When news hit recently that out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. have climbed to an all-time high, there was a predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth by some commentators about how bad this is for the children.
I know hundreds of single women who have become mothers, through conception or adoption. There are actually tens of thousands of women embracing this choice each year, most in their 30s, but also increasingly in the late 20s and early 40s. I was 37 when my daughter was born; 41 with my son. In both cases, I purposely chose motherhood, using a known donor, before embarking on my second marriage.
Some of us do start out fearful of the daunting challenge this lifestyle can be. Some of us grieve for the childhood dream not realized of sharing parenthood with a lifetime partner. Some worry about the impact it might have on their child to grow up without a father.
Then a funny thing happens. As time goes on, and the prospective mother becomes an actual mother, what she used to think would be important...isn't. Yes, it can be exhausting. Yes, the support network that any parent needs is vital. Yes, male role models need to be found and recruited who will balance out Mom.
But there are amazing strengths to Choice Motherhood--my term for proactively choosing to become the best parent we can be as single women--that get overlooked by people who don't know any. Some of those strengths can best be described by grown Choice Kids I interviewed for my book, Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman's Guide.
* "My mother did so many things right. She was devoted to me. She was more interested in discovering who I was than in molding me into any preconceived image. Her parenting style was relatively hands-off, trusting me to make choices that would aid me in my own process of knowing myself."
* "An advantage to the way I grew up is that I never witnessed my parents fighting. As far as fears some have that a guy like me will grow up overly aggressive, or less analytical, because of the lack of a father in the home--it doesn't make sense. I went to a competitive prep school, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college as a computer science major. There are a lot of stereotypes about single parenting, and it seems as if we're all clumped into the same category."
* "My mother means the world to me, and me to her. I think that had I been raised by two parents, that bond would logically be decreased by half."
* "I don't agree with the idea that men do some things better than women, and vice versa--the idea that you need a man and a woman to balance the parenting. People are complex. One person can do so many things, in many different ways."
The quick version of what "studies say" about single-parent homes is that its boys end up in jail, its girls end up sexually promiscuous, and that high school dropout rates are high. What the quick version doesn't mention is that this often has more to do with divorced/abandoned homes when household income drops substantially. And that generally this involves parents who are depressed, narcissistic or otherwise lacking in the ability to sustain a nurturing and attentive environment for their children.
A child born into a Choice household is not torn apart by divorce. Many Choice Moms make upwards of $60,000 a year, own their home in a child-friendly neighborhood, and do not experience the emotional upheaval of a downward economic slide.
Of course, there are many out-of-wedlock births to impoverished women, especially in their early 20s, which was reflected in the recent news data. One of these single mothers lived in my home recently and yes, the challenges she and her child face are dramatically different than my own. Lack of education, income and emotional support for these women is an important issue.
But I strongly believe that the single woman who conscientiously throws herself into mothering has amazing benefits to provide to her children, which is too often overlooked by those who would simply prefer to marry her off.
I hear this strength daily, as moderator of an online discussion board for Choice Moms. In the hundreds of honest conversations we shared in November, for example, we offered support to each other about how to deal with a toddler's tantrums, insight about how to incorporate dating into our lives, and lively debate about a child's right to have a father.
We approach parenting in different ways, but some of the assets we offer our children include:
1. Self-sufficiency -- Choice Moms are not victims. We proactively make our dreams of parenthood come true, sometimes after years of hoping an emotionally strong, loving partner will become part of our life. Most women who choose yes to single parenthood are strong-minded, independent, and creative problem-solvers in many aspects of their lives--all excellent traits to pass along to their children.
2. Determination --We are not ambivalent about parenting. Some of us spend years preparing and saving; others make the choice after an unplanned pregnancy puts us in charge of our child's destiny. Women who say a loud "yes" to parenting do what they need to in order to make for their children the best lives possible. Our families tend to be proud, with open communication, emotional closeness, and a strong commitment to one another.
3. Community connection -- A benefit of many Choice Moms I know is that they make an effort to bring a wide network of family, friends, mentors, and male role models into their children's lives. Child development expert Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys, among others, told me that boys in today's society especially benefit from this kind of extended network. "Boys need a greater concerted effort on the part of the mom, the family, the elders, the community, and the social institutions in order to inculcate all the moral coding of a social group." In the absence of community connection, young people turn to peers as role models and celebrities as heroes.
4. Dedication -- Many special needs children are placed in single-parent homes because they often thrive from the focused attention. I have seen many confident Choice Kids whose self-esteem is enhanced by the concentrated bond they have with their mothers. One Ivy League student I met was undeniably strengthened over the years by the Choice Mom who adopted her at 13 months, when she was in the hospital because of a neglectful home environment.
I do not claim that single-parent households are better than two-parent households, or that mothers automatically make better parents than fathers. Loving fathers add tremendous strengths to a child's upbringing, and many Choice Moms I know (myself included) have welcomed good men into our family lives.
But the emphasis some prefer to place on the drawbacks of fatherless homes fails to take stock of the enormous benefits Choice Moms bring to their children as counterbalance.
There are disadvantages to be countered, certainly. The one-on-one intensity between mother and child can be difficult to break as the child matures into a young adult--aided somewhat by the growing trend for Choice Moms today to have more than one child. Social isolation can be a struggle with the more reclusive mothers. The financial and logistical stress can be taxing, especially for those who haven't developed a stronger support network. Many of us wish we could be stay-at-home mothers, or otherwise have even more time to spend with our children. We sometimes get flustered when our children inevitably start asking who and where questions about "daddy." It is hard to eventually enter into an intimate adult relationship when we are 24/7 parents. We feel sorrow that another parent is not available to love our child as much as we do.
But despite the weaknesses, the reality is that most children in single-parent households do not grow up to be morally defective. Discouraging one common family structure because some don't do it as well as others is akin to not allowing people in their 20s to marry because statistics show these are the couples most likely to divorce.
Being a good parent is more important than being a married one. While it's lovely that the U.S. government is spending $500 million on its Healthy Marriage Initiative, it is money that might be better spent helping all mothers and fathers who need it--single or married--put conscious parenting into action.
In large part I believe the best thing we can do for our children is instill them with a sense of responsibility--for taking control of their own lives, for understanding their obligations to others--as well as giving them an open door to possibilities that gives them a love of learning and exploration and spirituality and mental health. For these reasons and more, Choice Mothers are great role models.
For more on this topic, see my website at ChoosingSingleMotherhood.com