Call it the pregnancy heard round the world.
When Madonna announced last week that she is expecting a second baby later this year, headlines on both sides of the Atlantic supplied the pertinent details: The proud papa is British film director Guy Ritchie. And no, Madonna has no plans to marry him.
Even so, a celebratory mood prevailed, as it did three years ago when Madonna gave birth to a daughter, Lourdes, fathered by her personal trainer, Carlos Leon.
Madonna is hardly Everywoman. Yet from Hollywood to Peoria to Harlem, the 21st-century domestic question in some circles appears to be: Who needs live-in fathers or a trip to the altar?
In an interview in the April issue of Good Housekeeping, Madonna explains her ambivalence about tying the knot. Calling marriage "an interesting and scary concept," the pop diva says, "Sometimes I think about it and it makes perfect sense. Other times I think, What's the point?"
She is hardly the only marriage-shy mother-to-be. A new national study finds that even when unmarried women become pregnant, more couples are choosing to live together rather than marry. About 55 percent of couples who cohabit get married, while some 40 percent end the relationship within five years, according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the institute, notes that cohabitation is becoming a substitute for marriage rather than a prelude to it. This pattern is redefining families.
Her findings echo the views of Robin Baker, a British researcher who has written widely on human sexual behavior. In his forthcoming book, "Sex in the Future: The Reproductive Revolution and How It Will Change Us," Mr. Baker asserts that "the nuclear family is about to suffer a takeover." He sees a pattern of shorter relationships and greater mobility from partner to partner. If the trend continues, he adds, the majority of children will eventually live in single-parent families, making this the social norm.
Yet Baker embraces this fatherless pattern, boldly claiming, "Single parenthood will become the best system for raising children in the 21st century."
He also suggests that reproductive technology, such as in-vitro fertilization, could mark the end of the need for men and women to form lasting relationships. Baker outlines a chilling futuristic scenario in which people meet at "reproduction restaurants" to "eat, drink, and browse their reproductive possibilities - and maybe even commission a child over a gourmet meal...."
As sex becomes detached from reproduction, he explains, having a baby "will be more of a personal thing than a couple thing." But Baker himself poses a crucial question: "What is a family when every child in the family has a different father - or mother?"
Madonna likes to emphasize the close relationship between her former lover, Carlos Leon, and the couple's young daughter. But when little Lourdes's sibling arrives, will Madonna and her children and Daddy Carlos and Daddy Guy all become one big happy family?
Thirty years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead predicted that serial marriage would become the pattern of the future. But who could have imagined the widespread acceptance of serial partnerships, without a wedding ring in sight?
Wealthy celebrity moms like Madonna make unwed motherhood look glamorous and easy. The rosy spotlight cast on them obscures the harsh economic and emotional realities of solo child-rearing that face a majority of single mothers. Unmarried paternity without day-to-day responsibility - Daddy as visitor - encourages the exploitation of women and the promiscuity of men.
However brave these fluid new family forms might appear, one thing doesn't change: the yearning for love. Last year, 37 million people read at least one romance novel. The popularity of the genre testifies to a longing for love, connection, and stability.
Aware of the urgent need to promote marital stability, some states are attempting to teach students about the importance of two-parent families. Florida and Arizona now require high school students to take a course on marriage.
Last week Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma also announced that his state will use $10 million in surplus welfare funds to strengthen marriages and reduce the divorce rate. One goal of this federal block grant money, provided to each state, is to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative includes fatherhood projects and youth-education programs.
Refuting the notion that live-in fathers are somehow unnecessary and expendable will be the task of family advocates for decades to come. However "interesting and scary" a concept marriage might be in the eyes of skeptics like Madonna, it remains an institution that, as she herself concedes on her most optimistic days, still "makes perfect sense" for 21st-century couples and their children.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society