By Frederica Mathewes-Green
True Love Waits. Wait Training. Worth Waiting For. The slogans of teen abstinence programs reveal a basic fact of human nature: teens, sex, and waiting aren’t a natural combination.
Over the last 50 years the wait has gotten longer. In 1950, the average first-time bride was just over 20; in 1998 she was five years older, and her husband was pushing 27. If that June groom had launched into puberty at 12, he’d been waiting more than half his life.
If he had been waiting, that is. Sex is the sugar coating on the drive to reproduce, and that drive is nearly overwhelming. It’s supposed to be; it’s the survival engine of the human race. Fighting it means fighting a basic bodily instinct, akin to fighting thirst.
Yet despite the conflict between liberals and conservatives on nearly every topic available, this is one point on which they firmly agree: Young people absolutely must not have children. Though they disagree on means — conservatives advocate abstinence, liberals favor contraception — they shake hands on that common goal. The younger generation must not produce a younger generation.
But teen pregnancy, in itself, is not such a bad thing. By the age of 18, a young woman’s body is well prepared for childbearing. Young men are equally qualified to do their part. Both may have better success at the enterprise than they would in later years, as some health risks — Cesarean section and Down Syndrome, for example — increase with passing years. (The dangers we associate with teen pregnancy, on the other hand, are behavioral, not biological: drug use, STD’s, prior abortion, extreme youth, and lack of prenatal care.) A woman’s fertility has already begun to decline at 25 — one reason the population-control crowd promotes delayed childbearing. Early childbearing also rewards a woman’s health with added protection against breast cancer.
Younger moms and dads are likely be more nimble at child-rearing as well, less apt to be exhausted by toddlers’ perpetual motion, less creaky-in-the-joints when it’s time to swing from the monkey bars. I suspect that younger parents will also be more patient with boys-will-be-boys rambunction, and less likely than weary 40-somethings to beg pediatricians for drugs to control supposed pathology. Humans are designed to reproduce in their teens, and they’re potentially very good at it. That’s why they want to so much.
Teen pregnancy is not the problem. Unwed teen pregnancy is the problem. It’s childbearing outside marriage that causes all the trouble. Restore an environment that supports younger marriage, and you won’t have to fight biology for a decade or more.
Most of us blanch at the thought of our children marrying under the age of 25, much less under 20. The immediate reaction is: “They’re too immature.” We expect teenagers to be self-centered and impulsive, incapable of shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood. But it wasn’t always that way; through much of history, teen marriage and childbearing was the norm. Most of us would find our family trees dotted with many teen marriages.
Of course, those were the days when grown teens were presumed to be truly “young adults.” It’s hard for us to imagine such a thing today. It’s not that young people are inherently incapable of responsibility — history disproves that — but that we no longer expect it. Only a few decades ago a high-school diploma was taken as proof of adulthood, or at least as a promise that the skinny kid holding it was ready to start acting like one. Many a boy went from graduation to a world of daily labor that he would not leave until he was gray; many a girl began turning a corner of a small apartment into a nursery. Expectations may have been humble, but they were achievable, and many good families were formed this way.
Hidden in that scenario is an unstated presumption, that a young adult can earn enough to support a family. Over the course of history, the age of marriage has generally been bounded by puberty on the one hand, and the ability to support a family on the other. In good times, folks marry young; when prospects are poor, couples struggle and save toward their wedding day. A culture where men don’t marry until 27 would normally feature elements like repeated crop failures or economic depression.
That’s not the case in America today. Instead we have an artificial situation which causes marriage to be delayed. The age that a man, or woman, can earn a reasonable income has been steadily increasing as education has been dumbed down. The condition of basic employability that used to be demonstrated by a high-school diploma now requires a bachelor’s degree, and professional careers that used to be accessible with a bachelor’s now require a master’s degree or more. Years keep passing while kids keep trying to attain the credentials that adult earning requires.
Financial ability isn’t our only concern, however; we’re convinced that young people are simply incapable of adult responsibility. We expect that they will have poor control of their impulses, be self-centered and emotional, and be incapable of visualizing consequences. (It’s odd that kids thought to be too irresponsible for marriage are expected instead to practice heroic abstinence or diligent contraception.) The assumption of teen irresponsibility has broader roots that just our estimation of the nature of adolescence; it involves our very idea of the purpose of childhood.
Until a century or so ago, it was presumed that children were in training to be adults. From early years children helped keep the house or tend the family business or farm, assuming more responsibility each day. By late teens, children were ready to graduate to full adulthood, a status they received as an honor. How early this transition might begin is indicated by the number of traditional religious and social coming-of-age ceremonies that are administered at ages as young as 12 or 13.
