Barbara Dafoe Whitehead*

This article appeared in the April 1993 issue of The Atlantic.  It may be cited as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Dan Quayle Was Right, The Atlantic, April 1993, at 47.  Reprinted by special permission of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

Copyright © 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

*Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is author of numerous books, including the currently bestselling and much-discussed book, The Divorce Culture (New York:  Random House, 1996).

After decades of public dispute about so-called family diversity, the evidence from social-science research is coming in:  The dissolution of two-parent families, though it may benefit the adults involved, is harmful to many children, and dramatically undermines our society.

Divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth are transforming the lives of American children.  In the postwar generation more than 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents who were married to each other.  By 1980 only 50 percent could expect to spend their entire childhood in an intact family.  If current trends continue, less than half of all children born today will live continuously with their own mother and father throughout childhood.  Most American children will spend several years in a single-mother family.  Some will eventually live in stepparent families, but because stepfamilies are more likely to break up than intact (by which I mean two-biological-parent) families, an increasing number of children will experience family breakup two or even three times during childhood.

According to a growing body of social-scientific evidence, children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock birth do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being.  Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor.  They are also likely to stay poorer longer.  Twenty-two percent of children in one-parent families will experience poverty during childhood for seven years or more, as compared with only two percent of children in two-parent families.  A 1988 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that children in single-parent families are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems.  They are also more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and to be in trouble with the law.  Compared with children in intact families, children from disrupted families are at much higher risk for physical or sexual abuse.

Contrary to popular belief, many children do not "bounce back" after divorce or remarriage.  Difficulties that are associated with family breakup often persist into adulthood.  Children who grow up in single-parent or stepparent families are less successful as adults, particularly in two domains of life -- love and work -- that are most essential to happiness.  Needless to say, not all children experience such negative effects.  However, research shows that many children from disrupted families have a harder time achieving intimacy in a relationship, forming a stable marriage, or even holding a steady job.

Despite this growing body of evidence, it is nearly impossible to discuss changes in family structure without provoking angry protest.  Many people see the discussion as no more than an attack on struggling single mothers and their children: Why blame single mothers when they are doing the very best they can?  After all, the decision to end a marriage or a relationship is wrenching, and few parents are indifferent to the painful burden this decision imposes on their children.  Many take the perilous step toward single parenthood as a last resort, after their best efforts to hold a marriage together have failed.  Consequently, it can seem particularly cruel and unfeeling to remind parents of the hardships their children might suffer as a result of family breakup.  Other people believe that the dramatic changes in family structure, though regrettable, are impossible to reverse.  Family breakup is an inevitable feature of American life, and anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in nostalgia or trying to run back the clock.  Since these new family forms are here to stay, the reasoning goes, we must accord respect to single parents, not criticize them.  Typical is the view expressed by a Brooklyn woman in a recent letter to The New York Times: "Let's stop moralizing or blaming single parents and unwed mothers, and give them the respect they have earned and the support they deserve."

Such views are not to be dismissed.  Indeed, they help to explain why family structure is such an explosive issue for Americans.  The debate about it is not simply about the social-scientific evidence, although that is surely an important part of the discussion.  It is also a debate over deeply held and often conflicting values.  How do we begin to reconcile our long-standing belief in equality and diversity with an impressive body of evidence that suggests that not all family structures produce equal outcomes for children?  How can we square traditional notions of public support for dependent women and children with a belief in women's right to pursue autonomy and independence in childbearing and child-rearing?  How do we uphold the freedom of adults to pursue individual happiness in their private relationships and at the same time respond to the needs of children for stability, security, and permanence in their family lives?  What do we do when the interests of adults and children conflict? These are the difficult issues at stake in the debate over family structure.

