“She will marry the father”

I couldn't help but notice that early reports about Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy were clear to say two things up front: Bristol is pregnant, and she will marry the father (other keywords included "wedlock," "teenager," and "she'll keep the baby").  The one-sentence teaser that appears in "feedreaders" (such as Google Reader) from the New York Times' blog announced:

Governor Palin said that her daughter, five months pregnant, will marry the father.
– from Palin's 17-Year-Old Daughter is Pregnant

Similar announcements flowed across the airwaves on radio and television stations.  Even Gov. Palin's press release emphasized that her daughter, Bristol, will marry the baby's father, Levi.  I regret that reporting of this situation – including the press
release from Gov. Palin herself – so prominently highlighted the
couple's decision to marry.  The fact of their decision to marry seems awkwardly inserted into press reports as an assurance of the couple's good intentions, as if marriage makes it all better.

I admit to some considerable discomfort at the expectation (in some sectors of our society) that a pregnant teenager should, as a matter of course, get married.  If getting pregnant outside of marriage as a teenager is not an ideal situation (most conservatives would say that premarital sex is "wrong"), surely getting married doesn't necessarily "fix" the situation.  Such a young couple is already united as parents of a new child – does marriage need to follow suit?  They have already (unwittingly? prematurely?) made a huge commitment to each other and to a child by virtue of the pregnancy, a commitment that few people have to enter into at such a young age.  Is another (premature?) adult commitment really necessary for such couples?

I don't disagree that sexuality is best shared within committed relationships, particularly within the bonds of marriage.  And I also believe that marriage is a good and useful estate (to use Luther's wonderful language) for a whole host of reasons.  But marriage is no magic elixir.  Those who enter into marriage do not automatically – by virtue of vows or ceremonies or prayers or parties – acquire an elevated sense of commitment to or love for their spouse.  The vows of marriage can serve as a discipline for couples – yes, a reminder of promises made – but they cannot create the commitment contained in those vows.  By itself marriage doesn't guarantee a good relationship between parents, nor does it guarantee a stable home for children.  Marriage isn't magic. 

Though I am concerned about the marriage expectation that exists for pregnant teens, I can cast no judgment on Bristol and Levi's decision to marry.  I can cynically wonder out loud if the decision to marry is at least partly a function of Gov. Palin's political career, but I certainly hope that is not the case.  This family is conservative and religious, and surely the decision to marry following such a pregnancy is fairly common among religious conservatives.  More importantly, I hope that this young couple is getting married for the right reasons – for love, mutual support, companionship, commitment to each other – because marriages out of obligation or social pressure rarely work out well . . .

This young couple is having a child, and will encounter all the challenges of child rearing while also encountering the challenges of entering late and post-adolescence, getting higher educations, discerning career paths, and struggling to make ends meet.  As a parent of three small children, I know how difficult it is to raise a child.  Starting out as a teenager and with the pressures of a new marriage and being in the public spotlight . . . I cannot imagine what they are going through.

I certainly hope that Bristol and Levi's marriage is a blessing, not a burden, and that their relationship thrives.  May they find strength in their commitment to each other, and through the support of family and friends may they feel the comforting presence of Jesus Christ, our God incarnate, whose mother Mary was pregnant with him before she was ever married.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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9 Responses to “She will marry the father”

  1. Scott says:

    Well said. Too many of us Christians jump from “good and useful” to “the only way to ‘fix’ out-of-wedlock pregnancies.” I, like you, hope there is plenty of the former in this marriage and a lot less of the latter.

