As Mother's Day approaches, the reporters from women's magazines start calling to interview family experts like myself for their seasonal pieces on Hollywood's single mother baby boom. Apparently, magazine readers are eager to hear about the legions of glamorous and elegant women who, unwilling to wait for a ring on their fingers, have decided to have a child on their own.
After all, who wants to be 45 when they finally trade in their Diesel jeans for Liz Lange maternity wear? The problem, of course, is that while popular media's version might sell magazines, it has little basis in reality. When I explain that most single moms are not like Miranda from Sex and the City, they are the young women Fantasia Barrino sings about in her hit song "Baby Mama" - the late-twenty and early-thirtysomething reporters always seem so disappointed.
The fact is that family structure diverges drastically by social class in the United States. Since the 1960s, what demographers now call the non-marital birth rate (and what your mother and grandmothers' generations called out-of-wedlock births) skyrocketed among women with a high school education or less. And, despite Dan Quayle's dire predictions, the number of women with college degrees who have children outside of marriage - a la Murphy Brown - has hardly changed in two decades.
Apparently, when professional women hear that biological clock ticking, they still log-on to Match.com before they call up the sperm bank. (See Rosanna Hertz's book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family for an account of the select group of middle-class women who are part of this phenomena.)
It seems that while young women attending college "hook up," conscientiously contracept, and have an abortion if they find themselves pregnant before they wed, poor young women practice contraception lackadaisically, move from courtship to conception at lightning speed, and become mommies before they become wives. Spend time in the nation's poorest communities, and you will see that many young women bear children by the age of 21, a point in life when their more affluent peers are just celebrating the fact they no longer need to use fake IDs to go clubbing.
Unmarried women, from all socioeconomic backgrounds get pregnant all the time. But the crucial difference is while poor women have a baby, educated women do not. So, once and for all, let's get the facts straight: even though one in three American children are born to unmarried parents, you won't see single moms pushing their bugaboos in the posh suburbs or on college campuses.
Among the poor women fueling the non-marital birth trend, the right thing to do is to greet a less than perfectly planned pregnancy with the determination to rise to the challenge. Terminating a pregnancy merely to advance their education or career is selfish at best, immoral at worst.
While my college students won't have their first child for a decade a more, for the young single moms I came to know in Philadelphia, their early twenties seems like a fine time to start a family. As Linda, a poor, African American mother explained: "Wait till you're 30 or 40 [to have children]. I don't think so."
College-bound young women typically see having a baby before finishing school and establishing a career as an unmitigated disaster. Economists back up this view with the prediction that a college-educated woman who bears a child before age 25 will experience a severe reduction to her overall lifetime earnings. In striking contrast, economists have also shown that a poor woman's prospects aren't any better when she waits until her mid-twenties to have her children. (Geronimous, Arlene and Sanders Korenmann. 2002. "The Socioeconomic Consequences of Teen Childbearing Reconsidered." Quarterly Journal of Economics 107: 1187-1214.) After all, for a woman with a high school diploma, the $7-an-hour job she can land at 18 is the same $7-an-hour job she'll be holding at 28.
You are now wondering: Don't these young women know they and their children be better off if they waited? Their response to you would be: Waiting for what? The stylish careers, fulfilling relationships, and exceptional educations that will occupy middle- and upper class women's twenties and thirties are unattainable dreams to the women driving the non-marital childbearing trend. They would insist, why should they risk missing out on the chance to do the best and most important thing a woman can do with her life by waiting for a marriage and the better circumstances that are not likely to happen?
Ultimately, when young women coming of age in America's poorest communities can claim the hope and opportunity their more privileged sisters take as their birthright, becoming a mother will cease being the best and most meaningful thing a poor, young woman can do with her life. So, despite what the magazines might be telling us, non-marital childbearing is not a fashion trend - it is a social phenomenon reflecting a growing chasm between society's haves and the have-nots. Divisions that are so deep and profound in our society that they have spilled into the intimate world of the family.
So, in the meantime, when you see the glossy magazine covers about the latest crop of celebrity single moms, try to remember the real story about the women living out the single mama drama.