- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Pastor Carl Rawls walks the neighborhoods of Selma, Ala., looking for men he can turn into good fathers and husbands. His own family experiences motivate him.

“My parents were married and had eight kids,” he said. “I saw my father work hard and take care of the family. He took me to work with him when I was 12.”

Today, as a married father of four, Mr. Rawls talks to an endless stream of men who are fathers but not married. Many of these fathers are good providers, dedicated caregivers and satisfied with living together with the mothers of their children, common-law style, he said.

But marriage is better, and it can happen in a low-income family, he said. “You just need to do it.”

Mr. Rawls’ viewpoint is both supported by research and dogged by controversy.

Researchers such as Steven L. Nock argue that marriage is good for fathers because marriage is good for men.

In general, married people have better health, higher earnings, longer life spans, better mental health, better sex lives and more happiness than unmarried people, according to Mr. Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and author of the 1998 book, “Marriage in Men’s Lives.”

Men, however, gain something especially beneficial from marriage: identification as a competent, capable adult male, Mr. Nock said. Historically, mature masculinity is defined by three things — fatherhood, working hard to provide for a wife and children, and protecting the family and estate.

He added that marriage has long served — and still serves — as the ideal entree into these core dimensions of masculinity, and marriage confers a powerful new set of social expectations on men.

Married men are expected to be responsible, generous, faithful and engaged in civic life, he says. “Good husbands are expected to achieve, to help others and remain true to their promises. Good husbands are good men.”

These expectations are a big part of the reason why men — especially fathers — who don’t marry “are regarded differently” by others, Mr. Nock said.

Married fatherhood remains the predominant arrangement in America: Two-thirds of the 39 million family groups with a child under age 18 are married-couple homes, according to 2003 census data. But married fatherhood has been eroded by cohabiting and unwed parenting.

Many American social scientists and researchers argue that the rise in these nonmarital “alternative” family forms is inexorable.

The prestigious American Law Institute and groups such as the Alternatives to Marriage Project and Council on Contemporary Families say it’s time to recognize, support and honor nonmarital families in the same ways as married families.

Poor people, researchers note, have rational explanations for not marrying.

A new book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage,” says that marriage is coveted in low-income communities, but it must come with stable partners, jobs, homes, cars and enough money for a big church wedding.

“The poor avoid marriage, not because they think too little of it, but because they revere it,” write Ms. Edin and Ms. Kefalas, who teach at the University of Pennsylvania and St. Joseph’s University, respectively.

But Mr. Nock and others say marriage is as good for poor couples and their children as it is for richer ones. “If poor men and women marry, they would be much less likely to remain poor. The evidence bears that out very strongly,” Mr. Nock said.

In low-income communities, “if you compare the men who are married and those who are not, there’s quite a difference, and I think [marriage] does matter,” says David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, which last year issued a report on the benefits to men of marriage.

Locally, in Prince George’s County, Bill Hall sees almost 200 men a year in the Adam’s House Services for Young Men and Fathers program.

Many started out in emotional distress.

“I have guys coming in, crying that they cannot see their children. That’s what sticks with me. It’s what keeps me going,” Mr. Hall said. “One of the first things we try to get the men to see is, as a father, the most important thing they can do for their child is love and respect the mother.”

Many unwed fathers don’t understand that, he said. “They love the child, but because they have difficulties with the mother, they don’t see a reason why they need to love and respect the mother.” Love, he added, doesn’t mean sexual love. “We’re talking about agape love, because she’s the mother of your child.”

Once the fathers understand why they need to treat the mothers respectfully, “then the violence and the anger and everything else seems to dissipate,” the counselor said.

The Adam’s House program, which involves one-on-one and group sessions, addresses the men’s families of origin and parenting and relationship skills. Spirituality is encouraged — “because without that, you can’t grow,” Mr. Hall said, adding that marriage is discussed as a positive move for men and their families.

“The concept of marriage is definitely a big issue for us,” he said. “We talk about why it’s healthier for you — healthier for your child and her — to be married.”

Meanwhile, down in Selma, Mr. Rawls plies similar emotional waters.

Marriage is rare in the neighborhoods served by his Chasm Family Resource Center, but fatherhood and cohabiting is not.

“We have a high percentage of common-law marriages in this county,” Mr. Rawls said, but many of the men “rise to the occasion” and become good providers and dedicated fathers. “They have a heart of ‘I must take care of my [common-law] wife. I must take care of my children.’”

When Mr. Rawls talks about the importance of marriage, as he does both in and out of the pulpit at Hopewell Baptist Church, he often hears that marriage isn’t necessary.

“The response is, ‘We’re OK. No problem now. We’re doing fine, and we don’t want to mess with it,’” he says.

The women are often content with common-law arrangements, he adds, explaining that they say, “As long as he is bringing home the bacon, I’m all right with that” or “We’ve been together 10 years, common law, it’s fine with me.”

But Mr. Rawls doesn’t give up on his pro-marriage talk because he believes marriage benefits men, women and children, just as it did his family when he was growing up.

Being a father is more than just “bringing home the bacon,” he said. “I’m also the one who comes home with hugs and the laughs. Let’s have joy. Let’s sit at the dinner table and share the evening. I’m not just the figure of bringing home the money. I’m the figure of everything. I’m father.”

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