The State of Marriage and the Family
For years, the rock star Melissa Etheridge and her partner, the filmmaker Julie Cypher, had been asked to name the biological father of their two little children, Bailey and Beckett. Tired of keeping it a mystery, Etheridge and Cypher (who had left her husband in order to live with Etheridge and who then bore the two children) revealed their secret in the February 3, 2000, issue of Rolling Stone: The father was the fifty-eight-year-old rock legend David Crosby.
As Etheridge and Cypher explained, several years ago, while vacationing in Hawaii, they had dropped in to visit Crosby and his wife, Jan. During the conversation, Etheridge and Cypher mentioned their wish to have a child. Jan Crosby volunteered, "What about David?" Crosby, who concedes that he did not know the couple well, immediately agreed. "I don't even think it should be a big deal," he said later.
In the magazine interview, Etheridge said: "I know that because of the procreation of our species, that it was man and woman, and that's the way it was all built. But two loving parents--that's all a kid needs. Two men, two women, a man and a woman, whatever." In a subsequent television interview she added: "I do not believe that my children will be wanting in any way because they didn't have a father in the home every single day. What they have in the home is two loving parents. I think that puts them ahead of the game." Besides, interjected Cypher, "The definition of family is changing and evolving in our society so quickly."
Crosby, who has not assumed any parental duties toward the two children, agrees: "Maybe it's a good thing for a lot of straight families to see that this is not something strange. . . . If, you know, in due time, at a distance, [Bailey and Beckett] are proud of who their genetic dad is, that's great."
At the end of the Rolling Stone interview, Cypher went to retrieve a photo album. "Look at this," she said, producing a photograph of a smiling group of people, including the two youngsters. "There's David, his son, his other son, his daughter-in-law . . . his granddaughter . . . his daughter."
"And there's my mother," added Etheridge.
On the back of the photograph, Cypher had written an inscription: "Twenty-first-century family."
Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher, embodiments of twenty-first-century ideas in more ways than one, and role models for countless young Americans, have since broken up.
Two years ago, the British press reported on events surrounding the birth of twin girls, Danielle and Emma. The story began with the desire of a wealthy Italian businessman and his Portuguese wife, living in France, to have a third child. (They were already parents, via surrogate births, of a son and a daughter.) The couple asked Claire Austin, an English surrogate mother, to bear the baby for them, and then went looking for donors of sperm and eggs. The latter came from an anonymous Englishwoman, the former from an American man. On February 28, 1999, a doctor in Athens carried out the procedure of implantation.
Twenty weeks into the pregnancy, Miss Austin learned she was carrying twin girls. Her doctor was appalled: The couple wanted a boy--one boy. Miss Austin was told she should terminate the pregnancy. She was unwilling to do so, but she had no formal agreement to appeal to (surrogacy is illegal in France). Nor did she know to whom the children belonged--after all, they were genetically related neither to her nor to either member of the commissioning couple. Eventually she found Growing Generations, an adoption agency based in Los Angeles that specialized in "unconventional parents." The agency located a couple living in Hollywood: Tracey Stern, a scriptwriter for the television programs ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Julia Salazar. Stern and Salazar agreed to adopt the twins, who are now being looked after--by a nanny from Puerto Rico.
What anecdotes suggest, research confirms: Over the last four decades, marriage and family life have undergone an extraordinary transformation, yielding arrangements as temporary and as fragile--and as widespread--as those detailed above. "The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent and seems unique," exclaims the distinguished historian Lawrence Stone. "At no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than it is today," adds the demographer Kingsley Davis. In the judgment of James Q. Wilson, America's preeminent social scientist, we are witnessing a "profound, worldwide, long-term change in the family that is likely to continue for a long time."
