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Jane Adams Ph.D. Headshot

Permanent Parenthood, Whether We Like It or Not

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With births to unmarried women continuing to rise -- 4 out of 10 in 2009, a two-decade increase of 46% -- it's clear that the real threat to the sanctity of marriage isn't coming from gay couples wanting to marry. A close look at the data reveals the changing demographics of single motherhood; while unmarried teen pregnancy decreased in that same period, it tripled for single women in their 20s, doubled for those in their 30s and increased substantially among those over 40, as assisted reproduction became more popular and possible for those elderly prima gravidas, married and single, who'd put off childbearing during their most fertile years. And while the figures aren't broken down by class, education or economic status -- or even reflect how many of those single women are in committed relationships with their baby's father -- those who view unmarried motherhood negatively are more concerned with social cost than morality.

Had I been a single mother by choice rather than decree, I'm not certain my parents would have been as sanguine, supportive and even encouraging as my own generation has been since our grown kids started putting the baby carriage first and the marriage later, if at all. In most of America, including the Bible Belt, there's no social stigma attached any longer -- how long has it been since you've heard the phrase "shotgun wedding"? There's also almost no information about how our grown daughters' decisions to have children on their own, without the support or even presence of a partner, is changing our lives and their landmarks.

Among the grandmothers I know or have spoken with, the blessings are mixed. Claire, who helped her 39-year-old daughter Julie through three years of sperm banks and infertility treatments before Alex was born, has done the brunt of raising her grandchild, as seemed inevitable from the start; Julie has had emotional problems since adolescence, and far from being "the making of her," as Claire hoped, having a baby made Julie less rather than more dependent on her. It's changed Claire's relationship with Julie's siblings, who think their mother was nuts to encourage their sister and resent the drain on her energy, freedom and resources. "Maybe I shouldn't have gone along with it," Claire says. "But she'd been so unhappy, and this was the only thing that would make her happy, so how could I say no?"

Maya's single, successful, 40-year-old daughter never consulted her about her decision to have a baby; she never even told her who the father was, and still hasn't. Zoe's a TV show runner with a couple of hit shows and a few failed or flawed relationships behind her, most of which Maya hears about after they've ended or infers from what her son, Zoe's twin, mentions in passing. Maya and Zoe text more than they talk, and talk more than they see each other, which is the way Zoe prefers it. Despite Maya's efforts, Zoe has mostly kept her at arm's length since she was a teenager, and the fact that their relationship is not as close as she'd like it to be is a source of great sadness to her. Since Zoe's daughter Hannah was born, though, things have gotten better: "After all, who else but a grandmother really cares about a baby's BM?" asks Maya. Zoe calls her almost daily, and Maya spends every Wednesday, the nanny's day off, with the baby. When it's convenient for Zoe, she lets Maya have the 2-year-old on a weekend, and occasionally the three of them have an outing together. While Maya's accepted that she and her daughter will probably never have the "open, loving, accepting, spontaneous friendship" she envisioned when Zoe was a child, she's hopeful that as her granddaughter grows up, so will her daughter.

Of course our grown kids have the right to make their own choices, and we have little or no say about them, even when they affect our own lives, limit our freedom and extend our parental obligations, real or felt, in ways emotional, logistical and financial. Nearly six million of us live in grandparented homes, as the census calls three generations under one roof, and two and a half million are fully responsible for their grandchildren. It's a far cry from the way many of us expected life to be by now -- carefree, independent, dropping postcards to the kids from distant places and buying darling little toys and outfits for the grandchildren en route.