Young Mothers Describe Marriage’s Fading Allure

Young Mothers Describe Marriage’s Fading Allure

    Sixty-three percent of all births to women under 30 in Lorain County occur outside marriage, according to Child Trends, a research center in Washington. That figure has risen by more than two-thirds over the past two decades, and now surpasses the national figure of 53 percent.
    The change has transformed life in Lorain, a ragged industrial town on Lake Erie. Churches perform fewer weddings. Applications for marriage licenses are down by a third. Just a tenth of the students at the local community college are married, but its campus has a bustling day care center.
    The New York Times interviewed several dozen people in Lorain about marriage here. What follows are their stories.

    Young parents spoke of an economy that was fundamentally different from in their parents’ time, and that required more than a high school education for fathers to be stable breadwinners. They talked of how little they trusted each other to be reliable mates, and of how the government safety net encourages poor parents to stay single.
    Tony Cruz, a father of two, has felt the effects of Lorain’s economic decline first hand. His father, a high school graduate, worked at a steel plant and provided middle-class trappings like a house and a car for his family. Mr. Cruz, 31, with the same level of education, has done mostly seasonal work in construction and repair, as factory jobs, far fewer than in his father’s day, have been hard to come by.
    Now unemployed, he is taking a class at Lorain County Community College, whose main campus is in nearby Elyria. Mr. Cruz, who has never married, got custody of his children after their mother developed a drug habit. He spends his days driving them to school and his girlfriend — who is not their mother — to her job at a flower shop.
    “You feel really low when you can’t help your family out,” Mr. Cruz said. He said he would not consider working in a fast food restaurant or a store because the wages are much lower than in construction.
    Joblessness and run-ins with the law are so prevalent among young men in Lorain that many women interviewed said they had given up on finding a suitable mate. Angel Ives, a nursing student at the community college, said she did not want to bring another man into her family after her daughter’s father, a groundskeeper for sports fields, was jailed on assault charges. Ms. Ives, 32, works in a nursing home while attending college, and said she was too tired to date. She jokes that her idea of a perfect suitor is someone who will come to her house to baby-sit while she naps.
    “A baby makes a woman grow up, but not a man,” she said.  “I can’t imagine ever depending on a man. I don’t trust them.”
    Older residents blamed the decline in marriage on government aid. Mary Grasso, a retired sweet shop owner, said men had stopped taking responsibility for their children because the state had stepped in with safety net programs. Ms. Grasso, 70, experienced the decline in weddings directly: Wedding cake orders fell by half during the 30-plus years she was in business.
    “It’s too easy for them,” she said of young people. “There are no restrictions anymore. And we are taking care of all of these children.”
    Many women described a lifestyle of dating in which relationships sometimes resulted in children, but less often in fathers deeply involved in their families. Judge David Basinski of Lorain County Domestic Relations Court, in Elyria, said he recently had a case in which a man who had nine children by six women owed $55,000 in back child support. Child support cases have become so common among unmarried parents that the court now gives seminars on parental responsibilities.
    “For a long time I believed it was happening among people who didn’t have that much money,” he said of the trend toward births outside marriage. “But now we are moving to a much broader category.”
    Several married people who were interviewed said they had wed later in life, often after having children. Pamela Noble-Garner, a nursing home worker who is taking stenography classes at the community college, said she married for the first time at age 37, years after having two children by two men. Her husband, a prison guard, is involved in the lives of his own previous children, a quality that drew her to him. Ms. Noble-Garner, who grew up as one of six siblings in a household run by a single mother, said her father was rarely in her life, an absence she regrets
    “We can all stick our chests out and say, ‘We don’t need no man to raise our babies,’ ” Ms. Noble-Garner said. “I would honestly tell them, ‘Honey, yes you do. You might not need him financially, but your baby needs a father.’ ”
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