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.

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:

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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.

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