Four Myths About Single Mothers

Bloggers and pundits have lots of opinions about them. But they really need the facts.

Frustrated mother.
Forty-one percent of American children now born to unmarried mothers

Photograph by iStockphoto.

The recent New York Times article connecting growing income inequality to single motherhood has set the blogosphere humming, but some of the commentary, marred by partial or second-hand reading of the research, has revived long-standing myths about single mothers. Let’s deconstruct a few of them:

Myth 1: You can’t generalize about single mothers since their circumstances and life outcomes vary enormously. Social scientists have been studying single mothers for decades. By this point, their findings have taken into account just about any measurable difference you can think of and have been replicated so often that generalizations—especially the poorer outcomes of their children—are entirely justified.

That said, it makes sense to separate single mothers into three categories. First are women who were married or in committed partnerships when they had their kids, but who divorced or separated later on. They run the socio-economic gamut, from rich to poor. Second are “choice mothers,” single women who planned to become mothers despite being unmarried. Choice mothers tend to be educated, in their 30s or early 40s, and financially stable. Their children are usually born via anonymous or known sperm donor, though hook ups with ex-boyfriends are not unheard of. As the term suggests, “choice mothers” distinguish themselves from the far larger third category: low-income or working-class, young, never-married mothers. The commentariat tends to understand far less about the third group than they do about the first two for the simple reason that they know a lot of middle-class divorced and choice mothers—they may even be divorced or choice mothers—but have only viewed young, poor, uneducated mothers from a distance. For that reason, the third category tends provoke the most stubborn and erroneous misunderstandings, beginning with the following:

Myth 2: Single mothers get pregnant by men with whom they have casual sex, and even in cases where they are romantically involved, fathers quickly abandon them. According to the best source of data available, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study following 5,000 married and unmarried urban couples since 1998, 83 percent of unmarried mothers were “romantically involved” with the father of their child at the time of birth. More than one half were living together. The majority of women—and men—said they had high hopes for their relationships and thought there was a good chance they would marry. Admittedly, they were interviewed during the euphoric hours just after their babies were born. But a recent article in Journal of Marriage and Family by two UCLA sociologists also finds low-income folks to be surprisingly traditional in their views. They dislike divorce, believe couples should stay together for the sake of the kids, like the idea of men as breadwinners, and even think kids are better off if parents are married.

However, the study found that in one way low-income people are not so traditional: They are entirely OK with single parenting. Promises I Can Keep, an ethnographic study of low-income mothers around Philadelphia by Kathy Edin and Maria Kefelas, gives the best insight into this apparent contradiction. Marriage is for those who have made it. You marry only when you are economically set, meaning you have a steady income, can afford a wedding and a house. Children, on the other hand, happen when they happen. Marriage and childbearing have little to do with each other. This helps explain why what researchers call “multi-partner fertility” is so common among low-income men and women. An analysis based on Fragile Families data found that in 59 percent of unmarried couples with a baby, at least one partner already had a child from a previous relationship. This was the case with only 21 percent of married couples.

Still, Myth 2 is not completely wrong when it comes to the part about casual relationships. In both Promises I Can Keep, and Doing the Best I Can, Edin’s forthcoming book on low-income fathers co-written with Tim Nelson, most parents-to-be had been together for only a few months, or even weeks. Those relationships also tended to be emotionally distant. Expectant couples have rarely spent much time doing things together or hanging out with friends and family. Men described themselves as “associating with” the woman who would become their child’s mother, not “dating” or “seeing” her. Still, Edin and Nelson find that men are generally happy, even thrilled, when a sexual partner announces that she is expecting, and the pregnancy tends to intensify the association into a recognizable relationship—at least temporarily. Unsurprisingly, many men and women quickly find they have nothing in common and don’t even like each other.

Most couples break up within a few years. Infidelity is frequently the catalyst. Research by Heather Hill suggests that though women are hardly innocent, men are the more likely culprits and are often found out after getting a new partner pregnant. Researchers find that when couples have children with another partner, fathers are more likely to fade out of the domestic picture. There are several reasons for this: They may become more interested in their new child, the new mother may be jealous of the previous mother, or if the mother of the first child has a new partner, the father may be uncomfortable coming around. Sometimes mothers discourage them from doing so. Still, by their child’s fifth birthday, 60 percent of fathers continue to give some formal or informal cash support. About half of children see their fathers regularly, defined as at least once in the past month, though 37 percent of them have had no contact with their fathers in the previous two years.

Myth 3: Single mothers get pregnant because they were ignorant about, couldn’t afford, or didn’t have access to birth control. There’s no denying that there are pockets of profound ignorance about pregnancy or that many mothers are hard up for cash. But these factors cannot begin to explain the 41 percent of American children now born to unmarried mothers. In a paper published this spring in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Melissa Kearney and Phillip B. Levine looked at a 230 unmarried 18- and 19-year olds who were sexually active but not using birth control. Only a tiny fraction—2 percent—said they couldn’t afford contraception. A larger but still relatively small 11 percent said they “didn’t think they could get pregnant.” (The main thrust of the Kearney and Levine paper is that young single motherhood is not a cause, but a consequence, of poverty and inequality, a conclusion I quarrel with here.)

An even more recent CDC study came up with a larger number of contraceptive slackers: 36 percent of the women who had an “unintended” birth said they didn’t use contraception because they thought they couldn’t get pregnant. But almost a quarter of that group—23 percent—also admitted they “didn’t really mind if [they] got pregnant.” One final reason to doubt the sexual ignorance theory of single motherhood: Teen pregnancy has plummeted over the past 20 years, in part because adolescents are having less sex, but mostly because they are using contraception more reliably. In fact, most—60 percent—of single mothers today are in their 20s; only 23 percent are teenagers. That suggests that a growing number of women know how to not get pregnant in their teens; it makes no sense that they suddenly forget after they turn 20.

The main reason it’s so hard to dispel the ignorance myth is because of a rhetorical problem. Researchers separate pregnancies into two distinct categories; babies are either planned or unplanned. On-the-ground researchers find that this either/or thinking fails to capture the experience of a lot of single mothers. Edin and Kefalas, for instance, say their subjects view babies as bringing meaning to their lives. It seems that some women can sorta, kinda want to get pregnant without knowingly intending to get pregnant.

Myth 4: If unmarried couples would just get married, they would be a lot better off. Given the shaky foundations of the relationships described by Edin, Kefalas, and many others, marriage doesn’t look like a good bet. But it’s possible that a public commitment—or marriage vow—would help some couples think of themselves in more permanent terms. In the Fragile Families study, 60 percent of the unmarried couples with children had broken up within five years, compared to 23 percent of married couples. It would be even better if low income men and women had been guided by that old ideal that first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage. That idea of marriage invites couples to actively choose a partner, to build a connection, and plan a life together unlike unmarried parents who seem to stumble into accidental families. The mindful planning seems to help.

It helps, but does not guarantee anyone perfect soul mate. But then the perfect soul mate may be the biggest myth of all.