Health & Medicine

Palin's daughter's hurry-up marriage is a bad idea

I have a problem with some news organizations that have used fiancé when referring to Levi Johnston, the young man being introduced as the father of Bristol Palin's unborn child.

In a statement released by Gov. Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party, and her husband, Todd, announcing their daughter's pregnancy, they said, "Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family."

Johnston's mother, Sherry Johnston, told the Associated Press that Levi and Bristol had talked of marriage before they knew about the pregnancy. "This is just a bonus," she said.

I respect that and don't doubt it.

But I can say — well out of earshot of his wife or my husband, mind you — that Denzel Washington and I have talked of marriage. That doesn't mean he's my fiancé.

The marriage proposal has to be offered, then accepted, and a date set. Anything short of that is play-acting.

For the sake of propriety or for the sake of Sarah Palin's new position as a potential world leader, it looks as if the media is trying to sanitize a sticky situation.

Wednesday, the evening that Sarah Palin gave her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bristol was sporting a ring on her left hand and Johnston had a tattoo of Bristol's name on his. I guess that is as serious a sign of permanency as teenagers can give.

No one in the family has used the word engaged, however. Why should we use fiancé?

I've seen it in stories in the Chicago Sun Times and the Anchorage Daily News, to name a couple of newspapers. The Boston Globe called Johnston a "future fiancé" to hedge its bets. TV reporters have used the term as well.

I think it is a bit premature, however.

And it doesn't appear as if the couple have set a wedding date, so let's call the situation what it is: She is an unwed mother-to-be, he is the father of her unborn child, and they are a couple.

To call it anything else is sanitizing the situation at best and editorializing at worst. Teenagers talk about a lot of stuff and follow through on little.

Others do it, too.

I have heard fiancé used loosely on several of those syndicated court TV programs and trashy talk shows. Some of the guests have a couple of kids several years old, and the couples are still saying they are engaged.

I think living together is a better term.

(Yes, I am ashamed to admit it, but I have tuned in occasionally. It started when I was on drugs after surgery. That's my story, anyway.)

I also have a problem if it turns out they really are engaged.

Having the eyes of the entire country staring at you because of your baby's mama's mama is the biggest shotgun to aim at a young man's head.

I'm not an advocate of teenagers committing to marriage just because segments of our society think youth-plus-pregnancy-plus-marriage equals happiness.

Mary Seelbach, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Lexington, said such an equation is possible, but the results aren't always great.

Studies show that nearly half of the marriages involving teens younger than 19 end in divorce within 10 years.

Issues like too little money, a lack of maturity, and parenting disagreements can get in the way.

"It's a hard one to predict," Seelbach said. "Are they really ready to be parents? Do they know how to fight fairly or will they fight like 17-year-olds?"

Myrtle Proctor, also a licensed clinical social worker, agreed.

"No, I don't think having kids getting married because they are pregnant is always the best thing," she said. "If the commitment isn't there, which is pretty hard to do at that early age, it is going to be very difficult to keep the marriage going."

Top that, she said, with a lack of life experiences that teaches us to settle down and know what we want, and the results can be failure.

So should a failed marriage be added to the pressures of an unplanned pregnancy in an attempt to make a bad decision look better?

Come on, now. It's still going to be a sow's ear.

Obviously, the young couple, if they do decide to marry, will need help navigating issues that adults far older have trouble dealing with. And they might have to do it with a nation watching.

Marriage is not for the faint of heart or the unprepared. and journalists should just stick with the facts. These are lessons we all could learn.

I don't think Sarah Palin anticipated that we'd still be talking about this when she agreed to go national. But, for the sake of other teens who are facing the same situation as her daughter and Johnston, I'm so glad we are.