In a speech that was turned into a Washington Post op-ed, the journalist Elsa Walsh speaks about how she’s “come to question many of the truths I once held dear.” In Walsh’s words, “The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38—not even close—and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.”
The issues at hand are feminism, parenthood, and family, with Ms. Walsh once having held three truths she took to be self-evident: “I would never marry. I would never have a child. And I would have an interesting job, as a writer or a lawyer. I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.” She believed “Marriage was a patriarchal system, and I wanted none of it.” But she later came to discover she did want a part of it—and “Instead of feeling trapped, I felt liberated and secure and protected—not by patriarchy but by love.”
After seven years of marriage, Walsh and her husband had a child—and that, too, changed her. According to Walsh:
In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan, a man of unusual sagacity, experience, and perspective, responded this way: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”
I thought about Senator Moynihan’s observation after reading “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” which is the centerpiece of the latest State of Our Unions report. This study focused on the nearly 60 percent of Americans who have completed high school but do not have a four-year college degree.
What we’re seeing is a rapid hollowing out of marriage in Middle America–with 44 percent of the children of moderately-educated mothers born outside of marriage. “We’re at a tipping point with Middle America,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading scholar on marriage, told National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, “insofar as Middle Americans are on the verge of losing their connection to marriage.”
We are “witnessing a striking exodus from marriage,” according to the study.
A New York Times story during the weekend begins this way: “It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”
The story goes on to point out that “motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America.” The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group. The Times points out “the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.” 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.”