This post is dedicated to Ted D.
Jason DeParle’s recent column in the New York Times highlighting the growing class divide between married and unmarried parents in America provides a representative narrative well worth studying. In it he describes two women, close friends and coworkers, whose family lives could not be more diametrically opposed.
Jessica Shairer is a single mother who works in a day care center. Her boss Chris Faulkner is a happily married mother. Both are white. Let’s compare them side by side.
|Jessica Shairer||Chris Faulkner|
Never married; cohabitated
with two men
|Married to Kevin|
|# children||3, incl. one with Asperger’s||2|
|# involved parents||1||2|
|Religious background||Raised in church, still active||Raised in church|
|Mother’s Education||College dropout||College graduate|
|Father’s Education||College dropout?||College graduate|
|Home||Rent > 50% of income||Owns 3 BR home|
$24,500 plus food stamps
|Household income of $95,000|
|Benefits||None; could not afford to take time off after surgery for cervical cancer||Full, from Kevin’s job as a computer programmer|
|Kevin works sunrise shift twice per week to allow his attendance at children’s activities|
|Children’s Extracurricular Activities||One sport per year max||
Swimming, karate, baseball, Boy Scouts, $3,500/year
Kevin is a Boy Scout Leader
What in the personal histories of these two women separates them so tragically and increasingly typically? We know there are several risk factors that correlate to poverty and limited opportunities for children. Lack of education, less than two parents actively engaged in raising them, and teen pregnancy are just a few. But what is the root cause, the thing that we find when we strip away all the demographic factors?
Shairer and Faulkner came from very similar backgrounds, and both were given the opportunity to attend college. Once there, they made very, very different choices.
1. Shairer got pregnant her freshmen year. Faulkner did not get pregnant.
2. Shairer considered terminating the pregnancy, but her boyfriend said “we should start a family.”
They agreed that marriage should wait until they could afford a big reception and a long gown.
3. Shairer dropped out of college. Faulkner graduated.
4. Shairer had two more children by the same man, remaining in a “troubled relationship that collapsed six years ago.” Her children’s father is completely off the scene, including financially.
Ms. Schairer has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting. They lived with family (his and hers) and worked off and on while she hoped things would change. “I wanted him to love me,” she said. She was 25 when the breakup made it official: she was raising three children on her own.
Faulkner refused to marry a man without a bright future.
At the same time, scholars have found that marriage itself can have a motivating effect, pushing men to earn more than unmarried peers. Marriage, that is, can help make men marriageable.
As Mr. Faulkner tells it, something like that happened to him — he returned to college after an aimless hiatus because he wanted to marry Ms. Faulkner. “I knew I had to get serious about my life,” he said.
5. Shairer got a new boyfriend to move in, hoping he would help with the children and bills.
No Legos got built during his six-month stay, and it took a call to the police to get him to go. The children asked about him a few days later but have not mentioned him since.
The Faulkners divide and conquer, sharing parenting responsibilities every day.
Two parents also bring two parenting perspectives. Ms. Faulkner does bedtime talks. Mr. Faulkner does math. When Ms. Faulkner’s coaxing failed to persuade Jeremy to try hamburgers, Mr. Faulkner offered to jump in a pool fully clothed if he took a bite — an offer Jeremy found too tempting to refuse.
6. The Faulkners built a home in a community known for its good schools. Shairer is facing a move to a part of Ann Arbor with lagging schools but more affordable rent.
Jessica Shairer is not a bad person. She is by all accounts a loving and concerned parent, and a responsible one. She takes full responsibility for her choices:
Ms. Schairer barely lifts her children out of poverty, but she is not one to complain. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” she said.
That’s admirable, but I wonder if Ms. Schairer would acknowledge the real problem.
She has sex with bad men.
Education is indeed strongly correlated to female mating choices:
I. BIRTHS OUTSIDE MARRIAGE
High school education or less: 60%
College education: <10%
II. CHILDREN BY MULTIPLE MEN BY MID-LATE 20S
High school diploma: 33%
Some college: 12%
College degree: 0%
But education does not tell the whole story. Some women, like Jessica Shairer, will fail despite having been given the opportunity to attend college. The tragedy, of course, is the reduced opportunities for her children.
It’s estimated that 40% of income inequality is attributable to this state of affairs. Risks for children of single mothers include:
- Childhood poverty
- Behavioral problems
- Teen parenthood
- Dropping out of school
In contrast, married parents:
- Have children later
- Divorce less
- Provide a committed, involved father
Of course, feminists disagree that Ms. Shairer is responsible for her circumstances. Katha Pollit, writing in The Nation, says:
Well, if only we could clone Kevin—or maybe put great big Good Guy and Bad Guy signs on young men so that naïve college girls could tell which slacker boys are exploitive louts and which ones just need a nudge to become prime husband material.
…I don’t mean to be discouraging here, but maybe there was never going to be a Kevin for Jessica. Maybe there aren’t enough Kevins to go around, because of a whole range of developments over several decades, from the decline of good union jobs to our penchant for putting staggering numbers of men in prison.
…Jessica rejected abortion, she stuck by her man, she tried too hard to make a family. If we really want women like Jessica to avoid early childbearing and single motherhood, we have to stop promoting outmoded ideas about sex and gender: abstinence-only sex ed, shame that leads to inconsistent use of birth control, stigmatizing abortion, woman’s worth depending on keeping a man, “fixing” the relationship as woman’s responsibility, motherhood as women’s primary purpose in life.
…Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?
Jessica Schairer is doing the best she can. In fact, she is pretty heroic. It’s the rest of us that are falling short.
We can’t let feminists derail the conversation by focusing on financial band-aids for single mothers, or canonizing women who have behaved irresponsibly and are now struggling. Jessica Shairer made one bad decision after another, but it all started with who she chose to have sex with.
There are enough Kevins to go around. Choosing a worthy man of good character and potential as a sexual partner is the single most important decision any woman can make. The costs of choosing poorly amount to much more than losing a job, interrupting a career, or failing to earn a seat in the boardroom. They amount to raising children who don’t have a bright or promising future, children who are primed to repeat your mistakes. Children who are destined to participate in the decay of American family life.