Sometime in the next few weeks, headlines will herald the arrival of one of the most famous babies of 1996 - the firstborn child of Madonna. Given the pop singer's megawatt celebrity, her baby, reported to be a girl, will undoubtedly find herself cooing frequently for photographers and reporters who cover the booties-and-bassinet beat.
Early in her pregnancy, Madonna announced that she would not marry the father, Carlos Leon, a Cuban-American personal trainer she met two years ago. Although the superstar mom's unmarried status will pose no economic problems, it sends an unfortunate message to legions of young Madonna fans, saying, in effect, Who needs a husband to have a child?
That message, reinforced by such high-visibility showbiz mothers as Farrah Fawcett, Goldie Hawn, Mia Farrow, and Susan Sarandon, still signals a certain chic independence in the wealthy circles of Hollywood. Yet it remains a recipe for economic disaster for a majority of teenagers who find themselves pregnant.
The good news is that the economic and social liabilities of unmarried parenthood may finally be registering in some circles. For the first time in two decades, the out-of-wedlock birthrate in the United States has declined, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week. The number of unmarried women having babies dropped 4 percent last year. Most encouraging, the teenage birthrate has declined 8 percent since 1991. Even so, the US still leads the industrialized world in unwed motherhood, with nearly 1 out of 3 births - 1.2 million a year - to single women.
Statisticians can't explain exactly what caused the drop in out-of-wedlock childbearing. Some speculate that recent attention given to the issue by politicians and communities has helped change attitudes and behavior.
Further attention to the subject will come late next week in Minneapolis, when leaders of what is called the fatherhood movement gather for a two-day conference. Their purpose will be to draft recommendations for public policies that could help to reduce father absence and restore marriage. Participants will discuss the effects of everything from mass media to schools, tax codes, religious institutions, and workplaces on fatherhood. They will also offer practical proposals for social and cultural change.
The bipartisan conference, billed as "A Call to Action," marks the first time that the divergent strands of the fatherhood movement have come together. Sponsors are the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, the National Fatherhood Initiative, and the Institute for American Values.
"I do believe that fatherlessness is the overwhelming social disaster of our time," says Mitchell Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment. "This is in no way a blanket indictment of single mothers, millions of whom are raising their children by themselves heroically and with great success. But it is really quite dreadful to have upwards of 40 percent of American children going to bed tonight in homes where their fathers do not live."
No one knows just what role father Carlos Leon will play in his daughter's life. But in the interest of seeing media coverage of shared parenting, Madonna-style, culture-watchers can only hope that the paparazzi who follow Madonna will look for photo-ops of Carlos spending time with the baby as well.
As the Material Girl turns maternal, any publicity surrounding the birth of her baby will signal a society far different from the married-with-children culture that prevailed in January 1953 when the birth of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's son on "I Love Lucy" became a national event.
There's still a lot to be said for the sequence established by the old jump-rope rhyme: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage" - ideally with a father as well as a mother steering the infant into the future.