Four Myths About Single Mothers

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 3 2012 1:56 PM

Four Myths About Single Mothers

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

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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.

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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.

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