First comes love ... then comes marriage. We all know the rest, but for a growing number of women the path to motherhood doesn't quite fit the rhyme. In fact, according to the census bureau, more than a third of all babies today are born to single women. They're breaking stereotypes and changing the face of the American family. But when it comes to parenting, who has “better” deal — married or single moms? “Babytalk” magazine addresses this topic in its annual survey, which is featured in the September issue. Here are the results:
Just 15 years ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle publicly scolded a fictional television character, Murphy Brown, from the prime-time sitcom of the same name, for choosing to have a child on her own. Today, the 2008 presidential hopefuls from both parties recognize that single moms are a force to be reckoned with — and would be more likely to send Brown a baby gift than to question her choices. Why the turnaround? Unmarried women are now responsible for a whopping 36 percent of all births, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's the highest number of unmarried mothers in the six decades they've been counted, and it means nearly four out of ten moms are “single parents.” But who are they, and how do they feel about themselves? And how do married moms feel about them? If you thought the sheer number of single mothers was shocking, the “Babytalk” nationally representative survey of 14,000 wed and unwed moms has even bigger surprises for you.
The stereotypes of lower-income single moms and careless teenagers are far from accurate. For starters, the majority of unmarried moms are involved with the biological dad, and many told us they live with him. A scant 14 percent of all those polled are currently divorced. Because so many have a partner in the picture, more than half — 55 percent — said they wouldn't even describe themselves as single. “My daughter's father and I have been together for more than six years, but when we found out I was pregnant, we decided that taking on new roles as husband and wife might detract from our upcoming roles of 'mommy' and 'daddy,'” explains Myranda Bellman of Valparaiso, Ind. “I think the status of the relationship is unimportant. What matters is that the mother and father are dependable and consistent.” Women today choose not to marry for myriad reasons, including simply not getting around to it. “I have been with my partner for more than ten years; however, life, money, and the pursuit of an education got in the way,” says Mary Orlando of Spring, Texas. “Two children later, we still have not bothered with the stress of planning a wedding. When my children ask, I will tell them that we are married in our hearts, because marriage isn't about the dress, cake, or ring — it's really about two people who love each other unconditionally.” The attitude that marriage is “just a piece of paper” hit home with 32 percent of the unmarried moms surveyed, and others commented that they either “don't see the need to mess with a relationship that's working fine” or don't want to “pin each other down.” But many of these women may be offering up the politically correct excuses. A whopping 81 percent of unmarried moms also agreed that “marriage is a sacred institution” and that “a child needs two parents.” And 64 percent admitted that they “"wish they were married.” “I'm finding it unbearable that the father of my newborn and I haven't committed to each other on a more serious note,” confesses Lori Fisher of Somerset, Pa. “I feel that raising her in a secure environment with both parents committed to each other would only benefit her in the long term.”
The tough side of single parenthood
Still, it's tough being a single mom. Although the media often portray them as go-it-alone types, that's seldom the case. Nor are they all career women who adopt or go to a sperm bank because their biological clock is ticking and they've been too busy to find a partner. Rather, these women are more likely to be young (in their late 20s) — though there's no significant age gap between the marrieds and the unmarrieds. One huge difference: While close to three-quarters of the married moms (69 percent) planned their most recent pregnancies, about the same number of unmarrieds (77 percent) did not — meaning they may not have been ready for the baby. Understandably, the 44 percent of unmarried moms who consider themselves truly single are having the toughest time. Seventy-seven percent of these women feel it's much harder to be an unmarried mom, primarily because of financial difficulties (87 percent) and the fact that there's no one with whom to share childcare duties (80 percent). Still, they're not at all the “poor me” types you might expect. Almost two-thirds of all the unmarried moms agreed that it's sometimes easier not to have a husband. Why? Sixty-two percent believe they bicker less with their better halves over how to raise the kids; 55 percent are glad they don't have to worry about working on their marriages, too; and 38 percent feel freer to follow their own dreams. “A friend of mine has two little boys and one very big one: Her husband is more of a responsibility than a partner,” says Amy King of Kissimmee, Fla. “I would rather be single than in an unequal relationship. I don't have that cloud hanging over me if the relationship needs work and I'm too tired to put in the effort. And I don't have time to get lonely!”
Married moms don't look down on their unmarried counterparts. Contrary to what a select few would have us believe, 77 percent of the wedded women disagreed with the statement that “single mothers are less than responsible.” A huge 87 percent of them said it would be much harder to be an unmarried mom and often expressed sympathy and support for the moms going it alone. “I commend women who, due to circumstances, have to be single parents. I just wish there was more our society would do so that there would be fewer women out there who have to do it alone,” says Jill Henshaw of Tunkhannock, Pa. Still, there was a minority — 23 percent — that disapproved of an unmarried woman raising a child on her own. “Children need a stable male and female influence. A lot of young single mothers don't put their children first,” believes Amber Sheperd of Tulsa. Some married moms wrote in to say they sense — and resent — that single mothers get preferential treatment on the job. “At work, I feel strongly discriminated against by the single moms, as if my problems are 'fluff' or not 'real' because I'm married and have a support system,” says Ann Farmer of Ilion, N.Y.
Yet unmarried moms do feel the sting of prejudice. Though many of them said they're perfectly happy with their situation, more than half — 54 percent — worry that people look down on them. “I am treated differently as soon as people find out I was never married,” says Danielle Molloy of Sevierville, Tenn. “They tend to assume that since I'm raising my children on my own I must not be doing a good job.” The 8 percent of moms with same-sex partners feel the discrimination most strongly — more than two-thirds attest to it. More than half (57 percent) of the women with female partners also wish they were married. “I don't think that the two parents who raise a child need to be a male and a female, only two people committed for life,” emphasizes Erin Steffeck of Green Bay, Wis.
Married or not, having a partner to parent with isn't all wine and roses. We found several recurring themes regardless of who responded: Marriage can be hard work, many women view their husbands as another child to care for, and we'd all prefer to be the primary decision — maker. In fact, some married moms appear to harbor a secret desire to be single themselves; 22 percent agreed that it might sometimes be easier to be unmarried (though only 5 percent actually wish they weren't married). “There are days when I wish I were a single parent!” says Becky Voth of Denver. “[My partner is] a great father and a good husband, but he can sometimes be just as helpless as a 1-year-old.”
That 22 percent said they liked the idea that they wouldn't have to fight with a partner over the best way to raise a child (76 percent), wouldn't have to work on the marriage, too (69 percent), and wouldn't have in-laws to deal with (30 percent). Marriage can even be lonely at times: Some women mentioned that they often “feel single” because their husbands work so much or are deployed military men who are away from home for lengthy periods. So who really does have the better deal? Married moms probably win out in the end, just because they have Dad's extra assistance, emotional support and income. “I couldn't be a good mother if it weren't for my great husband,” insists Vanessa McCollrim of Long Beach, Calif. “More power to any mom who goes it alone.” Yet clearly, marriage adds an extra element of work to women's lives. “When we were engaged, my partner and I argued about everything having to do with the baby,” recalls Deanna Smith of Minneapolis. “But since we decided to [forgo marriage and just] live together as parents, the stress to be the perfect couple has been eliminated. Our love is deeper and stronger.” Regardless of what camp the many moms who answered our poll were in, it was moving to see how much they support each other. “Even though I'm happily married with two children, I don't feel like there's a right or wrong way to be a mom,” says Scarlett Wheeler of Arlington, Texas. “This is America! There are all different types of families, and no matter what you do, people are going to judge you anyway, so just follow your heart!”
For more on the survey and other information, visit Babytalk.com