The other day I chatted with a pregnant gal at the hair salon. She was about 20, sweet, pretty, and demure. Because I am always doing sociological fieldwork, I asked my hairdresser if she was married. No. But she has a fiance. As always in these situations, you just want to grab these young people by the lapels and say "Get to the altar! It's critical for your child." I didn't, of course -- because while I am a zealot for marriage, I'm not yet prepared to become a public nuisance.
I thought of that young lady again this morning when I read of the latest report from the National Center for Health Statistics. It seems that the rate at which unmarried women are having babies in America jumped dramatically in the past seven years. "In 2007, there were 1,714,643 babies born to unmarried women, an increase of 4 percent from 2006, and 26 percent higher than the number in 2002 (1,365,966)," the NCHS reports. Forty percent of births in America are now to unwed mothers. Rates are highest among Hispanic women (like the one at the salon).
Though we had a vigorous national discussion about unwed childbearing back in the 1990s -- "Murphy Brown" followed by "Dan Quayle Was Right" by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in the Atlantic magazine a few years later -- our current preoccupation with gay marriage has distracted us. The issue of greater importance is the degree to which heterosexual men and women are choosing to become parents while unmarried. "If you see 10 babies in the room," Stephanie Ventura of the NCHS told the Washington Post, "four of them were born to women who are not married."