Speaking of how women end up being single mothers, the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has released a new report detailing the surprisingly complex realities of planned and unplanned childbirth. Unplanned births hit a low in the mid-’90s but have been creeping up again and now constitute 37 percent of births. Cohabitating women, who are more likely to have unplanned births than married women, have become a bigger chunk of the overall birth rate, shifting from 14 percent of births in 2002 to 23 percent in the 2006-2010 report.
With contraception’s universal popularity (99 percent of women who’ve ever had sexual intercourse have used it) and the option of abortion (43 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion), one does have to wonder why women keep having so many “oops” babies. Turns out that the situation is complicated, defying the easy “women are stupid” or “women aren’t careful” rationales that have traditionally been so popular:
Researchers asked women who were not using contraception at the time they conceived about their reasons. They found that 35.9 percent said they did not think they could get pregnant. Additionally, 23.1 percent said they would not mind if they became pregnant, 17.3 percent said they had not expected to have sex, 14.3 percent said they were worried about the side effects of using birth control. Eight percent said their male partner did not want to use birth control himself, and 5.3 percent said their male partner did not want them to use birth control.
It seems strange that so many women think they are infertile, but looking at the combination of social silence on the topic of contraception and a pop culture that portrays people having contraception-free sex with relatively few pregnancies makes it easier to understand. Additionally, it’s important to understand that the concept of planning parenthood is a relatively new one, and older magical thinking that puts pregnancy and childbirth in the realm of fate won’t just disappear that easily. The belief that women who plan for sex are dirty sluts must also have something to do with why so many women turn up pregnant because they wouldn’t prepare for the possibility of sex. And unfortunately, we’re still seeing a chunk of unplanned pregnancies resulting from men who reject whatever is going to interfere with their mighty seed, but thankfully that number seems pretty low, comparatively. (And there are of course women and men who are careless.)
What’s really interesting is that this particular survey engaged the question of ambivalence about getting pregnant, something 23 percent of the noncontraception-using women experienced. Ambivalence is a normal part of all human experience, and many just roll the dice and let chance make decisions for them. Women have absorbed the belief that they shouldn’t get pregnant until they’re ready—that’s how you get 99 percent using contraception at least once—but in practice, it’s really hard to know what “ready” means. Yes, society and many politicians tell you that you must have a ring first, at bare minimum, but our culture also has a lot of myths about how a guy who is teetering on the edge of commitment will become the best husband ever if he gets a push. In fact, that notion was directly stated in the New York Times piece about single motherhood, where Jason DeParle wrote, “Marriage, that is, can help make men marriageable.”
Feminists often don’t like to talk about women who aren’t trying but also are not not trying to get pregnant because there’s this toxic, misogynistic myth out there about women who want to “trap” men with babies, even though men aren’t actually that trappable. But ambivalent pregnancies are a real problem, both in terms of health outcomes for the babies and long-term stability for the mothers (and fathers). Pushing back hard on the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to turn a man into husband material could help women do better in the long run.