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:
– 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.