There is probably no greater gift that two parents can give to their children than to provide them with a safe, stable and nurturing environment until they feel confident and independent enough to leave the nest. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has placed the support of safe, stable and nurturing families at the heart of its strategy to prevent child maltreatment. All the evidence points to the fact that, statistically, having such a childhood is a key element in mental health and wellbeing and other aspects of success in life.
The importance for children in growing up in safe and stable two-parent families is widely accepted by experts; but does marriage matter to stability? And if it does, how should it be factored into government policies and international development goals promoted by such organisations as the United Nations? The answers to these questions are more complex than they may at first appear.
The International Expert Group meeting in New York
I gained an insight on international debates on these issues, and how academic elites from Europe and North America control and constrain those debates, when I was invited to be a member of an international expert group on family policy, brought together for two days in May 2015 to help the UN Secretariat refine its strategy for achieving its development goals that relate to family life.
The UN headquarters in New York is a major site of conflict over “the family”. There, representatives of the nations of the world, and many non-government organisations, meet and argue not only about peace and security matters, but also about social policy and issues of human rights. In the UN complex, high in a grimy tower that holds its large New York bureaucracy, is a small unit concerned with family issues which in 2015 was part of the Division for Social Policy and Development, now known as the Division for Inclusive Development.
The invitation from this unit to participate in an international expert group had come out of the blue by email about three months earlier. I gathered I had been selected to represent an Australasian perspective. I knew little about the UN’s work in this area, and could manage only a brief trip at that time in the middle of a busy semester. However, it was an honour to be asked and so, despite misgivings about travelling for more than twenty hours by plane from Australia to a talkfest that might lead nowhere, I accepted.
The group of ten experts that the UN Secretariat had gathered to advise it on family policy appeared at first to be a diverse and eclectic group; and in certain ways it was. There was a vivacious African woman who spoke eloquently about issues in sub-Saharan Africa and appeared to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of UN conventions and resolutions. There was an Indian woman, elegantly clad in traditional dress, who offered some fascinating insights into family life on the Indian sub-continent. Another woman came from Bolivia. Another was a leading Scandinavian expert on family patterns in Western Europe. Another woman hailed originally from Eastern Europe. There was also a family law expert from the United States whose work I had for some time admired. Adding to the diversity there was a woman from the Caribbean specialising in family studies, and a feminist Muslim scholar from a non- government organisation in the Middle East.
I am glad to say that I was not the only male invitee. There was also an American family demographer who was one of the doyens of his field. Nonetheless, gender balance was not the most notable feature of this gathering.
Diverse and international the group certainly was: but, in other respects, very homogenous. Five out of the ten international experts taught at American universities; another taught in Britain. Given that I also live in an English-speaking country, that left only three out of the ten who lived and worked in non-English-speaking countries. Only two, the participants from Bolivia and the Middle East, worked in countries outside of the First World. None came from eastern Asia—populous countries like China, Japan and Korea were not represented. An expert group selected and convened to demonstrate and reflect the UN’s commitment to diversity and inclusion was in reality dominated by those teaching in the universities of the English-speaking world.
It also became apparent that there was a homogeneity of viewpoints. Whatever diversity there might have been in terms of country of origin, most of the group, it seemed, had adopted the worldview of the academic elites of European and American universities in terms of social policy. Several spoke fluently the common language of the progressive Left on issues of sexuality, gender and cultural relativism. It was just assumed that all of us supported same-sex marriage. That issue was not on the agenda for debate. The focus of much of the discussion was on women’s rights and on how to promote equality within the family.
Demographic trends in marriage
One area of consensus was about the demographic patterns in Europe, North America and elsewhere. We could agree that marriage, everywhere in the Western world, is declining in popularity, and non-marital cohabitation rising. This is especially true of Europe. There was agreement that the trends in different regions of the world were in the same direction; the differences were that in some regions, the changes had come earlier than in others.
The decline in marriage has coincided with a decline in fertility, and in many OECD countries it has fallen well below replacement level. This is despite evidence that the ideal family size for many women is rather higher than they end up achieving.
It was also clear that rates of ex-nuptial births are rising rapidly. Indeed, in many countries of Western Europe, more than half the babies are born outside of marriage. Across much of Europe, women enter a first marriage after they have their first child. Age at first marriage is well over thirty in many countries of the OECD.
To our African colleague, these trends were not surprising. Africa, she argued, had long had a plurality of family forms and had been resistant to the colonial imposition of just one model of family life—the monogamous marriage of the Christian faith. The Europeans, she argued, were thus rediscovering the patterns that had long existed in Africa.
