Over the weekend The New York Times gave us two very different pieces demonstrating the different sides of the evolving marriage coin. On one side, you have the town of Lorain, Ohio, notable for its population of single mothers, ostensibly going it alone by choice. On the other, there's Kyle Spencer's piece about how New York City dads -- a few of them, at least -- have begun to embrace what was traditionally considered a "women's realm," by running their local Parent Teacher Associations.
While a growing acceptance of single momhood and PTA dads might seem to be signs of social progress, the stories are more complicated. The story of the single moms of Ohio doesn't read as a tale of empowerment, exactly. True, these women don't "need men" to support them (a good thing), but the unfortunate cost associated with raising their kids alone is that they work long hours, are often unable to spend much time with their children, and those children are more likely, statistically, to have behavioral or emotional problems and even fall into poverty. Further, the women interviewed for The Times story don't actually say they don't want to marry. They say things like, "I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now. Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”
Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise, writing in the Times, use interviews with the women of Lorain to illustrate a broader statistical and social point: "It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage." This is supported with data from Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzes government data and reports "the fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree." Family structure has become, "a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education," to the extent that sociologist Frank Furstenberg has called marriage a luxury good.
Which brings us back to those PTA dads, whose embrace of that "nontraditional" role "reflects a number of underlying social trends: more women with demanding jobs, more men underemployed in a lingering recession, more shared parenting responsibilities over all and the professionalization of the PTA itself," explains Spencer.
Do these two stories truly illustrate that marriage is a luxury, or are we talking about a more age-old problem of how income and education disparity impact choice, even if the trappings of that disparity emerge in nontraditional ways? Specifically, those with more money and education have more freedom to choose from among an array of fairly decent options, whether that means whom they choose to marry or if they want to devote themselves very seriously to their kids' PTA. One could make the case that the single moms in the Times piece have faced a distinct lack of choice; in the case of the PTA dads, there's an abundance of choice enabled by wives with careers, financial stability, and a flexibility and open-mindedness about "alternative paths" that comes with education and progressive culture. The single moms in Ohio barely have time to spend with their kids, much less involve themselves in the PTA. The PTA dads, faced with a multitude of choices, have simply decided to go with one a bit less commonplace. Totally different stories, except that we're talking about marriage being do-able and even highly beneficial for some, while also such a burden to others that they choose to go it alone. The gap between these two realities is enormous.
This may be a confluence of factors of our time: Women don't have to marry in order to find social acceptance. And, as a culture, we're all more open to a variance in the ways people live -- as The Times points out, this "recent rise in single motherhood has set off few alarms, unlike in past eras." At the same time, economic factors have undermined the traditional "man as breadwinner" role, and there are some who argue men are just not very good marriage candidates nowadays.
Katie J.M. Baker writes in Jezebel, "the single mothers of Lorain sound like they're doing a lot better, both emotionally and financially, than they would be if they were married." Maybe so -- but it also doesn't seem like they're doing as well as they might if they'd had a different set of options. Namely, education: Remember recent studies revealing that college-educated women are generally happier and treated like more equal partners in marriages, and that even if such women don't marry, "they'll still statistically, by and large, live longer and healthier lives than their less-educated sisters"? The women of Lorain don't seem to fit that model.
What the two Times pieces makes clear is that when we talk about marriage, the conversation varies drastically depending on whether we're talking about the rich and well-educated or the poor (and even middle class). Even as the fight for gay marriage continues, we're starting to dance around a reality in which (heterosexual) marriage may no longer be for everyone. What's important is the question of why that's the case, and what happens next. If marriage is only good for, and only being done by, a certain group of people in society, there are a whole new range of serious questions to be asked about the "new normal."
Image via Shutterstock by Slavoljub Pantelic.