In the past these issues have turned out to be too difficult and too politically risky for debate.  In the mid-1960s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, was denounced as a racist for calling attention to the relationship between the prevalence of black single-mother families and the lower socioeconomic standing of black children.  For nearly twenty years the policy and research communities backed away from the entire issue.  In 1980 the Carter Administration convened a historic White House Conference on Families, designed to address the growing problems of children and families in America.  The result was a prolonged, publicly subsidized quarrel over the definition of "family."  No President since has tried to hold a national family conference.  Last year, at a time when the rate of out-of-wedlock births had reached its historic high, Vice President Dan Quayle was ridiculed for criticizing Murphy Brown.  In short, every time the issue of family structure has been raised, the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence.

Yet it is also risky to ignore the issue of changing family structure.  In recent years the problems associated with family disruption have grown.  Overall child well-being has declined, despite a decrease in the number of children per family, an increase in the educational level of parents, and historically high levels of public spending.  After dropping in the 1960s and 1970s, the proportion of children in poverty has increased dramatically, from 15 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 1990, while the percentage of adult Americans in poverty has remained roughly constant.  The teen suicide rate has more than tripled.  Juvenile crime has increased and become more violent.  School performance has continued to decline.  There are no signs that these trends are about to reverse themselves.

If we fail to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and declining child well-being, then it will be increasingly difficult to improve children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds.  Nor will we be able to make progress in bettering school performance or reducing crime or improving the quality of the nation's future work force -- all domestic problems closely connected to family breakup.  Worse, we may contribute to the problem by pursuing policies that actually increase family instability and breakup.

From Death to Divorce

Across time and across all cultures, family disruption has been regarded as an event that threatens a child's well-being and even survival.  This view is rooted in a fundamental biological fact: unlike the young of almost any other species, the human child is born in an abjectly helpless and immature state.  Years of nurture and protection are needed before the child can achieve physical independence.  Similarly, it takes years of interaction with at least one but ideally two or more adults for a child to develop into a socially competent adult.  Children raised in virtual isolation from human beings, though physically intact, display few recognizably human behaviors.  The social arrangement that has proved most successful in ensuring the physical survival and promoting the social development of the child is the family unit of the biological mother and father.  Consequently, any event that permanently denies a child the presence and protection of a parent jeopardizes the life of the child.

The classic form of family disruption is the death of a parent.  Throughout history this has been one of the risks of childhood.  Mothers frequently died in childbirth, and it was not unusual for both parents to die before the child was grown.  As recently as the early decades of this century children commonly suffered the death of at least one parent.  Almost a quarter of the children born in this country in 1900 lost one parent by the time they were fifteen years old.  Many of these children lived with their widowed parent, often in a household with other close relatives.  Others grew up in orphanages and foster homes.

The meaning of parental death, as it has been transmitted over time and faithfully recorded in world literature and lore, is unambiguous and essentially unchanging.  It is universally regarded as an untimely and tragic event.  Death permanently severs the parent-child bond, disrupting forever one of the child's earliest and deepest human attachments.  It also deprives a child of the presence and protection of an adult who has a biological stake in, as well as an emotional commitment to, the child's survival and well-being.  In short, the death of a parent is the most extreme and severe loss a child can suffer.

Because a child is so vulnerable in a parent's absence, there has been a common cultural response to the death of a parent: an outpouring of support from family, friends, and strangers alike.  The surviving parent and child are united in their grief as well as their loss.  Relatives and friends share in the loss and provide valuable emotional and financial assistance to the bereaved family.  Other members of the community show sympathy for the child, and public assistance is available for those who need it.  This cultural understanding of parental death has formed the basis for a tradition of public support to widows and their children.  Indeed, as recently as the beginning of this century widows were the only mothers eligible for pensions in many states, and today widows with children receive more-generous welfare benefits from Survivors Insurance than do other single mothers with children who depend on Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

It has taken thousands upon thousands of years to reduce the threat of parental death.  Not until the middle of the twentieth century did parental death cease to be a commonplace event for children in the United States.  By then advances in medicine had dramatically reduced mortality rates for men and women.

