A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics with the dry title, "Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States," contains startling news: births to single mothers, which had leveled off in the early 2000s, have risen sharply in recent years. In 2007, nearly 40 percent of all babies born in the United States were born to single women, up from 34 percent in 2002. Some sociologists believe we have reached a tipping point: the link between marriage and parenthood is no longer the norm. Why is this happening, and what does it mean for women, children, and men? There are no simple answers—only difficult questions that we ignore at our peril.
Complicating the discussion, single motherhood comes in many different forms. An unwed mother is not necessarily a solo mother: about 40 percent are living with the baby's father when they give birth, and some later marry. A mother without a partner could be a teenage high school dropout trapped in poverty, or a 30-something professional who decides not to wait for "Mr. Right." While older, better-educated women are far less likely to become single mothers, one in three births to women in their late 20s and almost one in five births to women in their 30s are out of wedlock.
Many blame the growth of single motherhood on selfish, irresponsible men who shun commitment and abandon their partners and children. Others condemn self-centered women who refuse to settle for a less-than-perfect man or want total control over their child's upbringing. Both stereotypes have some truth to them. Yet this trend is also driven by major societal shifts—most of them positive, from unprecedented prosperity to individual freedom, tolerance, the liberation of women, and reliable birth control.
The powerful economic, social, and cultural pressures that once pushed the vast majority of people into marriage are gone almost completely. All that remains is romantic love—and refusing to marry your child's other parent is often seen as more honorable than marrying someone you don't love, at least if you're a woman.
For many feminists, the ability to choose single motherhood is an essential part of female autonomy. According to American University law professor Nancy Polikoff, "It is no tragedy, either on a national scale or in an individual family, for children to be raised without fathers." Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt has put it more bluntly: "Children are a joy; many men are not."
But would the children agree? Of course, not every father is a joy to his child. Yet there is abundant evidence that children generally fare better with two parents—and many children without fathers keenly feel their absence.
In one positive development, unmarried fathers today are much more likely than in earlier generations to be a part of their children's lives, even if they are not living with the mother. Even Bristol Palin, the daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and currently the nation's most famous teenage unwed mom, is now working out a visitation schedule with the baby's father, Levi Johnston. Yet a visiting dad is usually, even with best intentions, a pale substitute for day-to-day interaction with a father in the home.
We now have a situation in which large numbers of men are alienated from family life and from the next generation. And that's hardly "feminist," at least if feminism means the equality of women and men not only in public life but at home.
For years, feminists have urged men to take on their fair share of domestic responsibilities. While parenting still isn't equal in two-parent families, the fathers of today are far more involved in hands-on child care than their predecessors. Yet, paradoxically, there also far more absentee fathers, due to both divorce and unwed childbearing.
For all its liberated trappings, single motherhood is the ultimate "second shift" for working women who shoulder the full burden of domestic labor. It is also, in some ways, a throwback to the very old-fashioned, decidedly non-feminist idea that family life and child-rearing are a female domain. True, there are also more single fathers today who have custody of their children (usually when the mother is unable or unwilling to raise them); but, for both biological and cultural reasons, the single-parent family is likely to remain an overwhelmingly female-dominated structure.
Millions of single mothers and fathers do their best to be good parents, and their efforts should not be disparaged. Nonetheless, an intact marriage is still the most reliable way to protect the father-child bond. It is neither possible nor desirable to turn back the clock on the changes that have turned marriage from a near-necessity into an uncoerced choice. It is, however, a choice the culture should encourage. Giving up on the two-parent family as an ideal would be a sad defeat.