Reach back, way back, into your memory for that childhood ditty: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.
Today these events seem to unfold in no particular order. You might get a blue invite to a baby shower before receiving an embossed one to the nuptials. Or you may never get the latter.
So is that love-marriage-baby timetable as old-fashioned as white gloves? In other words, does marriage matter? Is it still necessary?
These aren't frivolous questions when you consider that this centuries-old institution has been under attack for decades. Of course, attack is a word I use gingerly. Some people consider gay marriage an "assault" on the sanctity of a union they believe should be defined as between a man and a woman. Others point an accusing finger at cohabitation. And a select few blame feminism.
But no matter how we identify the bogeyman, marriage has long been regarded as a prerequisite to parenthood — the core course, not an elective. And that attitude is changing.
Today's 18- to 29-year-olds are less likely than adults 30 and older to say that both a father and a mother are needed to raise a child well, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. They're less inclined to say that single parenthood and unmarried-couple parenthood are bad for society, too.
More than half the members of this so-called Millennial Generation believe being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life, but only 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. That's a 22 percent gap in the way the Millennials value parenthood over marriage. In 1997, the gap was 7 percent for people of the same age.
"Throughout history," authors of the report write, "marriage and parenthood have been linked milestones on the journey to adulthood. But for the young adults of the Millennial Generation, these social institutions are becoming delinked and differently valued."
That's scary. It proves to me an ignorance of the effort, the patience, the perseverance — and the money — required to rear a child. When those responsibilities are shared between two adults legally committed to each other, the exhausting and harrowing business of parenthood becomes a more manageable endeavor.
That marriage has lost its luster is not surprising — as a society we've misplaced our stick-to-itiveness for practically everything — but the separation of marriage from parenting portends a devastating cycle of problems.
Research has shown, for example, that a child in a single-parent family is five times more likely to live below the poverty line. He is more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, to engage in delinquent behavior, to be sexually active as a teenager and to contract a sexually transmitted disease, according to "Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences," a publication of the Center for Marriage and Families at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for American Values.
On the other hand, growing up in family anchored by a good marriage boosts a child's chances of succeeding academically and staying physically and emotionally healthy.
Going it alone — more than half of all births among Millennials are to unwed mothers — may appear to be a courageous act of love and individuality, but it's not the best environment for a child.
Unfortunately, Millennials, like so many before them, may learn this incontrovertible lesson the hard way: If you want to be a good parent, you'd best start by getting and staying married.