At the same time, other forms of family disruption -- separation, divorce, out-of-wedlock birth -- were held in check by powerful religious, social, and legal sanctions.  Divorce was widely regarded both as a deviant behavior, especially threatening to mothers and children, and as a personal lapse:  "Divorce is the public acknowledgment of failure," a 1940s sociology textbook noted.  Out-of-wedlock birth was stigmatized, and stigmatization is a powerful means of regulating behavior, as any smoker or overeater will testify.  Sanctions against nonmarital childbirth discouraged behavior that hurt children and exacted compensatory behavior that helped them.  Shotgun marriages and adoption, two common responses to nonmarital birth, carried a strong message about the risks of pre-marital sex and created an intact family for the child.

Consequently, children did not have to worry much about losing a parent through divorce or never having had one because of nonmarital birth.  After a surge in divorces following the Second World War, the rate leveled off.  Only 11 percent of children born in the 1950s would by the time they turned eighteen see their parents separate or divorce.  Out-of-wedlock childbirth barely figured as a cause of family disruption.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, five percent of the nation's births were out of wedlock.  Blacks were more likely than whites to bear children outside marriage, but the majority of black children born in the twenty years after the Second World War wee born to married couples.  The rate of family disruption reached a historic low point during those years.

A new standard of family security and stability was established in postwar America.  For the first time in history the vast majority of the nation's children could expect to live with married biological parents throughout childhood.  Children might still suffer other forms of adversity -- poverty, racial discrimination, lack of educational opportunity -- but only a few would be deprived of the nurture and protection of a mother and a father.  No longer did children have to be haunted by the classic fears vividly dramatized in folklore and fable -- that their parents would die, that they would have to live with a stepparent and stepsiblings, or that they would be abandoned.  These were the years when the nation confidently boarded up orphanages and closed foundling hospitals, certain that such institutions would never again be needed.  In movie theaters across the country parents and children could watch the drama of parental separation and death in the great Disney classics, secure in the knowledge that such nightmare visions as the death of Bambi's mother and the wrenching separation of Dumbo from his mother were only make-believe.

In the 1960s the rate of family disruption suddenly began to rise.  After inching up over the course of a century, the divorce rate soared.  Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the divorce rate held steady at fewer than ten divorces a year per 1,000 married couples.  Then, beginning in about 1965, the rate increased sharply, peaking at twenty-three divorces per 1,000 marriages by 1979.  (In 1974 divorce passed death as the leading cause of family breakup.)  The rate has leveled off at about twenty-one divorces per1,000 marriages -- the figure for 1991.  The out-of-wedlock birth rate also jumped.  It went from five percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1990.  In 1990 close to 57 percent of births among black mothers were nonmarital, and about 17 percent among white mothers.  Altogether, about one out of ever four women who had a child in 1990 was not married.  With rates of divorce and nonmarital birth so high, family disruption is at its peak.  Never before have so many children experienced family breakup caused by events other than death.  Each year a million children go through divorce or separation and almost as many more are born out of wedlock.

Half of all marriages now end in divorce.  Following divorce, many people enter new relationships.  Some begin living together.  Nearly half of all cohabiting couples have children in the household.  Fifteen percent have new children together.  Many cohabiting couples eventually get married.  However, both cohabiting and remarried couples are more likely to break up than couples in first marriages.  Even social scientists find it hard to keep pace with the complexity and velocity of such patterns. In the revised edition (1992) of his book Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, the sociologist Andrew Cherlin ruefully comments: "If there were a truth-in-labeling law for books, the title of this edition should be something long and unwieldy like Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, More Cohabitation, and Probably Remarriage."