Scholars now speak of an ongoing trend toward a "postmarriage" society, one in which commitments to spouses and children are increasingly limited, contingent, and easily broken. Marriage itself is far less permanent, and far less of a social norm, than ever before in living memory. Concomitantly, Americans have seen a stunning rise in (among other social indices) divorce, out-of-wedlock births, unwed teen mothers, abortion, the numbers of children living in single-parent homes, and the numbers of cohabiting couples. In many of these categories, our country now has the dubious honor of leading the industrialized world.
A little later on, I will be tracing the devastating effect of these trends on all sectors of our society, and especially on the poor and the defenseless among us. But I should note right at the outset that not everybody agrees the effects have been devastating; that, to my mind, is part of the problem. A few years ago, for example, Shere Hite, the author-researcher of the Hite Reports on human sexuality, urged upon us "that the breakdown of the family is a good thing" (emphasis added) and that today's "new living arrangements" may be "one of the most important turning points of the West." Last year, Time magazine published an article by the influential feminist Barbara Ehrenreich on the desirability of institutionalizing the crack-up of the family by formally replacing yesterday's "one-size-fits-all model of marriage" with a different and better model: "renewable marriages, which get re-evaluated every five to seven years, after which they can be revised, recelebrated, or dissolved with no, or at least fewer, hard feelings."
These voices are not alone; we shall be hearing from others like them in the course of this chapter. What they suggest is that when it comes to marriage and family life, everything is now up for grabs. More so than at any other time in human history, we share no common understanding of marriage and the family. Marriage itself, detached from any objective foundation, is seen by many as possessing little or no intrinsic worth but as being a means to an end: the end, that is, of "personal happiness" or "fulfillment." In the quest for fulfillment, spouses and children are often looked upon not as persons to be loved and valued for their own sake but as objects to be acquired, enjoyed, and discarded.
Like the breakdown of the family itself, this cultural deconstruction of family life and its purposes has no historical precedent. It has left us open to doubts about some of our most basic understandings: about the parent-child bond, about marital permanence, about the link between marriage, sex, and procreation. It has already dragged innumerable children and adults into the very opposite of "personal happiness," and it threatens to undo altogether a precious historical achievement.
It is the core argument of this book that the nuclear family, defined as a monogamous married couple living with their children, is vital to civilization's success. We may build cities of gold and silver, but if the family fails, fewer and fewer of our children will ever learn to walk in justice and virtue. Why I believe this to be so will become clearer as we go along. But even those who welcome it cannot dispute that the nuclear family is indeed failing.
Let me count a few of the ways.
Divorce: A generation ago, the odds were one in four that a child would witness his parents' breakup; today, they are one in two. Since 1960, a forty-year period in which the marriage rate has declined by a third, the divorce rate (despite small recent improvements) has more than doubled.
The year 1974 was a landmark of sorts. In that year, divorce replaced death as the principal cause of family dissolution. Today, so deeply entrenched is divorce that Lawrence Stone has called it as much a part of our culture and our lives as death and taxes.
Out-of-Wedlock Births: In 1994, for the first time in American history, more than half of all firstborn children were conceived or born out of wedlock--the culmination of a long-term trend. Among teenagers, that trend is even more alarming; today, over three-quarters of all births to teenagers occur outside of marriage, while in fifteen of our nation's largest cities, the teenage out-of-wedlock birth ratio exceeds ninety percent.
Single-Parent Families: Between 1960 and 1998, the percentage of single-parent families--overwhelmingly headed by mothers--more than tripled. It is estimated that more than one-third of American children are now living apart from their biological fathers, and about forty percent of such children have not seen their fathers in at least a year.
Cohabitation: Between 1960 and 2000, the number of couples cohabiting increased almost elevenfold, from under five hundred thousand to five and a half million, with the biggest spike occurring in the 1990s. Today, more than half of all marriages are preceded by a period of cohabitation, and the number is even higher among men and women in their twenties and thirties, for whom cohabitation is replacing marriage.
