What’s the truth about black fathers?: Thoughts on “No Wedding, No Womb”

by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Roberta Coles [editor's note: We asked Roberta Coles, co-editor of The Myth of the Missing Black Father (reviewed here last week) and associate professor of sociology at Marquette University to weigh in on the No Wedding, No Womb phenomenon. She kindly agreed. Below are her thoughts.]

“No wedding, no womb”; Beyonce’s single ladies’ “shoulda put a ring on it”: these are apparently the popular-culture counterpart to the government’s “marriage-promotion” policies promulgated over the past decade. If only life were that simple!

What problems are these mantras intended to solve? Nonmarital births? Black men not parenting? Nonmarital births and cohabitation have been rising among all races in the U.S. and are even higher in other industrialized countries. African Americans do have higher rates of nonmarital births and divorce than other races in the United States. And across races, when fathers are not married (or no longer married) to their children’s mother, their involvement with their children tends to decline over time, particularly when one of the parents moves or marries (or remarries) or, for men, when they cannot provide economic support. However, several studies indicate that nonresident black fathers are more likely than men of other races to provide some support, such as in-kind support or daily childcare chores. Our book, The Myth of the Missing Black Father (and Coles’ book The Best Kept Secret: Black Single Fathers), shows that many black men are parenting under numerous constraints. Nevertheless, it is true that higher proportions of black children are in single-mother households or in nonparent households and that children usually are better off with more parents than with fewer, assuming the parents are loving, responsible adults.

But marriage cannot be the sole answer, especially for black women. The main reason for this is that demographic data show that black women begin to outnumber black men starting in the 18-24 age group, that is, before the average age of marriage. So no matter how hard black women try, no matter how much they cajole or seduce, no matter how many ultimatums they offer, there are just not enough black men to go around unless we legalize polygamy, which is highly unlikely. And the men who are around are not always eligible. Black men are more likely imprisoned. Men in general have higher rates of homosexuality than do women. Black men more easily outmarry—that is, marry into other races—than do black women. Black women are also more likely to have higher education than black men, and, in most societies, women have been socialized to marry “up,” to marry men who not only are older but also are more educated and make more money (and, conversely, men have been conditioned to expect women who are less educated and less wealthy). So these gendered gaps may combine to make available black men seem less eligible.

Marriage is often associated with positive outcomes for both the parents and children. Single men often have poorer physical and psychological health and have less income than married men, but in many cases this effect is correlational, not causal. That is, these characteristics are not necessarily the results of not being married; men who possess them already may be less likely to marry in the first place (though it is probably a combination of both). With marriage there is the possibility for higher family income, but poor women usually marry low-income or unemployed men. Low-income marriages have higher divorce rates. A middle-class man swooping in and providing for a low-income woman is an event primarily for movies such as Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan. Teenage mothers often have the income issues just mentioned, and marriage at a young age also makes divorce more likely, so while we may want more teen girls to say “no,” marriage is not a better answer. Besides, teen births have been declining over the past two decades. If we are talking about older, middle-income black women with children, they are more likely to marry, or to be associated with men who are more involved, and to be able to support and care for their children on their own if they so choose.  So do we want to mandate marriage before childbirth or to prevent single women from giving birth to or adopting children? Should we do so only for African American women?

The long-term answer to lagging parenting among fathers, particularly black fathers, is not to reduce women’s choices.  The answers involve larger social issues. We must work to increase educational attainment and achievement among black men; work to decrease poverty and increase job skills, employment opportunities, income, and wealth for black families and particularly black men, thus enabling them to provide in numerous ways for their children and to be better marriage prospects; work to improve the mortality rates and health among black men, thus increasing their life expectancies so that there are more of them around to marry or parent; work to decrease residential and job segregation and prejudice so that black women can more easily seek partners among other races if they so desire.

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