Impediments to marriage
However, when we began to talk, both in the formal sessions and informally during coffee and lunch breaks, some divergence in patterns across regions began to appear. While in Europe the dominant pattern for decades had been a rejection of marriage as the normative site for child-rearing, elsewhere, social circumstances had reduced the scope for choice.
An American colleague recounted the patterns among poorer communities in the United States, which were disproportionately African-American. Women in these communities often found it difficult to find suitable marriage partners. African-American men have high rates of incarceration and often poor economic prospects. The absence of a suitable male with whom to form a life partnership was not seen as a good enough reason to forgo child-rearing, and so women had children with men whom they did not intend to marry. Promoting marriage amongst this community was not the answer, it was argued, as it did nothing to address the reasons why women struggled to find marriageable men.
Elsewhere, participants observed, the question of marriage was complicated by historical and cultural factors. Our member from the Caribbean explained that, while 80 per cent of all births there were outside of marriage, this was the result of historical factors. Slaves had not been allowed to marry; and so the pattern had been one of faithful concubinage. Those cultural traditions had continued long after slavery ended, with formal marriage not being embedded in the culture. Another reason for low marriage rates was that only certain kinds of marriage tradition had been recognised by law, and this excluded certain cultural groups. It was only in 1945, for example, that Trinidad and Tobago passed a Hindu Marriage Act. It retrospectively recognised informal marriages that had been made “under the bamboo” in accordance with Indian cultural traditions. The marriage rate in these islands went up considerably when Hindu marriages could be validly registered. Lack of legal validity had masked the extent to which monogamous unions had been the norm for generations in this cultural group.
In Bolivia, our colleague from that country explained, formal marriage is also complicated. This is especially so in the remote areas of the Amazon region where there are no government services and therefore doing the paperwork for a registered marriage is difficult. Furthermore, weddings are expensive. To overcome these problems, the Bolivian government established “collective marriage”. A special Civil Register Officer will travel to an area to do the paperwork and large numbers of couples can be married all at the same time. These mass weddings incorporate indigenous cultural traditions.
The prohibitive expense of formal marriage in Islamic cultures was also the subject of discus- sion over lunch. Our Middle Eastern colleague explained that the husband-to-be must provide a house for the couple to live in, and a dowry, the mahr. For those who cannot afford it, formal marriage is therefore out of the question; but because sex outside of marriage is forbidden in Islam, some are caught between a rock and a hard place.
What is marriage?
What then, is marriage? In different cultures and contexts, the high rates of ex-nuptial childbirth may have quite different meanings. They may reflect a rejection of the need for marriage, a difficulty in finding a suitable marriage partner, a lack of financial resources to be able to afford either the wedding or the cultural expectations that go hand in hand with marriage, or a lack of recognition of cultural marriage traditions by the legal system. Can one say that the faithful concubinage of the former slave communities in the Caribbean is not a marriage? Or that the old Hindu couples who married according to cultural traditions “under the bamboo” were not really married? In a legal sense, yes, but in another sense, no. There are certain cultures and traditions in which a commitment to faithful long-term monogamy as a context in which to raise children together is not necessarily to be equated with marriage in its legal sense.
Marriage is, first and foremost, a cultural institution, not a legal one.
The war over the family
Whatever consensus there may have been among the International Expert Group on those two days, as we listened respectfully and learned from one another, it was apparent that there was no such consensus in the wider international community represented at the UN. On the second day of the meeting, which was the International Day of Families, I found myself chairing an open session in which members of the public—and more particularly, members of non-government organisations involved at the UN—were able to attend. The room was packed with around 100 participants. There were seemingly men and women from every race and background.
The theme of the day was “Men in Charge? Gender Equality and Children’s Rights in Contemporary Families”. In opening the session, I observed that while in many cultures, discrimination against women was a pressing social problem, in other cultures, including my own, men were entirely absent from many families. In such cases the pressing social problem was how to keep men connected with their children and playing an important role in their children’s lives when they lived apart from the mother; and many of the arguments about family policy were because fathers wanted a greater role in the post-separation family than they were allowed to have.
Men, in countries like Australia, could hardly be said to be “in charge” within the family; but that was not the main focus of the International Day of Families for 2015. The Secretary-General’s message for the day observed that in “too many countries, discrimination against women and disregard for children’s rights remain built into family laws and government policies”.
The meeting began with presentations by four of my colleagues in the Expert Group. As we opened up to questions, the diversity within the audience became clear. The first question came from an African woman who introduced herself as the Queen Mother of her nation. Another question came from a student at an American university who wanted to talk about gender equality in raising children; another came from a Moroccan woman who wondered about whether there should be a new international instrument on the family. A representative of the Church of Latter-Day Saints asked whether it was possible to have patriarchal families without patriarchy, while a senior UN official asked what we could learn from matriarchal families.
