Looking up from his bowl of Gold Star chili, Zachary (whom I interviewed as part of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project) blurted to Meg, “I think you’re pregnant.”

Meg shot him a weird look. “No, I don’t think so.” She wasn’t even late on her period. Why would he even say that? Was she gaining weight?

A couple weeks went by and they were at a party for a friend going off to Iraq. She downed a shot, and five minutes later, she was sick as a dog. That’s weird, she thought—sick off of one shot?—but she went home and shrugged it off. Maybe it was something she ate at the party. A week later she went out for dinner, and had a beer. Five minutes later, she felt her stomach churning. Then she remembered Zachary’s prediction. She bought a home pregnancy test but kept it in the car for two days because she was too scared to find out the result. She always wanted kids, but this early in their relationship? She was on her lunch break at work, and she kept thinking about that home pregnancy test in the car. She called Zachary, who was working at the pizza shop, to ask him if she should take the test.

“Just take it,” he said.

She grabbed the test, went into the bathroom, and within about three seconds, she saw the positive line. She gasped, and first thing she did was to call Zachary.

“Well, it’s true,” she said.

“It’s positive?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s positive.”

“Okay,” he responded—and then she heard the phone go dead.

“Zachary? Zachary?” No answer.

Oh my God, she thought, What is that supposed to mean?

On the other end of the line, Zachary stood by the phone, his hands shaking.

Oh my God, he thought, What am I gonna do?

He was only twenty years old and he had signed up to join the military. His mind raced, and the first thing it bumped into was his stepdad, the soft-spoken fire chief, who told Zachary more than once growing up, “When you do have a kid and when you do have a wife, be a man, do the right thing.”

His stepdad had been there for Zachary through thick and thin, would go through hell for Zachary, that’s just how his dad was, and that’s why he was “Dad.” And that’s how I will be for my kid, Zachary had always said—and now the moment had come to him, here in the pizza shop, a pepperoni pizza waiting for him in the oven and the phone ringing with another order. He knew what to do.

He picked up his cell phone, and told his dad that he was going to be a grandpa. Then he called Meg, still sitting in the bathroom stall, and gathered his wits and mustered his most confident voice and said, “Meg, it’s all right. We’ll make it work. No matter what we have to do, we’ll be fine.”

“What was that about?” she said, still recovering from the hang up.

“I’m sorry, I got sick,” he said, and his voice cracked with those last few words.

“Oh, my God—are you okay?” Meg asked. “You are not taking this good.”

“No, I’m just really happy,” he said, and he let it all come out.

Nine months later, Meg gave birth, and a few months after the birth, Meg and Zachary wed.  Before the baby, Zachary described himself as “scared” and “young” and still reeling from the hurt of past relationships. He wasn’t sure where the relationship with Meg was going. But becoming a father changed him. Here is how he explains why he got married.

I wanted to get married because I loved my wife and I wanted to devote my life to her and my kid.  I wanted to be there for both of them and I wanted her there for me, and I knew that she would be.  I wanted to get married basically to settle down and get some stability in my life. I wanted to quit partying and doing all the things that I did before.  I just basically wanted to grow up. I felt like it was my time to grow up and to be a man and to do what was right.”

If I know anything about men, it’s that they respond best to messages that leave a little room for heroism. It’s why Playstation uses the “Greatness Awaits” campaign, and it’s why the Army’s old advertisements challenged men to “Be all that you can be.” Advertisements to men that emphasize safety and caution are probably not as effective as those that draw on adventure and sacrifice and risk-taking.

Therefore, messages to men that aim to prevent out of wedlock births have to be more profound than “use a condom.” In her recent New York Times article “Beyond Marriage,” Isabel Sawhill proposes an “ethic of responsible parenthood” that says, “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.” That norm, she proposes, should replace the “old social norm” of “Don’t have a child outside of marriage.” College-educated people, she notes, are still marrying, but otherwise (she says) “the genie is out of the bottle,” and the implication is that we shouldn’t expect working-class young couples to get married.

But for those men who are ambivalent about children but happy to have sex, “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents” sounds great. It doesn’t require much—and that’s the problem.

For instance, what aroused Zachary’s sense of needing to “step up and be a man” was finding out he was becoming a father with a woman he loved. Of course, we shouldn’t make peace with high rates of unwed childbearing just because the birth of a child gets the attention of a man. For one thing, the Fragile Families study finds that the majority of the men who experience the “magic moment” of birth with the mother of their child are not in a relationship with the mother of the child five years later, and of those no longer romantically involved, most of them had not seen their child in the last month. In other words, the magic moment of birth is fleeting for many men.

But the magic moment is instructive. We need to find some way to retain and to seize the decisive challenge that becoming a father provides for men. Otherwise, without a serious purpose, it becomes easy for men to drift into sex, or to drift out of work, without much direction in life generally. We need a social norm that impels men toward an encounter that activates the “step up and be a man” moment.

In the Evangelical Protestant culture that I grew up in, that social norm was sexual restraint, and the event it impelled us towards was marriage. My peers and I were handed a challenge—a risk, really—that went something like this.

“Sex is a big deal. Think intentionally about whom you have sex with. Having sex within the first week, the first month, the first six months, is a terrible idea—for yourself and for any kids you might have. If you want to be a man, practice sexual restraint and focus on discerning if the woman you’re dating has good character. Then, after you’re confident you’ve found a good woman whom you can see as a mother and lifelong spouse, make a lifelong commitment to her. Make your radical commitment in front of God and friends and family—and tell the state about it too—so that you’re held accountable to your commitment. Broadcast your undying love and commitment from the rooftops. In other words, don’t have sex until you can say to your future children: I’ve vetted her out, and I’m giving you a good mother, a sturdy and safe family that will endure.”

In that script, the norm of sexual restraint led me and my peers to take marriage seriously. It prompted us to make a decisive commitment of love, and not just to slide into relationships and children. It’s true that the ethic of sexual restraint, if more widely practiced, would mean more early marriages, and statistically speaking, early marriages are more likely to end in divorce than later marriages. So if we expect people to practice sexual restraint, we also need to accompany that social norm with lots of social support for couples who marry young.

It’s also true that the script that my peers and I inherited completely goes against the grain of contemporary sexual mores. But then again, so does telling twenty-something women (and men) that they should postpone their natural desire for children and family. As a society we expect young men and women to demonstrate parental restraint, even as we have mostly given up on expecting sexual restraint to discipline their desires. But if we’re going to advocate restraint, let’s also talk about sexual restraint.