First comes baby, then comes marriage?

In the black community, the motivation from peers or families to get married is gone.

I thought I was on track to defy the gloomy family statistics that challenge today's African-American community: 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock in the United States. Engaged, and with wedding plans under way, I was confident my future children would be born into a stable home. But then the wedding was called off.

In the days and months that followed I started to think long and hard about why it is all too common for black men and women to skip the trip to the altar. Even the couples who seem to have it together - a safe place for each other and their children to live and love - don't always take that final step. What was stopping them? I decided to explore the issue by writing a novel.

Through my interviews with hundreds of cohabiting but unmarried black couples with children across the economic spectrum, I learned about something we rarely discuss anymore: The motivation from peers or families to get married is gone, and so is the stigma about having a child out of wedlock. In fact, children without married parents have become so common in black communities that the term "baby daddy," an unwed father usually stereotyped as a ghetto caricature, has gone mainstream.

Last year my book, "Marry Your Baby Daddy," a story about three sisters who had to marry their significant others within six months to receive their grandmother's inheritance, was published. It was a satisfying experience but I didn't want it to end there - in the land of fairytales. I wanted to see tangible results - an actual wedding. And so I set about searching for 10 couples who would tie the knot for the first time in exchange for an all-expense paid ceremony.

The attitude that marriage is not necessary to nurture and raise our children is actually a new one in the black community. Historically, blacks have valued the institution of marriage and the traditional two- parent household. In 1890, 80 percent of African-American families were headed by two parents, even though many had started life in forced family separation under slavery. Even in the 1960s, when black Americans were in the height of civil rights strife, 23 percent of black babies were born out of wedlock, a modest figure compared with 70 percent today. And today's single moms aren't just welfare teens, either. Most out-of-wedlock black babies are being born to women in their 20s and 30s across the economic spectrum.

While the stigma against children born out of wedlock has diminished, the impact on community bonds has not. A recent study for the journal Criminology has revealed that "neighborhoods with larger portions of adults who are less 'invested' in marriage and residential stability are more likely to see higher rates of assault by African-American males." Children raised in fatherless homes are more likely to be delinquent, do poorly in school, have lower self-esteem, become chemical abusers, and reproduce the same family pattern in their own lives. In most cases, no matter how strong or diligent a mother may be, children have a subconscious knowledge of what is right and wrong in a family set up. Boys turn to their fathers for their sense of masculinity and manhood. If their dad isn't around, the streets and group aggression are the next best thing for most.

This doesn't mean that African-American men are less interested in marriage. I've come to believe they just don't have the encouragement to get married. In fact, 65 percent of the calls I received when the word got out that I was trying to find couples willing to participate in a free wedding came from men.

Local vendors were also more than willing to help make "Marry Your Baby Daddy Day" a success. I raised $90,000 of goods and services from local businesses, which donated dresses, cakes, rings, limousines, and more. I spent $138 of my own money. I earned nothing in return but the satisfaction of seeing 20 beautiful brown faces say, "We do," on Sept. 29, 2005.

It is my intention that these 10 couples will help to start a trend back toward single mothers encouraging marriage - for themselves as well as their daughters. And that single fathers will once again see marriage as a way to increase their value to their community. That's why I've founded Marry Your Baby Daddy Inc. as a nonprofit organization to promote and encourage marriage and family values in our community. The phones haven't stopped ringing from people wanting to participate or help in some way.

Already I've heard from the couples I interviewed for "Marry Your Baby Daddy Day" how this small incentive has helped improve their relationships. Many of them come from generations of unmarried couples or long-term "engagements." Some women shared that their men had become more responsive since signing on to be married, taking more initiative in the household, and seeming more interested in the future, now that marriage was a real possibility.

And the men have begun to see that marriage is not only a father's way of committing to the mother, but to the child as well, in a legally binding commitment that protects all - including his own rights.

Maryann Reid is the author of "Mrs. Big," forthcoming in September, and several other novels that explore relationships.

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