The XX Factor

Stop Blaming Single Mothers for Being Single

What makes you think single mothers don’t want to be married?


I adored Katie Roiphe’s full-throated defense of single mothers, where she correctly zeroed in both on the prudishness and the June Cleaver fantasies that drive the relentless hand-wringing over women who are raising children without a man in the house. There’s one more thing I’d really like to add, though, which is what invariably irritates me every time we’re in for another round of Scold the Single Mothers: Single moms do not necessarily choose to be single.

In his piece for Slate, a response to Roiphe’s, Bradford Wilcox goes on about “marriage-minded” people, as if the reason women end up as single mothers is because they’re not “marriage minded” and are immune to the allure of getting to wear a wedding dress and having a man publicly vow to love them for eternity.

In fact, none of this is true. As Nancy Folbre explains at the New York Times Economix blog, women end up single mothers not because they’re part of a radical feminist cult intent on proving that they can live life without men. Most women who have children have partners they intend to stay with. A lot of the time, much-wanted relationships fall apart. But in a substantial number of cases, the men just quit their families. That’s why only 41 percent of custodial parents receive child support. Sixty-two percent of mothers parenting without a man in the house have been married, and most of the rest probably thought that marriage or a long-term commitment was in the cards. As Folbre writes:

Further, the detailed and comprehensive “Fragile Families and Child Well-Being” study, focusing on low-income parents, shows that most mothers were romantically involved with the fathers of their children during pregnancy and childbirth, hoping for a long-run parenting partnership.

Wilcox attributes the higher rates of nonmarried births and divorce among lower income people to a rejection of the “marriage-minded” mentality, which he claims is stronger among well-off progressives. Wilcox assumes that marriage success is due to commitment to the value of marriage, and because blue state progressives with children break it off less frequently, they must just like marriage more. But a study at UCLA demonstrates he has it backwards: “Poor people hold more traditional values toward marriage and divorce than people with moderate and higher incomes,” that is to say, they’re more “marriage-minded”. So why do they struggle more to hold their marriages together?

There are a lot of reasons, including financial stress I’m sure, but one strong possibility is that, as the low divorce rates in more liberal cultures suggests, being marriage-minded can actually work against you when it comes to building a healthy, long-lasting marriage. Most of us know people whose eagerness to put a ring on it makes them ignore huge incompatibilities in their relationships. On the flip side, if you feel no compulsion to get married, you have a lot more time to spend finding a good match. Refusing to rush into it is no guarantee of long-term stability, but it sure must increase the odds. And more liberal attitudes and policies toward reproductive choice can’t hurt. Having the freedom to marry someone because you’re a good match and not because an accidental pregnancy forced the issue makes for longer, more stable relationships. If we want fewer women to end up as single mothers, ironically, the best thing we can do is stop pressuring women so hard to settle down with a man.