Is a baby a good reason to marry?

Posted: Sep 06, 2001 12:00 AM
In the latest issue of American Experiment Quarterly (, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe ask a key question: How do we reconnect marriage and childbearing?

It's not that Americans are anti-marriage -- far from it. But increasingly, as Whitehead and Popenoe note, young people view marriage as "a couples' relationship, designed to fulfill the emotional needs of adults." Certainly both love and friendship between spouses is one of the purposes of marriage.

But when marriage is reduced to "a spiritualized union of souls," the connection between marriage and family becomes harder to see: What's baby got to do with it?

When I speak with the new wave of young mothers who co-habit rather than marry, they say things like: "I don't want him to think he has to marry me."

No, he doesn't have to marry you. Not unless he wants his baby to have an intact family with a fully committed father, instead of a fractured half-a-dad pulled between children of different mothers, plus his current squeeze. For men, this is the heart of what the marriage commitment means: You aren't going to let some new girl pull you away from your baby and your baby's mother.

Our new stripped-down marriage ideal is usually described as a step up: a higher, nobler commitment to pure love. I don't buy it.

Is a baby a good reason to get married? At least to marry a decent guy you love and live with? Yeah. I think so. I think making a happy family is one of the best reasons a man or woman could choose marriage. And until more parents, teachers, experts, friends, neighbors -- in a word, adults -- think so and say so, we won't make much progress in preventing fragmented, fatherless families.

Increasingly, I believe that what we can bring ourselves to say to young unwed pregnant couples is at the heart of the future of marriage and our children's well-being. The main reason we have so many more children born outside of marriage is not that single women are so much more likely to get pregnant than they were 30 years ago. It's that single, pregnant women today are so much less likely to marry their baby's father. Not just young teens, but adults in their 20s.

Right now what we say to those co-habiting parents is usually something like: Whatever you decide; as long as you love each other; you are probably too young; don't marry for the wrong reasons (like having a baby?).

Most of our fears around advocating marriage are overblown: Research shows marriages undertaken to legitimate a pregnancy are not any more unstable; living together doesn't protect children in the same way; adults who marry in their early to mid-20s do not have especially high rates of divorce (teens are another matter). When are we going to stop being afraid of speaking the truth?

Speaking truth works. About a decade ago, for example, society spread the message that teen pregnancy is a bad idea. According to Child Trends, teen pregnancy rates have plunged 22 percent since 1991. The bad news is that the rate of unwed births to young women in their early 20s (the group with the highest rate of unwed births) leaped 12 percent.

That is not so surprising. Most of our current teen pregnancy programs imply to young Americans that the problem is age: Wait until you are 20 to have your out-of-wedlock children, we tell them. And apparently they listen.

What if instead teen pregnancy programs had pushed a different message: Wait to have a baby, yes. But what are you waiting for? Wait until you are grown, educated and married to have a baby.

Go ahead, say it to someone you love: A baby is a great reason to marry a good guy. Ten years from now, how many more happy homes and protected childhoods could we have?