The Lingering Stigma of Birth Out of Wedlock

This is a continuation of some of the thoughts expressed in “Birth Out of Mainstream”.

The stigma against *being* a child born out of wedlock in the United States has been erased by a great degree (though, based on my understanding of history and various societies, it is rare for a society to attach such a great stigma to birth-out-of-wedlock as was put on children out of wedlock in the United States from about, say, 1900-1965).

I, personally, have never experienced direct oppression as someone who was born out of wedlock. Then again, it might be because most people who encounter me don’t know that I was born out of wedlock. It’s not like I go around with a sign saying that my parents were never married.

Yet I still see traces of this stigma lying around.

People still often use the number of births out of wedlock as a sign of the health of a society, with more births out of wedlock being a bad sign. For example, the book How Cities Work classifies ‘illegitimacy’ as a ‘indicator of social disease’. Well, as someone who actually was born to never-married parents, I don’t get how it reflects on society in a negative way. Sure, changing rates of children born to married couples vs. children born in other arrangements indicates social change, but without a deeper analysis, I think it can only be considered a neutral change.

And let’s look at that word – ‘illegitimacy’. Sure, under some legal and social structures, children born out of wedlock have fewer rights and privileges than children born to married couples. While such legal discrimination is wrong, under such a system, the ‘illegitimate’ label would be accurate in a very narrow sense. However, the United States currently does not practice such legal, or even social, discrimination. How, exactly, are children born out of wedlock less ‘legitimate’ than children born to married parents?

And I do think some of the lingering vestiges of the stigma attached to birth out of wedlock are intertwined with classism and racism. If marriage was something primarily practised by poor black people, and most middle-class white people had kids without ever getting married, I think the stigma would be placed on birth in wedlock, not birth out of wedlock.

I think that the black people I’ve encountered generally have the most sensible views on birth out of wedlock precisely because they have encountered it more in practice. Even if they themselves were born in wedlock, they are more likely to know people born out of wedlock … and to know that, actually, it’s not really that bad. Sure, it’s correlated with poverty, minority-based oppression, and so forth … but the problem is the poverty and the minority-based oppression, not the birth-out-of-wedlock itself.

Life Outside the Narrative is Wonderful

Sometimes somebody is born outside the mainstream narrative of their society, but lives in circumstances close enough to it that they think it’s possible for them to fit in if they try hard enough. And some people live in circumstances so wildly outside their society’s mainstream narrative that they are not concerned with trying to fit in the narrative.

As I discussed last week, my parents are never-married, white, middle-class, landlady-and-tenant. There is simply no place for our family in the mainstream narrative of the United States – they don’t fit the narrative for white middle-class people, and they don’t fit the narrative for people who have children out of wedlock, and they don’t even fit the narrative of landladies and tenants. While there are times when I do try to fit in, sometimes for emotional reasons, sometimes for Machiavellian reasons, I do not feel I have to fit in if I don’t want to.

One thing I notice about fiction is that relationships which best fit the ‘ideal’ (in the United States, white, married, romantic, faithful, middle-class, etc.) are depicted as being the most stable and happy, whereas relationships which stray from that ideal are more likely to be filled with melodrama. For example, if my parents were in a soap opera, the writers would treat them as oranges and juice out the angst.

In my experience, real life is often the opposite. My family has its share of drama – more than enough drama for several TV shows and some movies to boot – and my parents are just as inclined to get involved in the drama as anybody else in my family. Yet my parents’ relationship is just about the least dramatic in my family. They are one of the most stable couples I have ever met in my life. I think it is because they are not concerned with doing things the ‘proper’ way and simply found an arrangement which works for them, thus lack of drama. On the other hand, the couples in my family which make lots of drama together tend to be the ones who are aspiring to be whatever they think the social ideal is – ‘I won’t leave him because a husband and a wife should stick together’ ‘We need to get married because I’m pregnant’ and so forth.

I think my background is partially why my asexuality has never caused me angst. Sure, it took me years to finally come around to identifying as asexual, but even before I identified as asexual I felt my lack of sexual feelings/activity was okay. I never intended to marry (after all, things seemed to have worked out better for my parents than most couples who do marry). And generally, because I have do not feel bound to follow the mainstream social narrative, I feel free to make of life what I want.

Choosing not to get married and having me out of wedlock is one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.

Birth out of Mainstream

Mainstream United States culture has not accepted birth out of wedlock. According to mainstream United States culture, if somebody has children out of wedlock, is must have been a mistake. The best ‘solutions’ to this ‘problem’ are marriage, adoption, or abortion … because raising a child out of wedlock simply will not do. And of course, according to mainstream United States culture, the only people who actually raise children out of wedlock are poor people, particularly if they are black, who cannot control themselves and are too shameless to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ – hello classicism and racism!

There are of course some seeds of truth in this view, though I think it is more due to culture shaping reality than reality shaping culture. The majority of people in the United States who have children out of wedlock probably were not intending to have a child, though I suspect a significant proportion do intend to have a child. However, if having children out of wedlock were more socially acceptable, then more people would choose to have their children out of wedlock – that’s what happening in certain European countries. And black people do seem to have more children out of wedlock … but based on what I have seen and heard, this seems to be at least partially because they have a culture which, to some extent, accepts bearing children out of wedlock – some black people choose to have children out of wedlock by choice, not by mistake. In my experience (and opinion), black people tend to have more sensible views on birth out of wedlock than other people in the United States.

Of course, I haven’t seen Hollywood telling the stories of the black people who choose to have children out of wedlock – in fact, I do not see Hollywood telling any stories at all about people who choose to have children out of wedlock, let alone stories of families which raise children out of wedlock being happy or, dare I suggest, healthier than many families where the parents are married.

The idea that middle class, white people who choose to have children out of wedlock is so far outside of mainstream United States views that, since people can (usually) figure out pretty quickly that I am white and middle-class, I have trouble convincing them that my parents have never married. This is also so far outside of mainstream Taiwanese views that I have trouble convincing them too. And I have never read, heard, or seen any story about the child of a landlady and her tenant, even though, as the child of a landlady and her tenant, I know it happens.

This is, of course, wonderful, but that’s the subject of a different post.

In the mean time, if you know of any stories about the child of a landlady and her tenant, drop me a line.