Promises I Can Keep: Why the Rise in Unmarried Motherhood isn’t Bad News

My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week looks at the rising number of births to unmarried woman, and why that might not be an entirely bad thing. Excerpt:

Single moms, write Edin and Kefalas, see motherhood as a “promise they can keep.” They are certain of their capacity to love a child. They are more cautious about committing to marry the fathers of their children (or other men), not only because of their keen awareness of divorce statistics but because they don’t see any reason to settle for less than a truly excellent relationship. Seen in that light, the rise in unwed motherhood and the declining marriage rate are cause for rejoicing. Despite Lori Gottlieb’s famous plea, fewer women than ever are willing to settle for merely “good enough.” It’s not that men are less economically viable than they were in the past — it’s that even poor women want more from a marriage than a lifetime union with a good provider. Rising rates of illegitimacy, in other words, may signify that more and more women can afford to be choosy. That’s a good thing.

A woman with a bachelor’s or higher degree is statistically far more likely to wait until after marriage to have her first child; the rise in unwed motherhood is driven primarily by women who haven’t finished college. But what women of all social classes share is what one friend of mine, a single mom, calls the “if/then” attitude towards marriage. As she puts it, “If I meet the right guy, then I’d like to get married. But if I don’t meet the right guy, then that’s okay too. I’m not going to get married out of desperation.” That jives with what Edin and Kefalas heard from many of the women they interviewed. That insistence on doing marriage right –- or not doing it all –- transcends class.

2 thoughts on “Promises I Can Keep: Why the Rise in Unmarried Motherhood isn’t Bad News

  1. What Americans tend to leave out of these discussions is what the nature of the relationship between parents is. It’s always “married” or “not married”, and then the comparison with Europeans gets made on that basis alone. It’s clear (but not mentioned often enough) that in Europe, couples live together and raise children together, but don’t bother with marrying. In America, I would guess it’s much less common, but how much less? How many of these “single mothers” are really single, versus partnered but not married?

    And yes, there’s far too little being said about fathers. Are men really content to let their children be raised out of their sight and influence, and are women really content to let them? To the extent that this is happening, it’s a massive step backward from the trend of men being more involved with their children than they were a generation ago. So maybe we’re moving to a world where men either stay around and act as real full-time fathers, or they choose to be hardly present in their children’s lives at all.

  2. What is surprising from these interviews is that the percentage of children living in single parent families at a poverty level has remained relatively unchanged. Same for children whose parent has below a college level education. Child poverty has risen, but only one or two percent in the last ten years. In some single parent situations, it has dropped.

    http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_907.pdf

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