasting partnerships among heterosexuals are most closely associated with long-term happiness. (See, e.g. Meng-Wen Tsou & Jin-Tan Liu, Happiness and Domain Satisfaction in Taiwan, 2 J. Happiness Stud. 269, 284 (2001);. M.D.R. Evans & Jonathan Kelley, Effect of Family Structure on Life Satisfaction: Australian Evidence, 69 Soc. Indicators Res. 303, 321 (2004) (asserting that "those who cohabit have higher levels of life satisfaction than the unattached," though less than married people); Steven Stack & J. Ross Eshleman, Marital Status and Happiness: A 17- Nation Study, 60 J. Marriage & Fam. 527, 532 (1998)). It doesn't explain the national obsession with heterosexual romance pouring out of every media orifice. It doesn't explain people's "first impulses" about the desirability of married parenting. Or the fact that there is a general consensus that children fare best when reared in a married-parent home.

A final male/female problematic indicated intrinsically by the actions of unmarried sexual partners is associated with the "privacy" of the unmarried encounter, contrasted with the relatively "public character" of the married encounter. Today, it is possibly more evident than ever before that sex does in deed have a public face. This is true particularly when a child is conceived. Sexual relations also affect adult happiness, health and well-being, and social stability. Yet unmarried sexual partners are easily accustomed to thinking of what they are doing as strictly private. No public commitment precedes their behavior. No social expectations compel it. The couple may even be taking pains to hide their behavior. The male and/or female involved might be very young. Or dating or cohabiting with another. Their parent(s) may morally disapprove, or disapprove practically due to fear of pregnancy. The couple is also likely aware of some social disapproval (though that can vary widely depending on their community, culture, religion, etc.). Their behavior is also "private" in their minds in the sense that no legal consequences (save if a pregnancy occurs, or there is a wrongful transmission of disease, or statutory rape) attach to it. Fornication and cohabitation laws are a dead letter. Financial obligations are very unlikely to arise (save in the case of some longer-term or contracting cohabitants).

Contrast this with the situation of the married person. Married sex is preceded by public statements about commitment. Everybody knows, expects, even desires, that the couple have a good sexual relationship. The wider society expects (and the family particularly so) that the couple will bear children. As sharply distinguished from the expectations directed to out of wedlock couples, it is also generally expected that the married couple has a long future. It is further understood that sexual infidelity would be a very grave wrong, and that it would be nearly unthinkable for either member of a married couple to reject parenting their conceived child, whether via abortion, abandonment, or placing the child for adoption.

In sum, the problem of unmarried parenthood has a great deal to do with a host of disorders and difficulties plaguing the male-female relationship. These are evident from the testimony of the parents involved, as well as from what is implied by (and empirically associated with) the practice of engaging in a one-flesh, procreative union, with a person to whom one has no commitment.

The questions and issues raised by these difficulties and disorders are nothing short of basic. They concern the very importance of heterosexual relationships, for individuals and for societies. They are about sex roles and about the responsibilities inherent in the act of procreating. They touch upon the relationship between marriage and money, marriage and age, and upon the very meaning of embodied human sexuality. On the one hand these are very complex questions, hard to address. On the other hand, it seems that we have to begin to get the answers right on a larger scale or the serious problem of out of wedlock births will remain unchecked. As indicated by a prior column, the answers currently in the pipeline will not suffice. Who can take up such questions in an informed and authoritative and effective way?

The obvious answers are the family, the churches and the state. Media could help. All regularly take up these sorts of questions. But there are fearsome hurdles to success for any of these institutions. My next column - the last in this series about out of wedlock births - will consider how each of these institutions might proceed, as well as the hurdles they face.