But we no longer think of children as adults-in-progress. Childhood is no longer a training ground but a playground, and because we love our children and feel nostalgia for our own childhoods, we want them to be able to linger there as long as possible. We cultivate the idea of idyllic, carefree childhood, and as the years for education have stretched so have the bounds of that playground, so that we expect even “kids” in their mid-to-late twenties to avoid settling down. Again, it’s not that people that age couldn’t be responsible; their ancestors were. It’s that anyone, offered a chance to kick back and play, will generally seize the opportunity. If our culture assumed that 50-year-olds would take a year-long break from responsibility, have all their expenses paid by someone else, spend their time having fun and making forgivable mistakes, our malls would be overrun by middle-aged delinquents.
But don’t young marriages tend to end in divorce? If we communicate to young people that we think they’re inherently incompetent that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was not always the case. In fact, in the days when people married younger, divorce was much rarer. During the last half of the 20th century, as brides’ age rose from 20 to 25, the divorce rate doubled. The trend toward older, and presumptively more mature, couples didn’t result in stronger marriages. Marital durability has more to do with the expectations and support of surrounding society than with the partners’ age.
A pattern of late marriage may actually increase the rate of divorce. During that initial decade of physical adulthood, young people may not be getting married, but they’re still falling in love. They fall in love, and break up, and undergo terrible pain, but find that with time they get over it. They may do this many times. Gradually, they get used to it; they learn that they can give their hearts away, and take them back again; they learn to shield their hearts from access in the first place. They learn to approach a relationship with the goal of getting what they want, and keep their bags packed by the door. By the time they marry they may have had many opportunities to learn how to walk away from a promise. They’ve been training for divorce.
As we know too well, a social pattern of delayed marriage doesn’t mean delayed sex. In 1950, there were 14 births per thousand unmarried women; in 1998, the rate had leapt to 44. Even that astounding increase doesn’t tell the whole story. In 1950 the numbers of births generally corresponded to the numbers of pregnancies, but by 1998 we must add in many more unwed pregnancies that didn’t come to birth, but ended in abortion, as roughly one in four of all pregnancies do. My home city of Baltimore wins the blue ribbon for out-of-wedlock childbearing: in 2001, 77 percent of all births were to unwed mothers.
There are a number of interlocking reasons for this rise in unwed childbearing, but one factor must surely be that when the requirements presumed necessary for marriage rise too high, some people simply parachute out. It’s one thing to ask fidgety kids to abstain until they finish high school at 18. When the expectation instead is to wait until 25 or 27, many will decline to wait at all. We’re saddened, but no longer surprised, at girls having babies at the age of 12 or 13. Between 1940 and 1998, the rate at which girls 10-14 had their first babies almost doubled. These young moms’ sexual experiences are usually classified as “non-voluntary” or “not wanted.” Asking boys to wait until marriage is one way a healthy culture protects young girls.
The idea of returning to an era of young marriage still seems daunting, for good reason. It is not just a matter of tying the knot between dreamy-eyed 18-year-olds and tossing them out into world. Our ancestors were able to marry young because they were surrounded by a network of support enabling that step. Young people are not intrinsically incompetent, but they do still have lots of learning to do, just like newlyweds of any age. In generations past a young couple would be surrounded by family and friends who could guide and support them, not just in navigating the shoals of new marriage, but also in the practical skills of making a family work, keeping a budget, repairing a leaky roof, changing a leaky diaper.
It is not good for man to be alone; it’s not good for a young couple to be isolated, either. In this era of extended education, couples who marry young will likely do so before finishing college, and that will require some sacrifices. They can’t expect to “have it all.” Of the three factors — living on their own, having babies, and both partners going to school full-time — something is going to have to give. But young marriage can succeed, as it always has, with the support of family and friends.
I got married a week after college graduation, and both my husband and I immediately went to graduate school. We made ends meet by working as janitors in the evenings, mopping floors and cleaning toilets. We were far from home, but our church was our home, and through the kindness of more-experienced families we had many kinds of support — in fact, all that we needed. When our first child was born we were so flooded with diapers, clothes, and gifts that our only expense was the hospital bill.
Our daughter and older son also married and started families young. Things don’t come easy for those who buck the norm, but with the help of family, church, and creative college-to-work programs, both young families are making their way. Early marriage can’t happen in a vacuum; it requires support from many directions, and it would be foolish to pretend the costs aren’t high.
The rewards are high as well. It is wonderful to see our son and daughter blooming in strong, joyful marriages, and an unexpected joy to count a new daughter and son in our family circle. Our cup overflows with grandchildren as well: As of July we have four grandbabies, though the oldest is barely two. I’m 49.
It’s interesting to think about the future. What if the oldest grandbaby also marries young, and has his first child at the age of 20? I would hold my great-grandchild at 67. There could even follow a great-great-grand at 87. I will go into old age far from lonely. My children and their children would be grown up then too, and available to surround the younger generations with many resourceful minds and loving hearts. Even more outrageous things are possible: I come from a long-lived family, some of whom went on past the age of 100. How large a family might I live to see?
Such speculation becomes dizzying — yet these daydreams are not impossible, and surely not unprecedented. Closely looped, mutually supporting generations must have been a common sight, in older days when young marriage was affirmed, and young people were allowed to do what comes naturally