  2. Chris Jones says:

    I respectfully but profoundly disagree. It is not a question of “fixing” either the out-of-wedlock pregnancy or the sin of fornication from which it came. It is a simple question of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
    The only “fix” for the sin involved is repentance and the forgiveness that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. Given her Christian upbringing I am going to presume that Miss Palin understands that. As for the pregnancy itself, it is not a “problem” to be “fixed” at all. But it is a situation that is a consequence of the freely-chosen actions of these two young people. As such, it is for them to take responsibility for those consequences in the best way that they can.
    Is there any doubt that marriage is, in most cases, the best way to take responsibility for the child who is to be born? Absent any specific reason that this particular couple ought not to marry one another, it is best for the child that his or her parents should remain together and raise the child together. If the father is unwilling to shoulder the responsibility then a case could be made for adoption; but if he is willing, then why deprive the child of the opportunity to be raised by his own parents?
    To my way of thinking, these two young people are choosing the honorable way of dealing with their mistakes, and are to be commended.

  3. Chris says:

    Chris – thanks for your comments. I appreciate the dialogue . . .
    As a child of divorced parents, I believe that intact marriage is always the best setting in which children can be raised. My parents are loving, wonderful people, but it was hard growing up between two homes, two parents, two worlds. I would never suggest that parents living separately is better than intact marriage . . .
    However, having a child is not a reason to get married (here you and I disagree). If the love, commitment, compassion, etc. is not there, it seems to me that a young couple should think twice before getting married. I believe that they could probably work out arrangements for raising the child with care and love, but without subjecting their child to an unhappy marriage and potentially miserable home life. Is it better for the child be raised by married parents who perhaps never loved each other (and mayhap never will?), or for the child to be raised in a less traditional arrangement absent the tension of an unhappy marriage? It’s not an easy question, and neither scenario is ideal, but I do not think that marriage is necessarily the easy answer to this question.
    Finally, you suggest that if the father was not willing to claim his role as father, “then a case could be made for adoption.” With this I respectfully yet profoundly disagree. Why does adoption come into the discussion only if the father backs out? Surely you are not suggesting that, absent the father, the mother has no right or ability to care for the child as a single parent? Again, raising children outside of marriage or as separated parents is not ideal, but marriage doesn’t necessarily make it any better, either . . .

  4. liz says:

    Well said, Chris. As a divorce attorney, I bristle at the notion that getting married is the best way to take responsibility for this situation. I have many clients who had children at a young age and have beautiful, functional relationships with the other parents, whom they did not marry. I believe this serves children much better than the other situation I see all too often, which is when people get married out of some sense of obligation and wind up miserable… and their children are miserable, too. Happy people parent children better than unhappy people. And it is very possible – indeed, a daily occurrence in my world – to be happy and unmarried, or unhappy and married.
    If this is Bristol and Levi’s decision, more power to them. But if they’re not happy and secure in this decision, I worry about them, and their future child.
    (And as long as I’m on my soapbox, I wonder at a mother who would deliberately subject her child to the international scrutiny that this situation triggers. Sure, candidates’ families SHOULD be off-limits. But in reality, they aren’t. I cannot imagine having a teenage daughter in this already difficult situation and running for an office like Vice President of the United States. I also cannot imagine doing so with a four-month-old child, though, so I guess that’s one of the times Sarah Palin and I part ways.)

  5. Adam Morton says:

    I disagree with you, Chris, when you emphasize love, companionship, etc. so strongly over obligation and social pressure. The whole point of a public marriage vow is to create obligation and social pressure, not simply to declare love for one another. Obligation and social pressure provide a stable framework into which love can grow. In this case, the obligation has already come to be, in the form of a growing child. Marriage, then, is the addition of legitimate social pressure to that obligation.
    Yes, this is a shockingly anti- modern conception, but it’s also much closer to the norm for most of human history. This is why marriage still has to do with the law, and not merely with our feelings. So yes, they’re young–that means they’ll need all the more social support and pressure in order to succeed. I hope they get it.

