When Not Tying the Knot Is Not Good

Suzanne Fields

3/22/2013 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

We pay outsize attention to women at the top, about whether they lean in or lean back, about whether they act like men and even about whether they act like women. After decades of feminism's telling women they can control their own destiny, scoring a seat on the fast-moving monorail to success is finally possible. But the seats are restricted. That's why so many women are so angry at Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who built a nursery next to her office for her baby but insists that her staff members, mothers included, leave their children behind and work at the office.

Like it or not (and some apparently don't), women are still women, which means they continue to wear a different biological makeup than men. When they become mothers, it shows -- and in a lot of ways. As far as I know, no male CEO would build a nursery next to his office. (Maybe a putting green, but a nursery? No.)

No matter how firmly we tell women to be more like men -- to shape, stretch, discipline and work to overcome biological determinants -- biology keeps emerging as a crucial factor. Like everything else in life, it affects the less privileged women in a different, downsized way.

This becomes abundantly clear when we look at women having babies. The good news is that we've lowered the rate of teenage pregnancy. For two decades, the number has been going down. But the bad news is that women in their 20s -- who have entered the age of adult consent, for being responsible for their own behavior -- are not showing the good sense of their younger sisters.

If "30's the new 20" (as rapper Jay-Z puts it), unmarried 20-somethings are the new teen moms, write the authors of the cleverly titled "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America," a report encouraged by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Women in their 20s are driving America's all-time high level of childbearing outside marriage, which stands now at 41 percent of births.

This statistic is partly a consequence of people's delaying marriage. Marriage occurs later now than ever before: 27 for women and 29 for men. That's up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990 and 20 and 22, respectively, in 1960. Delaying marriage -- if it doesn't cause a woman to bump into a biological clock -- has usually been thought to be beneficial to women but contingent on education and economic class.

Marrying later has special economic benefits for college-educated women in their 30s, who tend to describe their marriage as a "capstone" rather than a "cornerstone" in their lives; it's something they do after "they get all their other ducks in a row." They'll typically earn more annually than their college-educated sisters who marry earlier. No such benign interpretations can be found for the poorest among us.

Long gone is Jane Austen's world, where the gentry was obsessed with young marriages, largely because of the economic considerations of the man. What also has changed is the social pressure applied to a man to marry the woman he gets pregnant.

For high-school dropouts, who make up our poorest families, 83 percent of the women give birth without being married to the father. The knowledge economy makes it difficult for these women, as well as most of the men they meet, to get good jobs. Such women usually agree it's better, psychologically and economically, not to get pregnant, but the lack of a positive work identity makes it easier to slip "unintentionally" into motherhood without marriage. They don't have other ducks to get in a row.

The sexual revolution offered equal sexual opportunities to both sexes, as it erased the harsh stigma attached to pregnancy without a husband, but it did not produce equal economic results for the man and the woman who create a baby. Among college graduates, only 12 percent of women give birth without what our grandmothers called "benefit of clergy."

Many unmarried lower-income women in their 20s cohabit with the father of the child, but even if they do, the likelihood that he will be around in five years is not high. He is three times likelier to be gone by their child's fifth birthday, as compared with married couples their age. Other children follow, with another "partner" or "partners," and the statistics that accompany such insecure beginnings with low earnings range from grim to very grim. Climbing into the middle class may be deferred and is often a dream destroyed.

The social experts are asking teachers, policymakers and even show business celebrities to join a national conversation about the damaging illegitimacy rates among young adults to emphasize the importance of marriage for having children.

While gays fight in the courts to tie a knot as the way to establish security and stability in their relationships -- even for raising children -- it's a sad irony that so many less educated heterosexual couples with children choose not to marry nonetheless. Strange fruit of our time.