Under such conditions growing up can be a turbulent experience.  In many single-parent families children must come to terms with the parent's love life and romantic partners.  Some children live with cohabiting couples, either their own unmarried parents or a biological parent and a live-in partner.  Some children born to cohabiting parents see their parents break up.  Others see their parents marry, but 56 percent of them (as compared with 31 percent of the children born to married parents) later see their parents' marriages fall apart.  All told, about three quarters of children born to cohabiting couples will live in a single-parent home at least briefly.  One of every four children growing up in the 1990s will eventually enter a stepfamily.  According to one survey, nearly half of all children in stepparent families will see their parents divorce again by the time they reach their late teens.  Since 80 percent of divorced fathers remarry, things get even more complicated when the romantic or marital history of the noncustodial parent, usually the father, is taken into account.  Consequently, as it affects a significant number of children, family disruption is best understood not as a single event but as a string of disruptive events: separation, divorce, life in a single-parent family, life with a parent and live-in lover, the remarriage of one or both parents, life in one's stepparent family combined with visits to another stepparent family; the breakup of one or both stepparent families.  And so on.  This is one reason why public schools have a hard time knowing whom to call in an emergency.

Given its dramatic impact on children's lives, one might reasonably expect that this historic level of family disruption would be viewed with alarm, even regarded as a national crisis.  Yet this has not been the case.  In recent years some people have argued that these trends pose a serious threat to children and to the nation as a whole, but they are dismissed as declinists, pessimists, or nostalgists, unwilling or unable to accept the new facts of life.  The dominant view is that the changes in family structure are, on balance, positive.

A Shift in the Social Metric

There are several reasons why this is so, but the fundamental reason is that at some point in the 1970s Americans changed their minds about the meaning of these disruptive behaviors.  What had once been regarded as hostile to children's best interests was now considered essential to adults' happiness.  In the 1950s most Americans believed that parents should stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children.  The assumption was that a divorce would damage the children, and the prospect of such damage gave divorce its meaning.  By the mid-1970s a majority of Americans rejected that view.  Popular advice literature reflected the shift.  A book on divorce published in the mid-1940s tersely asserted: "Children are entitled to the affection and association of two parents, not one."  Thirty years later another popular divorce book proclaimed just the opposite: "A two-parent home is not the only emotional structure within which a child can be happy and healthy . . . .  The parents who take care of themselves will be best able to take care of their children."  At about the same time, the long-standing taboo against out-of-wedlock childbirth also collapsed.  By the mid-1970s three fourths of Americans said that it was not morally wrong for a woman to have a child outside marriage.

Once the social metric shifts from child well-being to adult well-being, it is hard to see divorce and nonmarital birth in anything but a positive light.  However distressing and difficult they may be, both of these behaviors can hold out the promise of greater adult choice, freedom, and happiness.  For unhappy spouses, divorce offers a way to escape a troubled or even abusive relationship and make a fresh start.  For single parents, remarriage is a second try at marital happiness as well as a chance for relief from the stress, loneliness, and economic hardship of raising a child alone.  For some unmarried women, nonmarital birth is a way to beat the biological clock, avoid marrying the wrong man, and experience the pleasures of motherhood. Moreover, divorce and out-of-wedlock birth involve a measure of agency and choice; they are man- and woman-made events.  To be sure, not everyone exercises choice in divorce or nonmarital birth.  Mem leave wives for younger women, teenage girls get pregnant accidentally -- yet even these unhappy events reflect the expansion of the boundaries of freedom and choice.

This cultural shift helps explain what otherwise would be inexplicable: the failure to see the rise in family disruption as a severe and troubling national problem.  It explains why there is virtually no widespread public sentiment for restigmatizing either of these classically disruptive behaviors and no sense -- no public consensus -- that they can or should be avoided in the future.  On the contrary, the prevailing opinion is that we should accept the changes in family structure as inevitable and devise new forms of public and private support for single-parent families.

