Legitimizing Unmarried Parents (2001 Op-Ed)

by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Washington Times on Sunday, May 6, 2001, in response to a series of hostile articles the paper ran about “illegitimate births.”

Ever since the National Center for Health Statistics announced last month that one in three American babies is now born “out of wedlock,” unmarried families have been under attack. Commentators around the country have been lamenting the “crisis of illegitimacy” and wringing their hands about how to “revive marriage.”

Amidst all the anguish, the realities about these unmarried families rarely see the light of day. Let’s step away from the drama and take a look at what’s true about unmarried parents and their children.

It is true that one-third of the babies born in 1999 had unmarried parents. It is *not* true that these babies were necessarily born to single mothers, or that they have no fathers in their lives. The Census tells us that about two-fifths of first babies born to unmarried mothers are actually born to cohabiting couples. These are two-parent families. They’re not missing a dad. They only thing they don’t have is a marriage license.

It is true that some of the unmarried moms having babies are financially stable, well-educated, mature women who decided to become parents on their own, not the struggling young women caricatured by pundits. Fifteen percent of the unmarried mothers in 1999 were over age 30. We don’t need to pity these kids or attack their moms: research shows that on average they’ll fare better than those raised by poor married couples.

It is true that some of these babies are being born to lesbian and bisexual mothers in same-sex couples. These babies are also part of two-parent families. Their parents aren’t allowed to marry in any state in the country. All the research on children of lesbian parents has found them to do at least as well on every measure of well-being as the children of heterosexual parents.

And finally, it is true that contrary to the nursery rhyme’s claim about “sticks and stones,” names *do* hurt. Decades ago we stripped the word “illegitimate” of its meaning as a legal category because most people agreed that innocent children should not be punished because of their parents’ marital status. If we believe that every individual child has value as a human being, it’s time for those who claim to care about children to stop labeling them with an anachronistic word that says they’re not genuine, not legal, and not acceptable.

The ever-growing proportion of babies being born to parents who are not married to each other reveals how ineffective the “single” versus “married” checkboxes are at helping us understand families today. Rather than focusing on whether parents have rings on their fingers, it’s time to turn our attention to what really matters to children.

One of the best-respected researchers on single-parent families, Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, writes, “Low-income is the single most important factor in accounting for the lower-achievement of these children, and therefore, raising income should be a major priority.” University of Southern California sociologist Judith Stacey agrees, concluding that all the most careful research confirms that it’s not how many parents kids have, the parents’ genders, or whether they’re married to each other that determines child well-being. Instead, factors like parental attention and nurturing, a low level of family conflict, and access to social support, education, and financial resources are what kids need to thrive.

The way to help unmarried families is not, as some have suggested, to make illegitimacy unacceptable or pressure people to get married. Instead, we need to recognize and validate the millions of unmarried people who are raising kids in happy, healthy, stable families, and focus on how we can help the poorer, less fortunate ones. One study found that 40% of unmarried mothers have incomes of less than $10,000. Imagine how much more these parents could provide for their kids if they had access to quality child care, health care, education, and living wages.

Although marriage rates are falling, families are here to stay. Whether parents are wearing wedding rings isn’t the issue – whether they’re meeting their kids’ needs is. It’s time to stop attacking unmarried families, start learning about the complex realities of their lives, and treat them with the respect and support they deserve.