  6. Chris says:

    Adam,
    I would hesitate to use a “norm for most of human history” as a guideline for social practice today, as much of human history has shown a propensity to subjugate people of color and women, and generally do all kinds of wicked things . . .
    I agree with you about the public nature of weddings and marriage. Part of the reason my wife and I made ours vows public was to ask our friends, our family, the church, and indeed the whole community to keep us accountable to those vows, to support us, to pray for us, so that we would do what we said we would do.
    However, those vows – and the public and legal bind they create – were not a product of social pressure. Once we decided to make that commitment (based on love, affection, etc), we invited that public obligation to pressure us (if you will) to keep our commitment. But that’s a different situation than the one I’m addressing here. I don’t think that the social pressure of wedlock need to be a reason to enter into marriage.

  7. It is a peculiarly modern and romantic notion that subjective emotions of love and compassion are the true ground of marriage, but that the practical considerations like the duty to provide for one’s children and raise them properly are subordinate to that emotional “chemistry.” That is not to say that husband and wife are not to love one another — far from it. But the love that builds a solid and honorable marriage is far more than emotional attachment or sexual attraction, and it is a love that survives even if those are weak or absent.
    The old Book of Common Prayer shows much wisdom, and gives us the authentic Christian tradition, when it describes the purposes of marriage in the following order:

    First, [marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
    Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
    Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

    I’ll grant you that this comes across as impossibly old-fashioned. But it is fitting for those of us who call ourselves Christians to prefer the wisdom of our fathers in the faith to the conventional wisdom of our own time. And I think that our current culture has an abysmal record when it comes to promoting and supporting healthy sexuality and strong, supportive family life.
    Finally, you misunderstand me if you think I was saying that if the father bails, the mother must give up the child for adoption. I only said that “a case could be made,” not that it is the only alternative. Everything that I said about taking responsibility for one’s actions applies to the mother just as much as to the father, and if she is willing to shoulder that responsibility even if he is not, then more power to her.

  8. Rachel says:

    I, too, hope that this is about love and respect as opposed to political ambitions.
    Then again, I hope Palin’s entire nomination as VP is about respect and admiration as opposed to political ambitions.
    I think the fact of the matter is that regardless of how flexible we are as individuals, this country is just not that flexible. To change even the smallest, most ridiculous of notions takes a grandiose effort of a magnitude we don’t (think we) really understand. Bristol shouldn’t have to marry Levi. She should get to go to college, to parties, to…to a Coldplay concert or something! A public vow of marriage should be about validation, not creation. And I think in this day and age we need to accept that it’s kind of like funerals–more for the social structure than anything else.
    I hope one day people will look back and wonder what the big deal was. “So a girl got pregnant. So what? That tends to happen when they’re between the ages of 14 and 45.” But for right now I think it’s something they feel they need to fix, clean up, “make right”. Only time will tell, though.

  9. PS says:

    Dang, my comment got under the wrong post. Please delete the other one if you can. Thanks. I guess I’m either having computer problems or opening too many tabs at once.
    Good discussion. I’m sure that Ms. Palin’s announcement of the situation was carefully worded and edited. Didn’t it say that they “will” marry as opposed to wanting to marry, choosing to marry, etc? But I still think we shouldn’t get all worked up over an exact choice of words.
    As has been pointed out, there are a lot of pressures on a marriage and family, compounded by the additional pressures of teen marriage, and then add in the media spotlight. That doesn’t mean that the marriage will fail But marriages without these extra pressures, entered into in completely good faith, fail. Many fail. People change how they feel. People fail to work on the hard stuff. People do other things that interfere with a good relationship.
    On the other hand, some people with bad stress in their marriages choose to work on the problems and find that they can change their actions and feelings. If both partners do this, some marriages are strengthened. So lets not assume that the stresses will win.
    I was not happy that the pro-life people jumped all over the statement that the daughter will keep the baby AS IF the only alternative is abortion. Adoption is also an option. A major study of unmarried mothers keeping their babies vs adoption came to the conclusion that those with more long range thinking were more likely to place the baby for adoption compared to those who were looking mostly at the short term, for their own feelings. Pressure to marry or pressure to keep the child or pressure to place the child for adoption can all be harmful. Counseling rather than ideology would be helpful.
    BTW, I’m speaking as an adoptive parent of grown children who are doing well in life.

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