Post-marriage motherhood

By Michelle Chen May 14, 2009

America is experiencing a single-mom boom. Federal health authorities report that about 40 percent of births in 2007 were to unmarried women, up from 34 percent in 2002. Keeping with previous patterns, the highest rates and largest increases were seen in Black and Latino women. But the statistics diverge from some stereotypes, too. Compared to 1970, the portion of single-parent births by teenagers has declined steeply–a sign that more older women are deciding to have children without a husband. Researchers suggest several factors behind the trend, reports the Washington Post:

a lessening of the social stigma associated with unmarried motherhood, an increase in couples delaying or forgoing marriage, and growing numbers of financially independent women and older and single women deciding to have children on their own after delaying childbearing. … Some experts said the trend represents a positive change for many women, allowing them to avoid becoming social outcasts, being forced to give up their babies for adoption or having abortions, and letting them raise children in nontraditional families.

Unmarried childbirths are even more common in some European nations—reflecting perhaps relatively open cultural mores and social policies that better accommodate single-motherhood. Maybe America, bruised by its culture wars, is finally acknowledging that marriage and family aren’t always a good match. But years ago, as Washington worked hard to reform welfare as they knew it, officials vilified out-of-wedlock births as a racially coded sign of moral decline and cyclical poverty. Marriage promotion became a favorite platform for social conservatives to simultaneously blast stereotypical (single Black female) welfare recipients and market the traditional (heterosexual, nuclear) family structure. Still, plenty of research links the conventional two-parent household structure with positive outcomes for children. But the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy think tank, argues that the marriage debate has been politicized in ways that foster stereotypes and potentially erode women’s social freedom.

For many social conservatives, promoting heterosexual marriage goes hand in hand with fierce opposition to the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions, in the name of "protecting" marriage. It also falls under the umbrella of a larger ideological and religiously motivated policy agenda that includes teaching young people that remaining abstinent outside of marriage is the expected standard of behavior and that supports channeling substantial funding to faith-based organizations to achieve these related policy goals…. Common concerns include that such policies have the potential to denigrate women by reinforcing outdated gender roles; may harm victims of domestic violence by encouraging them to remain in abusive relationships; and may push teens and young adults prematurely into marriages that tend to be unstable and leave them at increased risk of poverty and reduced educational attainment when those relationships dissolve.

Besides, it’s unclear to what extent marriage itself is the key, or an institution associated with positive family development. A woman might very rationally decide to start a family sans husband because she can’t find a suitable partner who can offer solid financial or educational resources, or wants avoid the potential trap of an unhappy marriage. An Ohio State University study found that Black and Latina women’s childbearing decisions may be influenced by a shortage of potential male spouses (another study ties mass incarceration and joblessness in the Black community to reduced "marriageability"). Moreover, single women with children tend to face difficulties finding marriage partners later on. The Black Scientist challenges the marriage paradigm as a perverse self-fulfilling prophecy: the failure lies not with marginalized families, but the social institutions that subordinate real human needs to narrow standards of conformity.

Why do we have so much trouble turning to the state and looking at its role in perpetuating structural violence against non married (non heterosexual) households? … The principal problem with the argument that intergenerational crime and poverty are due to the prevalence of single black mother households (aside from its sexist undertones) is that it centers blame on the family structure itself — which is queer — as opposed to the state-sponsored hostility that incriminates that family structure and makes it so difficult for single-mother households to survive…. There are federal and state policies that not only encourage marriage, but also actively discourage other forms of love and commitment by granting multiple economic and legal privileges to married couples.

No one would oppose a happy matrimony, but the operative term is “happy.” Generating more marriages won’t resolve the deficit in social, economic and educational resources that enable families of all kinds to thrive. Trends in unmarried childbearing don’t prove the superiority of one family structure over another, but they may show that more women are now trusting their own intuition, rather than the dictates of politicians, in meeting the challenges of motherhood. Image: Ami Beyer /