For the first time in American history, more than half of new mothers under the age of 30 are unmarried. The news has led to stark warnings from social conservatives about the supposedly disastrous consequences of illegitimacy –- and to renewed discussion about whether marriage remains relevant today. In the rush to pass judgment on these unwed mothers, one question is almost never asked: how many of these young single moms would actually like to be married?
Writing in the Times on Saturday, Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise focused heavily on the harm to children that this new trend portends. The women they interview are exhausted, often leaving their children in the care of relatives while they go off to work multiple jobs. The article cites experts who lament single motherhood, warning that children born outside of wedlock face greater social and economic obstacles than their peers born into traditional nuclear families. Bizarrely, DeParle and Tavernise don't even bother interviewing any fathers, an odd journalistic decision given the subject of the story. The implication of that deliberate oversight is that we already know all we need to know about why these guys won't marry the mothers of their children. That not only shortchanges the men, it allows an even more dangerous assumption to linger: that if only these absent dads were just a little bit more physically and emotionally available, the single moms would marry them in a heartbeat. Uh-huh.
Like many of the articles that touch on contemporary American manhood, the Times piece can't decide where the blame for male fecklessness lies. DeParle and Tavernise trot out the usual culprits: the much-oversold "mancession" ("men are worth less than they used to be", the article laments) and the tendency, familiar to fans of Judd Apatow movies, for American men of all social classes to turn puberty into a quarter-century project. The Times interviews Amber Strader, a 27 year-old single mom, whose "boyfriend was so dependent that she had to buy his cigarettes. Marrying him never entered her mind. ‘It was like living with another kid,' she said."
So how much of this growing phenomenon of single motherhood is about male unreliability, and how much is about changing social mores that make marriage less relevant? I spoke with the noted sociologist of masculinity, Michael Kimmel, who said that the rising percentage of unwed moms was "over-interpreted." Kimmel notes that in Scandinavia (where there is no equivalent to the American narrative of male haplessness) the majority of mothers in all social classes are unmarried. "They don't need to get married because they have adequate health coverage, education, and retirement benefits." The answer to the manufactured problem of "illegitimacy" is, says Kimmel, "better access to birth control and abortion." Michael Kaufman, (who co-authored The Guy's Guide to Feminism with Kimmel) concurs that this isn't about masculinity at all, but about "the moral panic that is the conservative heart of the anti-sex agenda."
Kimmel makes the important distinction between single mothers needing to get married and wanting to be wed "someday." That qualification is often missing from these discussions, but it's at the heart of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Poverty isn't the primary problem, authors Kathyrn Edin and Maria Kefalas say, noting that "now there are few differences between the poor and the affluent in attitudes and values towards marriage." However inadequate the American social safety net is compared to the Scandinavian model, it's sufficient (barely) to ensure that very few women feel compelled to get married for economic reasons.
Single moms, write Edin and Kefalas, see motherhood as a "promise they can keep." They are certain of their capacity to love a child. They are more cautious about committing to marry the fathers of their children (or other men), not only because of their keen awareness of divorce statistics but because they don't see any reason to settle for less than a truly excellent relationship. Seen in that light, the rise in unwed motherhood and the declining marriage rate are cause for rejoicing. Despite Lori Gottlieb's famous plea, fewer women than ever are willing to settle for merely "good enough." It's not that men are less economically viable than they were in the past — it's that even poor women want more from a marriage than a lifetime union with a good provider. Rising rates of illegitimacy, in other words, may signify that more and more women can afford to be choosy. That's a good thing.
A woman with a bachelor's or higher degree is statistically far more likely to wait until after marriage to have her first child; the rise in unwed motherhood is driven primarily by women who haven't finished college. But what women of all social classes share is what one friend of mine, a single mom, calls the "if/then" attitude towards marriage. As she puts it, "If I meet the right guy, then I'd like to get married. But if I don't meet the right guy, then that's okay too. I'm not going to get married out of desperation." That jives with what Edin and Kefalas heard from many of the women they interviewed. That insistence on doing marriage right –- or not doing it all –- transcends class.
There's another "if/then" dynamic at play in this debate over single motherhood. As the authors of Promises I Can Keep write, if — and it's a huge "if" — society wants to encourage more women to get hitched before having children, "then the only course for those who want to promote marriage is to try improving the quality of male partners in the pool."
Men don't need to be "improved" because they've gotten demonstrably worse; rather, the standards for what makes a man marriage material have grown exponentially higher, even in the eyes of young moms struggling to stay above the poverty line. In that light, rising rates of single motherhood reflect undeniable progress for women.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.