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Cathy Young

Single mothers and the baby boom

By Cathy Young
May 26, 2009
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IN THE past 10 years, with my biological clock winding down and no husband in sight, I have been asked quite a few times if I had considered having a child on my own. What used to be scandalous is now practically a conventional life choice.

This is borne out by a new report released recently by the National Center for Health Statistics. Nearly 40 percent of all babies born in the United States in 2007, up from 34 percent in 2002 and 18 percent in 1980, were born to unmarried women. While unwed childbearing is much more common in black and Hispanic communities, the trend cuts across racial lines; moreover, it is driven primarily by women in their 20s and 30s, not teens. Should we treat single motherhood as "the new normal" or as a problem that needs to be addressed? And what about the fathers?

For some, the growth of single-mother families is a sign of female empowerment. If children without fathers fare worse than children in two-parent families, say defenders of single mothers, the answer is better pay for women and better social programs. Yet even in Sweden with its generous welfare state, a major 2003 study found that children raised in single-parent homes were at significantly higher risk for addictions and serious psychiatric problems.

In discussions of single motherhood, men tend to be the missing piece. The fathers are often presumed to be feckless, self-centered rogue males. The reality is not that simple. About 40 percent of out-of-wedlock births are to cohabiting couples -- though this statistic is not completely reassuring, since such couples break up at about twice the rate of spouses. Many other unwed fathers offer both financial and hands-on assistance.

While there are men who cut and run, there are also mothers who choose to go solo, sometimes forgoing child support so that the father would not seek parental rights -- or forgoing a father by using a sperm bank. And in this area, our cultural biases tend to favor women. In the 1994 film "Angie," the spunky working-class heroine who refuses to marry the devoted father of her unborn child because he's too dull and limited for her is clearly admired; it's hard to imagine such an attitude toward a man who did the same. What Angie's decision will mean for the bond between father and child is left unexplored.

Even if most mothers had adequate support from family and community, single motherhood would still leave a large percentage of men virtually disconnected from family life and the next generation. And, for all the talk of female autonomy, this is startlingly at odds with the goal of feminism, which sought equality for women and men in both public and private life.

Today, we have two contradictory trends. Millions of fathers are involved in hands-on child care to an unprecedented degree; millions of children have little or no contact with their fathers. Ironically, the mother-child family unit takes us back to a very pre-feminist idea: family and child-rearing as a feminine sphere. (For both biological and cultural reasons, men are far less likely to parent on their own.) Male alienation is another likely result.

The causes of the rise in unwed childbearing are as complex as the phenomenon itself. The economic and social pressures that used to propel people into marriage no longer exist; even Bristol Palin, the daughter of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, a conservative Christian, can opt out of marrying her baby's father without opprobrium. Expectations of love and emotional satisfaction in marriage are much higher than they once were. Gender roles are in flux. In today's economy, working-class women often have better job opportunities than men, yet men's marital desirability is still linked to the traditional notion of the "good provider."

Judging personal choices is tricky; while I strongly believe in the importance of fathers, I cannot be sure what choice I would have made if children were a higher priority for me. Certainly, many single parents do a wonderful job of raising their children and many married couples do not. But in general, the two-parent family does work best for children, women, and men, and marriage seems the best way to ensure it. No one wants to go back to the day when unwed mothers and their children were outcasts. But restoring a cultural commitment to married parenting is a goal that should unite sensible conservatives, sane fathers' rights advocates, and reasonable feminists.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

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