That these arrangements are inherently unstable has been amply confirmed by research: According to the sociologist Pamela J. Smock, "only about one-sixth of cohabitations last at least three years and only one-tenth last five years or more." As for couples who cohabit before marriage, contrary to popular wisdom, the chances of a subsequent divorce are almost double those for couples who marry without prior cohabitation. What all this means for the many children born to cohabiting couples is depressingly plain.
Fertility: The fertility rate, which peaked at 3.65 children per woman at the height of the baby boom in 1957, declined rapidly and has settled at around 2.0 today. It is true that with the one big exception of the post-World War II period, fertility has been on the decline for several centuries--but since 1975, for the first time in our history, we have been hovering right at or below the rate necessary to replace the population, and are likely to remain there. From being a child- and family-oriented society, we are becoming a society in which children are not only less heard but less seen.
The results of the 2000 Census, released in May 2001, confirmed these trends. The number of Americans living alone, The New York Times reported, surpassed the number of married couples with children. During the 1990s, the number of families headed by single mothers grew at a rate nearly five times that of families headed by a mother and father. The Census counted 5.5 million unmarried couples, up from 3.2 million in 1990. As The Washington Post summarized, "The statistics showed no reversal of a decades-long national trend away from the historically dominant household, married couples with children.''
Statistics are cold things--in this case, properly so. For the picture conjured up by these, and other statistics I could have cited just as readily, is a chilling one: Since 1960, fewer people are marrying, they are doing so later in life, they are having fewer children, they are spending less time with the children they do have, and they are divorcing much more frequently. Those who do not marry are having sexual relations at an earlier age and contracting sexually transmitted diseases at much higher rates, cohabiting in unprecedented numbers, and having a record number of children out of wedlock. Finally, more children than ever before live with only one parent.
These trends have been truly and deeply harmful to us as individuals and to us as a society. So I believe, and so I intend to demonstrate in greater detail in the middle chapters of this book. There is, of course, still no dearth of influential voices celebrating the crack-up of the "repressive'' nuclear family, or arguing that the massive changes we have experienced are merely adjustments to the form of family life and not a fundamental threat to the institution itself. Editorializing about the 2000 Census figures I cited above, The New York Times instructed readers that "the nuclear family itself, especially in its suburban, Ozzie and Harriet form, is a reduction of what family has meant in most places at most times,'' and that "the nuclear family is not the only kind of family or even the only healthy kind of family.'' Even President George W. Bush's domestic policy adviser, Margaret LaMontagne, when asked on television about the figures showing the decline of the modern nuclear family, shrugged them off with a "So what?''
But the case for indifference, insofar as it is based on facts and not mere emotion, is getting weaker by the day. Research (as well as common sense) tells us that in the vast majority of cases, children are better off--physically, emotionally, psychologically, educationally, and financially--when they are raised in intact, two-parent families. In the confirming words of Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, the authors of Growing Up with a Single Parent: "If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children's basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent family ideal."
Other scholars, too, have come to this conclusion, in some cases reluctantly and after years of denying that the family was an institution in trouble. The social analyst Mary Jo Bane, who once dismissed marital decline as "more myth than fact," later came to acknowledge that "the change [in the American family] is astonishing both for its size and for the speed with which it has happened." In the early 1980s, the economist Sar A. Levitan coauthored the book What's Happening to the American Family?, whose point of view was that "currently fashionable gloom-and-doom scenarios miss the essential process of adjustment and change." But already in the book's second edition, less than a decade later, Levitan and his colleagues were expressing alarm: "Widespread family breakdown is bound to have a pervasive and debilitating impact not only on the quality of life but on the vitality of the body politic as well."
I myself would put those last, carefully understated words in italics, thus: "Widespread family breakdown is bound to have a pervasive and debilitating impact not only on the quality of life but on the vitality of the body politic." And I would, if I could, inscribe them on the heart of every policymaker, every parent, and every prospective parent in the land.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Broken Hearth by William J. Bennett. Copyright © 2001 by William J. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.