In a guest post on Jezebel, Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity, tries to put a positive spin on the recently released statistic indicating that over half of the babies now born to women under 30 do not have married parents. Schwyzer says, “unwed motherhood and the declining marriage rate are cause for rejoicing …. It’s not that men are less economically viable than they were in the past — it’s that even poor women want more from a marriage than a lifetime union with a good provider. Rising rates of illegitimacy, in other words, may signify that more and more women can afford to be choosy. That’s a good thing.”
In other words, Schwyzer attributes high rates of single motherhood to economic advancement for women. I can’t disagree. It’s pretty obvious that declining marriage rates – and increased divorce rates – have to do with the fact that women don’t need men in order to survive anymore. We are financially independent creatures capable of supporting ourselves … and our children, if we so choose. Unlike my former Strollerderby colleague, New York Times parenting scribe K.J. Dell’Antonia, I’m not worried about whether or not children require married parents in order to do well. I’m a single mother who co-parents with her ex-husband and I know my daughter is much better off with our “family’s” current arrangement than she would be had my marriage remained intact for her “benefit.” I’m worried about the dynamics of male-female relationships, because ultimately that is what determines whether or not a marriage will be successful. Couples shouldn’t work to have a successful marriage for the sake of their children, nor should women marry because married parenthood is better for children than single parenthood. The only reason anyone should be in a romantic relationship is because they want to be and to have a partner who is caring, loving and kind.
In his Jezebel essay, Schwyzer references Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. He says, “Single moms see motherhood as a “promise they can keep.” They are certain of their capacity to love a child. They are more cautious about committing to marry the fathers of their children (or other men), not only because of their keen awareness of divorce statistics but because they don’t see any reason to settle for less than a truly excellent relationship.” That’s all well and good. But what happens when a woman enters a relationship she believes will work out, has a child, and then realizes that her relationship is not “truly excellent.” What then?
Though I don’t believe children need to have two married parents in order to live a happy, healthy life, I myself would never have chosen to bring a child into the world without the help of a partner. But after having gone through a terrible divorce myself, I can see why a woman might want to save herself the trouble of getting married, fearing that in the end that marriage will only dissolve. Accordingly, I understand why a woman might choose to have a child out of wedlock. It’s just easier to do it alone than to make it work with someone else. I get that mentality. But isn’t that what we should be trying to fix? The disposable nature of romantic relationships?
I’ve thought to myself on more than once occasion, the only reason couples used to stay married for 40 or 50 years is because the women in those marriages were not economically empowered. They depended on those marriages for survival. And often times the women in those relationships chose to be second class citizens, doing as their husbands told them in order to maintain the status quo. That’s not to say that these women weren’t happy, per se, but that they accepted the traditional gender role as their fate in life. They were wives, in the classic sense, whether or not they worked outside of the home. They worked to keep their husbands happy and didn’t expect much in return. I’m sure some of you can cite examples that run contrary to this construct; so be it. But I’m sure we can all think of examples wherein this paradigm holds true.
So the question becomes, do men and women have any real incentive to build healthy, long-lasting romantic relationships in this era of gender equality? If marriage isn’t required to raise children, if it’s not required to survive economically, is it required at all? And without marriage, is the long-term relationship extinct? Does a long-term relationship even feel desirable to young people nowadays?
I ask these questions as a single mother who would like to potentially be in another long-term relationship, but one that is, as Edin and Kefalas call it, “truly excellent.” Are there men who feel the same way? Are long-term relationships something people are willing to work to maintain, is long-lasting love still a romantic ideal? Or have people simply given up, knowing how much compromise long-term relationships take? Compromise is easy when it’s expected of only one gender. But when women and men have to work to support each other equally, things become more difficult.
Because I am raising a child on my own, the last thing I need is a romantic relationship that is going to make my life difficult. So I have to be choosy in terms of finding a new partner. But the idea of a romantic relationship that would compliment or – is it possible? – that might even benefit my life is still something I hope to find. So while I don’t bemoan the fact that more women are choosing unmarried motherhood, I lament the reason why they’re choosing it. Because, unfortunately, for a bevy of reasons, good love is simply hard to find. Let’s work on that, no?