Michaud: Single parent families are here to stay -- let's make the best of them
As poverty grows and the gap between rich and poor widens, there's a narrative developing that women may have taken this equality stuff too far.
Today, 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage, compared with 17 percent in the 1980s. The decline in marriage leaves parents -- mostly mothers -- to struggle alone financially. Depending on which study you read, sociologists believe that single parenting accounts for 15 to 40 percent of a family's likelihood of living in poverty.
Even Isabel Sawhill, who directs the Center on Children and Families for the moderately liberal Brookings Institution, wrote in May that former Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago about Murphy Brown: Unmarried motherhood is a bad choice. Children who grow up poor more often act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of high school.
But this narrative implies that the rise of women's rights is to blame for all these changes -- or that it is reversible. The bad news story also ignores the gains arising from the greater earning power of women, the looser divorce laws and the reduced social censure that have enabled so much single parenthood. The rate of domestic abuse has dropped steadily, for example, and women are less likely to commit suicide or be killed by an intimate partner.
Many single parents are raising wonderful children -- I know several -- but they don't have an easy job. We need to acknowledge that we are headed for a post-marital world, and adopt policies that will give the children of such families a better chance at a secure middle-class adulthood. Such policies will lighten the single parent's load, too, although that's no reason to oppose them.
First, we could educate teenage fathers about their responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of advice out there for girls but very little for guys. A man has the right to know whether he is the father, and to seek to be involved in raising the child. Men have a responsibility to provide financial support, and to see that decisions are being made in the child's best interest.
Counseling for couples planning to marry should be easily available. So many of us marry without a realistic view of how to live together. A handful of states -- Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee -- have passed legislation providing financial incentives for couples to participate in formal premarital education.
We must find other ways for kids to have more parental figures -- if they can't have both biological parents -- in their lives. For example, some builders have begun designing homes to accommodate multiple generations. Family rooms and dining rooms are larger, and the homes include two master bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, for privacy. Overall, the American housing market is trending toward smaller -- but this home-sharing concept is part of the mix.
Living near extended family, having community centers and places of worship that attract all generations, extending the school day to accommodate extracurricular activities and homework help -- these are also crucial.
If I hadn't met my husband and formed a traditional family, I may have had a child on my own. I was considering it in 1992, when the veep made his quip about Murphy Brown. Life's drive to recreate itself is very strong. That's something people don't mention often enough in these discussions.
If American marital norms are morphing into something we wouldn't have recognized 20 years ago, well, so be it. Let's take what good marriages have taught us about children's need for belonging and the influence of caring adults, and make sure we meet that need -- no matter what forms our families take.