A woman from Belarus announced that she belonged to a group called Friends of the Family. She protested about the portrayal of families in negative terms as giving rise to problems that needed to be solved through UN policy. Friends of the Family was led, we were informed, by certain governments in the Arab world. It had been continuously critical of the UN’s liberalism on family policy. Clearly, this group was unlikely to be keen on gay marriage.
The answers given to these questions were unmemorable—they usually are in such sessions. The great questions about family life cannot be answered in a few words, and in any event will not be answered in a manner satisfactory to the questioner by someone who is unsympathetic to his or her worldview. The purpose of the question is to raise an issue, and implicitly to make a point in so doing. It was a highly performative session.
So here, in one room at the UN headquarters, was great diversity of thinking about the family. The session provided a small insight into the conflicts about family policy which the Division for Social Policy and Development needed somehow to address. Yet the International Expert Group, brought together to advise the UN secretariat on family policy as it sought to advance its development goals, did not reflect that diversity.
Challenging the elite consensus
Our final session as International Expert Group was conducted away from public gaze, as we sought to formulate recommendations. For one of our colleagues, beginning the discussion, a message of the meeting ought to be to recognise the diversity of family forms, the different kinds of family, all of which deserved acknowledgment by governments. These themes of diversity and inclusion reflected the dominant values now so prevalent in North American universities.
Introducing a note of controversy and dissension for the first time in the meeting, I suggested that the implication of this “recognition” of diverse family forms was that family structure did not matter, that all families were equal. I suggested that this was what the countries which were resistant to the dominant UN discourse were concerned about. The evidence, I argued, was that family structure does matter to the wellbeing of children. I pointed out the clear findings of research that children do best when they are raised by their two biological parents. Child protection issues disproportionately arise in families without the two biological parents together in the home. In particular, I pointed out the risks to children from non- biologically-related males in the household. Rates of child sexual abuse of girls were about five times as high in those families. This was true also of child homicides.
I was supported in this view by an American colleague, who agreed that even after taking into account factors such as the impact of poverty on children in single-parent homes, there was clear evidence that family structure mattered to the quality of parenting.
I also argued that we needed to be concerned with the stability of families. It mattered to the wellbeing of children that families were safe, stable and nurturing environments. A few around the table began to acknowledge this, as long as we were not talking about marriage as the means to provide stability. One offered the formulation that we needed to be concerned with “healthy” relationships rather than stable relationships. Others resisted even the idea that stability matters. It was all a question of adult choices, said one, and nothing should inhibit women’s sexual freedom. If they chose to separate from the father of their children, that was a matter for them.
The debate was conducted in the respectful and friendly way in which our meetings had been conducted over the previous two days; but in contrast with the previous discussions which had involved a careful examination of the evidence, this conversation was data-free and value-laden.
The evidence that living together outside of marriage does not provide the same degree of stability for children has emerged consistently from research across the Western world, even after controlling for selection effects. Australian research is illustrative. The Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) project is a government-funded longitudinal study that tracks thousands of households each year. Researchers examined the characteristics of those who were in intact relationships in 2001 and who had separated two years later. Ten per cent of couples with children were living together in non-marital relationships in 2001. They constituted nearly 38 per cent of those who had separated two years later. The odds of a cohabiting couple with children breaking up was more than seven times as high as for a married couple who had not lived together before marriage, and more than four times as high as for those who had lived together but went on to marry.
This is consistent with evidence from other countries. Data from the Fragile Families study in the US (a major study of a cohort of unmarried and married mothers in twenty large cities) found that parental separation by the time the child was three years old was five times greater for children born to cohabiting than married parents. Differences in financial wellbeing and family characteristics between cohabiting and married parents explained this to some extent, but after controlling for race, ethnicity, education, economic factors, family characteristics and an extensive set of other factors, parents who were cohabiting at their child’s birth still had over two and a half times the risk of separating of parents who were married at their child’s birth.
Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study in Britain, initially comprising a cohort of more than 18,500 mothers who gave birth during 2000 or 2001, indicate that children born to cohabiting parents were almost three times as likely as those born to married parents to be no longer living with both these parents by the time they were five years old.
Notwithstanding all such evidence, the dominant theme was one of resistance to the idea that two married biological parents represented a preferable family form. Why should I be concerned if there are three parental figures in the home, one asked? Another extolled the virtues of modern family life in which men and women, whether they live together or not, share the parenting of children and stepfathers add a new richness to children’s lives. I did not disagree that stepfathers can add a positive dimension, of course (I too am a stepfather), but that is not the whole story.
