The New York Times reports that 53 percent of babies delivered to women under the age of 30—the prime motherhood demographic—enter the world without their parents married to one another. But it’s not the rise of illegitimacy that scandalizes sex scribbler Katie Roiphe. It is the newspaper’s “peculiar moral undertone.”
“[M]arriage is very rapidly becoming only one way to raise children,” Roiphe explains at Slate, noting that “other countries are obviously way ahead of the United States in incorporating a rational recognition of the vicissitudes of love, and the varieties of family life, into cultural attitudes toward unmarried parents.” The peculiar immoral undertone in Roiphe’s plea to deny children a two-parent home stems in part from her bringing two children into the world fathered by different men, neither of whom remains in a relationship with the writer. The personal is political.
“Of course, one of the reasons children born outside of marriage suffer is the culturally ubiquitous idea that there is something wrong or abnormal about their situation,” Roiphe contends. “Once it becomes clear that there is, at least, nothing abnormal about their situation, i.e. when this 53 percent of babies born to women under 30 come of age in the majority, the psychological landscape, at least, will be vastly transformed.” But in the communities most ravaged by drugs, drop outs, crime, and other social ills, single-parent households are the norm. Does Roiphe really believe that there is a stigma to unwed mothers in Detroit, where the illegitimacy rate is 85 percent? Out-of-wedlock births have been commonplace there for years. So have murder, crack, illiterate high school students, homelessness, etc.
The Times dares make the connection between the former and the latter. “The shift is affecting children’s lives,” report Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise in the offending piece. “Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.” Indeed, William Bennett’s Index of Leading Cultural Indicators reported that children from single-parent homes were more likely to drop out of school, use illegal narcotics, and become incarcerated than their peers from nuclear families. That report came out eighteen years ago, when the illegitimacy rate hovered around thirty percent.
Nearly three decades before that, when illegitimacy stood at about 10 percent, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously warned of the dangers of the disintegration of the nuclear family, particularly as it pertained to black Americans. “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family,” Moynihan wrote when African American illegitimacy approached 25 percent (it now approaches 75 percent). “It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” His report continued that “at the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.” The total illegitimacy rate now exceeds 40 percent, significantly higher than the alarming rate for African Americans in the mid-1960s that Moynihan wrote about.
What does Katie Roiphe know that William Bennett, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and two New York Times reporters don’t? Certainly her own situation, which for all we know may work marvelously for her and her two kids. Many single moms are heroic, and not just to their own children. And like most heroes, they often make the best of less-than-ideal situations. But the product of great wealth—a graduate of Manhattan’s Brearley School (boasting a 7-1 student-teacher ratio and tuition above the average American’s annual income)—is quite unlike most women in her spot, which makes her experience a poor gauge for the merits of single-parenthood. The Times notes that 92 percent of women with college degrees—Roiphe has one from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Princeton—are married when they give birth. The superrich are the only people who can afford to behave like the underclass. And only among the ultra-rich or chronically poor does the title of Roiphe’s piece (“More Single Moms. So What.”) not hit the ears as smug or naïve.
It isn’t the “illegitimate” label, or even the cruel pejorative “bastard,” that handicaps children. It’s being deprived of a parent. Shifting the conversation to nonexistent societal scorn of children born out of wedlock, Roiphe uses kids as a shield to deflect very real concerns about the behavior of adults whose trivial attitude toward sex results in human beings disinherited from their birthright: two parents who love them and one another.
The evidence presented by Moynihan, Bennett, the Times, and any housing project ultimately isn’t convincing for Roiphe. “Even people who are certain that the children of single mothers are always and forever doomed to a compromised existence, are going to have to await more information about a world in which these kids are not considered illegitimate or unconventional or outsiders, where the sheer number of them redefines and refreshes our ideas of family,” she writes. “This is a new world, and there are no studies,” the Slate piece concludes, “or subtly condescending New York Times reporting, that can tell us what it will be like for these children to live in it.”
If she refuses to grasp the message from that Gray Lady, maybe another gray lady closer to home might convince Roiphe. Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason is a literary groupie’s depressing tale of falling into the arms of the likes of William Styron, HL Humes, and George Plimpton, whose penis she exposes to a four-year-old daughter understandably questioning its existence. Therein, sexual liberation reads as enslavement. If she could live it over again, the writer admits she would change it. As profiler Francesca Mari wrote in the New York Observer, “The challenges of single mothering turned [the author] into a feminist.” The memoirist? Anne Roiphe, Katie’s mom.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of numerous books, including ”Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America,” forthcoming from ISI Books this fall. He writes a Monday column for HumanEvents.com and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.