National Trends in Motherhood: And Don't We Look Good?

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“It sucks being just another statistic,” my friend said the other day when she read about the changing face of motherhood. She is older (44), unmarried, and college-educated. According to the Pew Research Center, she is not alone.

Their recent report comparing births in 2008 to births in 1990 revealed that we women are having babies later in life and are not waiting for the man of our dreams to have one. In 2008 14 percent of births were to women 35 and older (versus 9 percent in 1990) and a full 41 percent were to unmarried women (up from 28 percent). This should give social conservatives something to chew on, or will it?

Let’s break this down. Women are waiting to have children. In fact, teen births are down three percent, and when we do have children, it is usually after attaining a higher level of education than previously. A full 54 percent of all mothers who gave birth in 2008 had some college education, up from 41 percent two decades before. For mothers older than thirty-five, 71 percent had some college education. This can only mean good things for our children as repeated research has shown that better educated, more mature mothers make for better parents.

Older motherhood has been linked to a number of significant benefits. Blogger Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen argues that delaying motherhood means:

Greater financial security

Emotional and social stability

Greater psychological well-being

More stable marriage and other relationships

Stable job or career

Being an older mother has health benefits, as well. Recent research reveals that later-in-life births mean later-in-life deaths for women. “The baby boomers of today are doing the right thing by having children much later -- because the evidence is that the later you produce children, the longer your life span will be,” said Dr. Dawn Skelton of Manchester University, a leading authority on aging. She was one of two geronologists who discovered that women who delayed having children until their 30s and 40s were more likely to live into their 80s and 90s. According to Michele Y. Pridmore-Brown, this study comes in the wake of another carried out in the Boston area by a team of Harvard researchers led by Thomas T. Perls. It showed that centenarians are four times more likely than the general population to have had their first child in their 40s. So by waiting to have children, we can rest assured we will live long enough to be able to cuddle our grandchildren when the day comes.

But what of all these unmarried mothers you might ask? No doubt single parenthood has been linked to negatives effects on children. In fact, 67 percent of all children with a single parent live in low-income families. However, the hidden news is that while four in ten births were to unmarried mothers, a full half of those were, like my friend, co-habiting with life partners. To be sure, these children are being born out of wedlock, but not necessarily to single mothers and a life of poverty. Robert Lerman’s report on the well-being of married and unmarried parents argues, “understanding the decline in marriage and its implications for economic well-being is a complex problem. Given the dramatic increases in cohabitation and the high levels of co-residence of single mothers with their parents or other adults, many single mothers live with a second potential earner/caregiver and thus do not have a built-in economic disadvantage relative to married couple families. The simple distinctions between married parents and single parents are no longer sufficient for analyzing economic differences.” 

Further, Alison Hatch, a graduate student at the University of Colorado who is doing her research on “committed unmarrieds,” found that many of them end up marrying because they face the same discrimination as gay couples regarding insurance, taxes and other legal issues. That was certainly true of my friend Nora, who after giving birth to their daughter, wed her life partner, “to make things easier for our child.”

This hesitance to marry is a concern to many. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s Report on Marriage Promotion, the federal government first began promoting marriage as a matter of public policy through the 1996 welfare reform law. Based on the argument that the existing welfare system provided a disincentive to marriage and undermined the traditional family structure by encouraging out-of-wedlock births among poor women, three of the four purposes of the 1996 law were designed to promote marriage.  Following the 2004 election, which broadened the conservative margin in Congress, both the House and Senate Republican leadership announced in January that Congress now would move swiftly to enact welfare legislation that would devote $200 million per year for "healthy marriage promotion grants" as well as $100 million per year for marriage-related research and demonstration projects. If the Pew research is any indication, their efforts to promote heterosexual marriage have failed. Rates in marriage have declined consistently over the past two decades.  Women and men still want marriage, they just aren’t willing to settle.

So, fifty years after the introduction of the birth control pill, women are finally deciding for themselves when to have children and with whom. Marriage is nice to have, but not a necessity. Blogger Michele Chen says it best, “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.

Now that looks beautiful to me, wouldn’t you agree?

Check out Karen Skloss’s new documentary, Sunshine, about unmarried mothers. She examines the change from the “Scarlet Letter of unwed motherhood” to today’s single mothers through the story of her own life.

For more on attitudes and trends in marriage, check out the new book, Red Families v. Blue Families by law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. It's well worth a read. NPR does a great overview, check it out here.

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