Another colleague argued eloquently that while what I was saying might represent an ideal, we had to be concerned with the realities of family life. In African countries ravaged by genocide, AIDS and more recently, ebola, this ideal was just not possible. Implicit in this argument was that my support for the importance of the two-parent stable family was a First World concern which conflicted with African realities. The argument gained a lot of traction.
The only other man in the room, at this point, came to my aid. An older man, he had had his two hips replaced (someone helpfully observed that he now had step-hips). He was grateful for his new hips, but that did not mean he would not rather have his original hips in a healthy condition.
A whispered agreement
The meeting ended without agreement on these issues. We could all accept, of course, that relationships should be “healthy”, but did they also need to be stable and enduring? Stability of family relationships was not necessarily important to many.
I was surprised then, when one of the members of the Expert Group who was most insistent that two-parent families were just an ideal, said to me quietly, as we were packing up, that she agreed that family stability mattered. She described the strict and ordered regime in her own home (one with two biological, albeit unmarried parents). Her young children had routine, and clear boundaries. She restricted their television usage. It was a reward, not a staple of their entertainment diet. Yes, she agreed, stability does matter to children; but having made that enormous concession to my point of view, she suggested jokingly that I had better leave now. It was not a concession she would make openly, and nor could she have articulated it in the course of the meeting. In her public professional world, marriage is most unfashionable, and stability is not important if that is somehow to be contrasted with adults’ pursuit of their own happiness.
The American scholar Rob Henderson, himself someone who has succeeded academically despite an unstable family life through much of his childhood, has coined the term “luxury beliefs”. These are fashionable beliefs that elites hold, oblivious to the harms that these beliefs cause to people who do not have the same status and privilege.
The belief that family stability doesn’t matter, and therefore marriage doesn’t matter (except insofar as same-sex couples should be given an option to marry) is just such a luxury belief. As the whispered conversation with my very “progressive” colleague demonstrated, it is not even a belief that translates to the private choices of those who espouse it. In the US, marriage rates remain high among college- educated people. It is amongst the less advantaged that marriage rates have plummeted.
The demise of marriage as the normal context for child-rearing has led to a rapid deterioration in the social environment in which many children and young people are raised. In Australia, for example, about 40 per cent of all children will experience one of their biological parents living elsewhere by the time they are seventeen, an increase from around 25 per cent over the last twenty years. This is not due to divorce, for rates of divorce have remained constant or fallen over the last few decades around the Western world. Family instability is imposing immense costs on governments and therefore on taxpayers, who provide income support for many parents and their children, and bear more of the costs of caring for the elderly than would be necessary if a greater number of marital and quasi- marital relationships remained intact.
The belief that family structure doesn’t matter, that the UN should recognise and celebrate the diversity of family structures without acknowledgment of the fiscal and health implications of the collapse in family stability, is symptomatic of a fantasy world in which so many in the elites choose to live.
There are real-world consequences when public policy is formulated on the basis of such beliefs, and when important international statements such as those contained in the UN’s development goals take little account either of the evidence or of the values of the two-thirds world who were not represented in the policy setting forum that I was privileged to attend.
Love in Park Avenue
If marriage is not seen as important by an expert group on families at the UN, it remains culturally important for vast numbers of people throughout the world. On my final morning in Manhattan, I found myself watching a small street parade in Park Avenue. A minivan led the procession, blaring music from loudspeakers at the back. A procession of people followed, mostly wearing Indian saris and turbans. The procession seemed unusual, for so many in the parade seemed to be Caucasians. I asked one of them what the parade was all about. They were on their way to a wedding at the Waldorf Hotel.
Love was in the air in Park Avenue, and for this couple, that meant a wedding. What was relatively unimportant to the policy-makers was of first importance to this couple—that their commitment to each other should be shared in a celebration with family and friends, and in accordance with their own cultural traditions.
Weddings do not need to be that elaborate or expensive; but the time has come to recognise, across the Western world, that marriage matters in providing a framework for commitment to a partnership, intended to be lifelong, that is most likely to offer children a safe, stable and nurturing childhood.
People are welcome to hold luxury beliefs and to organise their individual lives as they choose; but when it comes to public policy, it is past time for serious conversations about the importance of support for stable family environments, as well as safe ones. That means not being dismissive of the importance of marriage, while nonetheless being respectful of cultural diversity, individual choice and the difficult circumstances in many people’s lives that may make marriage difficult.
Such discussions can only be meaningful if they are conducted free of the filters and no-go zones that are characteristic of the discourse that constrains debate amongst the academic elites of Europe and North America.
This essay was originally included in Quadrant.