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Is It ‘I Do’ or ‘I Plan’ That Divides Us?

Reading “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’” in The Times last weekend, left me troubled. If there is any obvious takeaway from this and the earlier news that for younger mothers, out-of-wedlock births are the new normal, (leading to elevated risks of falling into poverty for children), it would seem to be this: first comes love, then comes marriage, then start considering the baby carriage.

But that’s a mantra, and a stigma, that’s unfair to the reality of many families. Parents who choose single parenthood (mostly women, but far from all) at an established stage of their lives face different challenges than those who parent as a couple, but theirs is a different story than that of the single parent in less-secure circumstances.

In other words, the problem isn’t Murphy Brown (the television character criticized by Dan Quayle for choosing single motherhood) but the arguable Murphy Brown effect: What works for Michelle Williams, Minnie Driver and Sandra Bullock is a whole lot harder for Jessica Schairer, the single mother of three children featured in “Two Classes, Separated by ‘I Do’.” Jason DeParle’s profile of two Michigan mothers lays out stark differences in family experiences for the children of two very similar women, one married, the other raising her children alone after a failed relationship that never led to marriage.

The differences come not just from the absence of a second parent. They also come from the economics of a family of four living on a single income that’s not large enough to replicate the income of most two-parent families. From there, the inequalities branch out into those very different childhoods: fewer activities, less help with homework, fewer vacations, less time to read and a far smaller margin for error.

It’s hard to separate the economic impact from the impact of the absence of that second parent, but regardless of causation, results appear to be far-reaching: lower scores on standardized tests, poorer grades and an increased likelihood of dropping out of high school or failing to attend college.(For a deeper view of the numbers, read Mr. DeParle’s Economix blog post “Economic Inequality and the Changing Family.”)

From there, the questions for society, and for parents raising children in a world of changing norms, become complex and unwieldy. How can we help Ms. Schairer to best raise her children to be independent, happy and successful — to defeat the inequalities that could lead to a cycle of “diverging destinies” — while encouraging different choices? Many of us (myself included) don’t miss the days of moral judgments that coincided with a time when fewer children were being raised in single-parent households, but if children raised in unintentional out-of-wedlock households continue to struggle in comparison with children in two-parent homes, we need to find a way to replace the force of those social norms without going backward in social acceptance. Can we distinguish between promoting some kind of “parent preparedness” and condemning its lack?

One of the most striking moments of “Two Classes, Separated by ‘I Do’” comes as Ms. Schairer refuses to complain. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” she says. Her willingness to accept where those choices have led is admirable, but it’s the impact of those choices on her three children that we must address. No one benefits from their struggles, and if they fail to succeed at becoming self-supporting adults, we will all pay for that failure, although none so much as the children themselves.