Recently, NPR had a segment that took a look at the institution of marriage, focusing particularly on the dire straits that marriage is in: for my boneheaded Millennial generation, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is nearly fifty percent, and the post-illegitimate-birth wedding rate is low. Way to go, geniuses. “This family structure,” Jennifer Ludden writes, “once common mainly among African-Americans and the poor, is spreading across races and into the middle class.” What’s driving this sociological upheaval?
Like half of all U.S. pregnancies, Sheridan’s was not exactly planned.
“We think we mistimed something,” she says. “But it wasn’t really, like, a bad time, or, I don’t know … it just … seemed like an OK thing to do?”
“I stared at the pregnancy test for 10 minutes, waiting for it to change,” Underwood says.
“But then he got really happy — it was actually really cute,” Sheridan says.
It wasn’t Sheridan’s first child. Her older son, Logan, is 8; his father left before he was born. Michelle spent four years as a single mom before meeting Underwood, and says she felt no stigma or fear about that.
So Ms. Sheridan had had a child before, by a man who was either too cowardly to hang around and take care of his family or else too worthless to stick with; either way, Sheridan apparently learned nothing from the experience, feeling “no stigma or fear” about single motherhood—to the point that she had yet another child without being married to the father, seemingly without any awareness that the circumstances were, yet again, sub-optimal: it “seemed like an ok thing to do?” according to Ms. Sheridan. Why doesn’t she go ahead and get married to Mr. Underwood at the very least, now that she’s had one of his children and he’s evidently helping to raise both kids?
Like so many children of the 1980s and ’90s — the decades when the nation hit its highest divorce rate — both Sheridan and Underwood are also wary about the institution of marriage.
Underwood says when he was a baby — or when his mom was still pregnant, he isn’t sure — “my dad left for a loaf of bread and never came back.”
Sheridan’s parents stayed together but fought a lot.
“That was hard to watch,” she says. “I don’t want to go through that, and I don’t want my kids to see it.”
Here are two excellent examples of both mindless fatalism and Millennial cluelessness, respectively: Mr. Underwood is convinced that, because his dad left when he was very young, he is probably fated to do the same thing if he himself gets married. There is no indication that he believes he is capable of doing otherwise; the contemptible actions of another man have made him “wary about the institution of marriage,” as if marriage itself, instead of laziness and cowardice, made Mr. Underwood, Sr. walk out on his responsibilities all those years ago.
Meanwhile, Ms. Sheridan witnessed her parents “fight a lot” when she was young; “I don’t want to go through that,” she says, “and I don’t want my kids to see it.” Here’s some advice: if you’re worried about “fighting a lot” with the man who’s fathered at least one of your children—so worried, in fact, that you do not want to get married to him—then you should probably not be with that man; if your relationship with your lover is so acrimonious that “you don’t want your kids to see it,” perhaps you should find a new relationship, immediately, and stop having babies with the guy. Call me crazy.
Ms. Sheridan also expresses the financial concerns that motivate both her and Mr. Underwood to delay marriage—“it’s hard enough,” she claims, “to work up just on your own”—and to be fair these financial fears are not limited to one particular class or demographic:
At the other end of this marriage divide, Diana and Dave Black of Harrisonburg, Va., started dating in college and now have graduate degrees and budding careers.
The couple is among the minority of millennials who feel secure enough to say “I do” — though Dave waited to propose until he got a handle on his student loans.
“I had the bulk of them paid off at that point,” he says, “and I felt like I was in a decent place to shell out the additional money for the ring.”
There are a few lessons to be learned here: first of all, perhaps it’s wise to avoid a college career if it requires a boatload of student loans that will put you on the financial defensive in your younger years. Maybe the Blacks needed to attend college in order to realize their “budding careers,” in which case their debt is understandable—but as a general rule it’s worth wondering whether or not your poli-sci degree and your basket weaving minor are worth a five-figure debt load you’ll be paying off for years and years. As well, Mr. Black appears to have had to “shell out…additional money for the ring,” which implies that the ring cost a lot. I’m sure it was a pretty ring, but seriously, here’s a tip to the fellas in the room: you can save a boatload of money by shopping smart on engagement rings. You don’t have to break the bank. I’m speaking from personal experience here. (Caroline, if you’re reading this: if I could have scratched the cash together, sweetheart, I would’ve bought you the Hope Diamond.)
More broadly speaking, both the Blacks and the Sheridan-Underwoods seem not to understand that marriage itself brings a whole host of financial benefits; there’s the myriad tax breaks you get when you tie the knot, for instance, and then there’s the combined incomes and the efficiency and practicality that comes along with combined incomes: once Caroline and I get married next year we’ll have one grocery bill, one utilities bill, less gas used going back and forth between each other’s dwellings, etc. Diana and Dave Black “feel secure enough to say ‘I Do,”‘ but marriage itself typically engenders financial security, or at least more security than you have when you’re single. Perhaps marriage rates would go up, and illegitimacy rates down, if people treated marriage as the harbinger of a stable lifestyle instead of, as Ludden puts it, “the cherry on top.”