The View From Hollywood

With its affirmation of the liberating effects of divorce and nonmarital childbirth, this opinion is a fixture of American popular culture today.  Madison Avenue and Hollywood did not invent these behaviors, as their highly paid publicists are quick to point out, but they have played an influential role in defending and even celebrating divorce and unwed motherhood.  More precisely, they have taken the raw material of demography and fashioned it into a powerful fantasy of individual renewal and rebirth.  Consider, for example, the teaser for People magazine's cover story on Joan Lunden's divorce: "After the painful end of her 13-year marriage, the Good Morning America cohost is discovering a new life as a single mother -- and as her own woman." People does not dwell on the anguish Lunden and her children might have experienced over the breakup of their family, or the difficulties of single motherhood, even for celebrity mothers.  Instead, it celebrates Joan Lunden's steps toward independence and a better life. People, characteristically, focuses on her shopping: in the first weeks after her breakup Lunden leased "a brand-new six-bedroom, 8,000 square foot" house and then went to Bloomingdale's, where she scooped up sheets, pillows, a toaster, dishes, seven televisions, and roomfuls of fun furniture that was "totally unlike the serious traditional pieces she was giving up."

This is not just the view taken in supermarket magazines.  Even the conservative bastion of the greeting-card industry, Hallmark, offers a line of cards commemorating divorce as liberation.  "Think of your former marriage as a record album," says one Contemporary card.  "It was full of music -- both happy and sad.  But what's important now is . . . YOU!  the recently released HOT, NEW, SINGLE!  You're going to be at the TOP OF THE CHARTS!"  Another card reads: "Getting divorced can be very healthy! Watch how it improves your circulation!  Best of luck! . . ."  Hallmark's hip Shoebox Greetings division depicts two female praying mantises.  Mantis One: "It's tough being a single parent."  Mantis Two: "Yeah . . . Maybe we shouldn't have eaten our husbands."

Divorce is a tired convention in Hollywood, but unwed parenthood is very much in fashion: in the past year or so babies were born to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Jack Nicholson and Rebecca Broussard, and Eddie Murphy and Nicole Mitchell. Vanity Fair celebrated Jack Nicholson's fatherhood with a cover story (April, 1992) called "Happy Jack."  What made Jack happy, it turned out, was no-fault fatherhood.  He and Broussard, the twenty-nine-year-old mother of his children, lived in separate houses.  Nicholson said, "It's an unusual arrangement, but the last twenty-five years or so have shown me that I'm not good at cohabitation . . . .  I see Rebecca as much as any other person who is cohabiting.  And she prefers it.  I think most people would in a more honest and truthful world."  As for more-permanent commitments, the man who is not good at cohabitation said: "I don't discuss marriage much with Rebecca.  Those discussions are the very thing I'm trying to avoid.  I'm after this immediate real thing.  That's all I believe in."  (Perhaps Nicholson should have had the discussion.  Not long after the story appeared, Broussard broke off the relationship.)

As this story shows, unwed parenthood is thought of not only as a way to find happiness but also as a way to exhibit such virtues as honesty and courage.  A similar argument was offered in defense of Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood.  Many of Murphy's fans were quick to point out that Murphy suffered over her decision to bear a child out of wedlock.  Faced with an accidental pregnancy and a faithless lover, she agonized over her plight and, after much mental anguish, bravely decided to go ahead.  In short, having a baby without a husband represented a higher level of maternal devotion and sacrifice than having a baby with a husband.  Murphy was not just exercising her rights as a woman; she was exhibiting true moral heroism.

On the night Murphy Brown became an unwed mother, 34 million Americans tuned in, and CBS posted a 35 percent share of the audience.  The show did not stir significant protest at the grass roots and lost none of its advertisers.  The actress Candice Bergen subsequently appeared on the cover of nearly every women's and news magazine in the country and received an honorary degree at the University of Pennsylvania as well as an Emmy award.  The show's creator, Diane English, popped up in Hanes stocking ads.  Judged by conventional measures of approval, Murphy Brown's motherhood was a hit at the box office.

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