Not All Single Mothers Are Alike … or All Really Single

Mother’s Day weekend seems a good time for another post on single mothers — a topic that consistently brings more Googlers to my blog than almost any other.

I’m taking a different approach than I did in the past because much of what one finds in public sources is muddled — and so the solution wrong-headed.

We see right-wing conservatives still promoting marriage as a key to ending poverty. And not only them. The center-left Brookings Institution joined with the center-right American Enterprise Institute to produce an anti-poverty plan. It too endorses promoting marriage.

Both the muddle and the marriage promotion stem in part from the same source — a conflation of single motherhood with unplanned out-of-wedlock births. They also reflect some incontrovertible data and some controversial studies linking single-parent families to bad outcomes for kids.

The data come from the Census Bureau. Year after year, it reports far higher percents of single-mother families in poverty than married couples with minor-age children in the same financial straits.

The assumption then is that single mothers and their children would be better off if married. Which leads to the further assumption that single mothers became mothers without first marrying — and did so accidentally. Neither reflects the realities of our society — perhaps even less than in the past.

We’ve got research now, for example, that flips cause and effect. Kathryn Edin, who actually lived in poor communities and got to know women there, found that they would have chosen marriage if they’d found a suitable spouse — specifically, a reliable, clean-living, nonviolent breadwinner. Severe shortage, as Edin explains.

The women had children anyway because they wanted them and saw no point in delaying motherhood, feeling they’d be poor no matter what. Children, in fact, satisfied a felt need for meaning in life.

I want, however, to focus on the second pair of assumptions. As my title suggests, not all single mothers are alike. That is, they’re not all single and mothers for the same reasons. And, as it also suggests, they’re not all single — at least, from their point of view.

First off, single mothers include those who got divorced or became widows and didn’t remarry. Many, but far from all live in poverty — because they’re not getting much, if anything by way of child support, in the former cases, or Social Security benefits for their children, in the latter.

Some would be no better off if they still had a husband in the house. Nor would their children. We still see the term “deadbeat dads” used to refer to absent fathers who choose not to pay child support.

But live-in husbands can be deadbeats too. Guys who could, but don’t work or even try to. Guys who do work, but use what they earn to buy alcohol, drugs, fancy clothes for themselves, etc. So the home is rife with stress and anger — violence too perhaps. The children suffer. The mom opts for peace and control of the cash flow.

Then we’ve got mothers who aren’t legally married, but live with a partner in a relationship that’s for all intents and purposes a marriage, though with the advantages our laws confer on spouses.

We’ve got more so-called cohabiting couples now than even a generation ago. This, it seems, is at least in part because young adults no longer view marriage as a “cornerstone,” but as a “capstone” — something to postpone until they’re sure they’re ready and “have all their ducks lined up.”

But they’re not delaying parenthood. The share of births to cohabiting mothers increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 25% in 2009-13, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

It distinguishes these mothers from single mothers, but they’re officially single nonetheless. They’re different, the Center for American Progress says, because cohabitation is typically “a transitional stage” — either a prelude to a first marriage or an interlude before a second.

That may be more than case now than it was only a few years ago because same-sex couples can now legally marry. Still, we need to recognize lesbians in long-standing domestic relationships who chose to become mothers.

They’re not the only single women who became mothers by choice. As you may have read, the teen birthrate is dropping. At the same time, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among women 35 and older has risen.

We know anecdotally that some wanted to have children for quite awhile and figured that marriage just wasn’t in the cards — or that it wasn’t what they wanted before their biological clock ticked further past their prime childbearing years.

So, for them, a sort of planned parenthood we don’t ordinarily think of when we hear the term — thanks to the wonders of medical technology.

Other women in their mid-thirties become single mothers in a different way. A dear friend of mine, for example, wanted to raise a child, saw no prospect of marriage and discovered she was infertile.

So she adopted a baby left with an agency by a mother who couldn’t care for him, confident that she had the financial and personal resources, including a close-knit family to give him a secure, loving childhood.

Another single woman I know — the successful head of her own professional services firm — recently a adopted a baby for similar reasons. They’re not the only single women who’ve made this choice — some, in fact, when considerably older.

Our country does a lousy job of supporting mothers — and to that extent, a lousy job of supporting children in any sort of family. An especially lousy job of supporting single mothers and their children, as their unusually high poverty rates indicate.

Single mothers, unlike their married counterparts, still get a bad rap for having failed to exercise personal responsibility, driving up safety-net costs, crime and other social ills.

I’d rather celebrate them in all their variety. Better, I think, than conceding Mother’s Day to Hallmark, Teleflora and the perfume and candy purveyors.

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