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Closet traditionalists still populate a supposedly single moms’ world

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Every day some 370,000 babies are born worldwide. Of those born on July 22, 2013, 369,999 went unnoticed outside their immediate circles. The exception was a royal prince, third in line to the British throne. His first photos show him blissfully unaware of the vast excitement he was causing. He’ll come to know of it in time. What he’ll think of it we will not presume to guess. We’ll know soon enough, if the course of his life gets anything like the coverage his birth did.

The commotion seems oddly out of keeping with the modern temperament, which professes to despise celebrity based on blood rather than talent or achievement. There must be something in us that longs for tradition even as we shred it. Very little is left of that once very wide sphere. “Good riddance,” say most people most of the time. Then something like a royal birth comes along to expose a hidden aspect of our collective personality. Deep down, maybe we’re all closet traditionalists.

How else has the institution of marriage survived all the powerful modern challenges to it? Marriage rites are at least as old as civilization. No culture is without some form of them. Even our own culture — with its rampant individualism, sexual liberation, instant gratifications, ceaseless change, unappeasable restlessness, eager readiness to flout all received wisdom — has a place in it, large though shrinking, for marriage.

Probably it has to do with the little beings that result from the instinct marriage was meant to govern. Children need, or seem to, a stable, artificial little world to grow up in. Another name for that world is “home,” and the builders of it, traditionally, have been two people joined in marriage and selflessly committed to their offspring’s care. It’s a sanitized image, easily scorned, and yet the global outpouring of joy and affection for the British royals suggests how much it moves us.

Moves us how, though — as an ideal to aspire to, or as a fairy tale, the sort of bedtime story that begins, “Once upon a time…”?

Single parenthood has solid roots in the modern anti-traditional West. In the United States, nearly half of first-born children are born out of wedlock; in France, more than half of all children are. In Japan the figures are miniscule in comparison but rising fast — to 2 percent of all children, up abruptly from 1 percent, the latter figure having held steady for some 50 years. The weekly Shukan Post introduces a new character on the Japanese stage: the single mother who is such by choice. Marriage, typically, interests her not at all. Nor does a man, except for one thing only — his sperm.

“My womb wants a baby!” cries “Ms. C,” 43. It never had before, and remained quiet while she got on with her career, which nets her ¥18 million a year. Then last year it suddenly grew clamorous. Not only her womb: “My brain’s telling me, ‘Make a baby!’ Anybody will do,” she adds, referring to the seed provider.

She outlined the situation to her latest boyfriend, eight years her junior. “I will have nothing to do with the baby,” he told her bluntly.

“That’s fine,” she shot back, “just do your part.”

He’s willing, but eight months on she is still not pregnant.

Increasingly, men are distasteful to women. “A husband’s just an overgrown child,” sniffs 34-year-old “Ms. A,” thinking of a man she had figured on marrying before a trial period of living together showed his — and the gender’s, as far as she’s concerned — true colors. Selfish, overbearing, helpless creatures, men. Why saddle yourself with one? She dumped hers, and now, like Ms. C, wants nothing from her current boyfriend but fertilization.

Two facts of life have conspired to bind the sexes together, mismatched though they may be: a social structure that kept women economically dependent, and the male’s indispensable biological contribution to reproduction. The first fact is steadily eroding. The second still holds, but no longer necessarily points to marriage. Social disapproval of extramarital sex lingered longer in Japan than in the West, but was pretty much exhausted by the late 1970s. Then came the rise of the sperm bank. They’ve been proliferating in Japan since the mid-’90s. Today, says Shukan Post, “supply can’t keep up with demand.” The banks fall into two broad categories. Some provide seminal fluid that the mother-to-be inserts herself with a syringe. Others will send a man to your door for copulation timed to coincide with ovulation.

Shukan Post foresees an explosion in Japan of single motherhood. It cites several factors in addition to the ones already mentioned. One is the increasing tendency of men to bolt on learning their girlfriend is pregnant. Accompanying women’s financial rise has been men’s financial fall. If more women than ever are able to afford single motherhood, fewer men than ever seem able to afford paternity.

Then there’s this, which may be quite new: women who are already single mothers of one — either by choice or by force of circumstances — sometimes find they want to be single mothers of two, or even three. All children want siblings, don’t they? Why shouldn’t they have them?

Thus our relentless march into an unknown future, with its expanded and expanding possibilities, its new freedoms, its proud defiance of taboos. It’s all very exhilarating, but somehow it’s the birth of a baby prince into an ancient and largely discredited institution known as a “royal family” that brings joy to the world.

  • Kari Berg

    Interesting article. Just a little comment from Scandinavia: 54 % of children are born outside of wedlock, but almost all of them are born in marriage-like circumstances, ie they live with both parents. Single-moms are not in majority,

    Typically, a couple will marry after they had their first child,

  • Roan Suda

    This article left me, a father of four grown children, feeling both bewildered and more than a bit downhearted. What is the point? Yes, we know that there have always been thoughtless, selfish, callous, and irresponsible people, both men and women. If the message is that they are on the increase and that we really ought to do something to discourage their bad behavior, fine. But I wonder whether instead it might be: This is the way it is; like it or not, we must get used to it. I have read enough of Michael Hoffman’s writings to believe that he is not egging on (as it were) unwed motherhood on the part of the well-heeled. But why is he unwilling or incapable of saying unequivocally that treating children as if they were a status symbol or some sort of ultimate accessory or pet is just plain evil? Half a century ago or more there was a popular folksong that included the words: “If religion were a thing that money could buy, then the rich would live and the poor would die…” It was typically sung by affluent leftist (and secularist) Americans. Nowadays, such Americans certainly don’t want to “buy” religion, but they seem think they can purchase everything else—and all in the name of some sort of “progressive” agenda. Let’s hope that such sick thinking does not spread further in Japan.

  • Julie

    I found this distasteful. Anti-traditionalist? That’s funny. If one person doesn’t share another’s traditions, doesn’t that make them anti? No, not at all, imo. Plus our prince, beside having grandparents that became single parents, arrived when a new tradition was created. Girls in the royal family can inherit the crown. lol. IMO, babies have always been born out of wedlock, we just made it harder for them to be noticed. We killed them in the 1000′s in baby farms, we forced mothers into hiding in institutions that labelled them immoral and in places we still stone them to death. We have even destroyed the wellbeing of children by forcing parents to live in abusive marriages all for the sake of? Why? There’s too many traditions to state it was for one thing or another.