The statistics are out, and to some, they’re quite startling. Of every 10 babies born in the United States in 2005, nearly four were born to unwed mothers, according to a recent report released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
It is the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. on record. About 4.1 million babies were born in the U.S. last year; more than 1.5 million of those births to unmarried women. And research indicates this trend may be here to stay.
Single by choice
Sharon Camp is president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy and education. She says that while some of these births are unplanned, many can be attributed to unwed but committed couples living together. Statistics indicate couples are now more willing to live together and raise a family, and not marry immediately. In fact, 1.7 million couples in the U.S. have children but remain unmarried. And then there are the many women who decide not to wait until they find a partner to have a child.
Why aren’t they waiting? “Because single women realize that there is a smaller window of time for a child than a husband. There is no longer the stigma about having a baby on your own,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington. “Also, women now have the money to do what they want for themselves rather than have to wait for a male’s income to afford taking care of a child.”
An outdated stigma
Randi Anderson, a Seattle single mother and the brain behind the online community Single2Mother, says that while the stigma of single motherhood has perhaps lessened over the years, she doesn’t agree that it’s gone.
“Millions of children are being raised in single-parent households in the U.S., and the divorce rate is outrageous,” she says. “People need to realize just how outdated this stigma really is and how our perception of being alone is quite distorted. It is based on ignorance and/or lack of understanding.”
Anderson says the perception is out there that many single mothers are on welfare, don’t have jobs and continue to have more children. A perception, she says, that is just not true.
“Society often has a stereotype of single mothers that does not apply to the single mothers I know,” Anderson says. “The single mothers I know are taking responsibility for their lives and their children’s well being.”
A positive outcome
While the barriers, whether societal perceptions or very real issues, are plentiful for single mothers, Schwartz says the outcome can be quite positive.
“Children from single moms are often more poised with adults, more self-reliant, closer to their parent,” she says.
But single mothers will need to expose their children to good male role models and get support from friends and family, as well as organizations and agencies.
“A lot of the successes of this phenomenon depend on supportive services to single moms or their ability to pay for services they cannot provide because of their schedules,” Schwartz says. “They will need after-hours child care, high-quality caretakers, teacher meetings that aren’t in the middle of the day, etc. They will need a good support circle.”
And the increase in single motherhood could bring growth to local Puget Sound-area economies.
“I think there will be continued growth in the service sector,” Schwartz says. “People have to hire out more and more for things that a wife would traditionally do: laundry, cleaning, baby sitting. Even cooked foods have grown enormously as women buy family dinners rather than having the time to prepare it themselves.”
Mothers without partners
But mothers who don’t have committed partners are among the poorest in the U.S., according to the report, and they are often the sole source of support for their children. Schwartz says this trend may influence a number of changes in societal norms, from the workplace to the schoolhouse. She says employers will need to be more flexible in scheduling and allowing for time off for single mothers. Schools may also see a drop in moms volunteering in the classroom.
“With many single moms comes lesser flexibility,” Schwartz says. “Not that men always cover their wives, but there are times when male income allows women to do volunteer activities. And only the highest-earning women have the ability to have that kind of income and flexibility all by themselves.”
“The majority of single moms did not grow up aspiring to being lone parents,” Anderson says. “I speculate that even moms who make the choice and plan to become single moms deliberately do so after realizing that the expected route to mothering is becoming less of an option.
“Single moms come from all walks of life, with many different experiences and journeys to single parenthood.”
Sarah Kahne is an assistant editor at the Business Examiner in Tacoma and a single mother of a 6-year-old boy.