Counting Unmarried Mothers

It’s a quiet day so I want to go back and pick up a story from last week’s papers.   I’ve linked to a story from the Washington Post, though you can find the original study from the National Center for Health Statistics here.

Now I’ve written about this topic before.   From my point of view, there are two things worthy of comment–the actual information in the report and the media coverage of that information.  (It seems to me this report is a close cousin to the report that sparked the last round of media attention.)

If you look at the study, you’ll see that the nearly 40% of children born in 2007 were born to unmarried women.  There’s a notable correlation between age of the mother and marital status.  Thus, 86% of the births to teenagers were non-marital births while 60% of the births to women 20-24.  Once women are more than 24 years old, the percentage of non-marital births drops substantially.

But you can also look at this another way:   While the rate of unmarried births for women over 30 is smaller–1 in 5 births, which is 20%–it rose from 1 in 7 births (about 14%) in 2002.   That’s a substantial increase.   Indeed, there a nice little pie chart that will shows you the shifting ages of non-marital mother.   It’s no longer fair to equate “unmarried mother” with “teen-age mother.”   

The problem with all this, it seems to me, is the breadth of the category “unmarried mother.” Think of all the women who may be in that category.  In all likelihood, in the eyes of the CDC all lesbian mothers are unmarried mothers, whether they are raising their children in a context of a long-term committed relationship or not.    (Then again, who knows, maybe the CDC recognizes married lesbians from Massachusetts.)    Women who live with male partners but have chosen not to marry will also be in this category.   So will women who have chosen to become single mothers, creating carefully structured support networks.   And of course, there are women who fit the more stereotypical image of an unmarried mother.

The CDC report doesn’t tell us much about how to divide the unmarried mothers up into these categories.  The only information relevant to that notes that in 2002 40% of the unmarried births were to women living in cohabiting relationships.   I have no idea if that counts same-sex relationships.  But if you add to that the women who have chosen single motherhood, you might find that fewer than 1/2 of the unmarried births arise in the stereotypical circumstances.

This lack of information seems to me a pretty serious problem.    And in fact, it’s one the media seems to have picked up on.  The Washington Post article, for example, starts off with two unwed mothers.   One lives with her boyfriend, but they’re not ready to marry yet.  The other chose to be a single mother, becoming pregnant by assisted insemination.

It’s clear that you can read this trend of increasing non-marital births in a variety of ways and draw a variety of conclusions from it.  For example, being able to be a mother whether or not one is married or even in a long-term relationship offers women significant freedoms.    I see that as a good thing.   But these developments look problematic if you think that all children need to grow up with a mother and a father.

It’s also true that whatever the statistics,  there are undoubtedly many women who are raising children on their own who lack crucial support–be it financial or social/emotional.  Some of these women might be married, actually, but that’s not the point.   It’s easy to see that being in this situation is a problem, both for the women who find themselves there and for the children they are raising.   Perhaps one thing the study might lead us to think about is how to better provide support of all sorts for people raising children.

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3 responses to “Counting Unmarried Mothers

  1. I don’t know. To me–except for people who are partnered (gay or straight)–they’re all single. That is indeed the point. They’re not married and raising kids by themselves. I don’t count partners because the dynamic is completely different. The fact that some may have good support networks may not say much about them as a group. Did you catch today’s Room for Debate on the NYT – http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/a-new-trend-in-motherhood/

    In some cases, there is a built in network made up of extended family. It’s not just mature women who choose and plan.

    I think this is a big group of women who have more in common with each other than on the surface. Even age can’t erase these commonalities completely.

  2. Your comments are always so good. Thanks for taking the time. I missed the NYT Room for Debate feature. Very interesting.

    Maybe what I really want to say is that we should be cautious about drawing up these categories until we know about why it matters whether someone falls into the “single mother” category. I often think that places like the CDC gather statistics simply for the purposes of grouping us into categories. But before we just pick up their categories and use them, we need to think about whether they make sense for whatever purpose we have in mind.

    If two people are both legal parents of a child, they pretty much have to deal with each other whether they are married or not. In other words, there are unmarried mothers who are part of two-legal parent families. For many purposes, I wouldn’t group a woman who was a parent in that setting in with women who are the sole parents of their children.

    Of course, if you are a woman married to a man and you have a child, the law will make him a father and give him that status. In some sense, I suppose being unmarried is the only way to be a single mother. That’s something to think about.

  3. I see what you mean now. For purposes of counting, this might make a difference. It’s interesting how some differences don’t work their way into a picture, while others do.

    Especially when the picture is about an outcome for the kids, I do think it’s important to be aware of who’s in the group. Used to be that researchers wouldn’t even bother to distinguish between the never married and the divorced, whose kids obviously have a different set of life events to deal with.

    Drop by my blog for the NYT piece. I’d be interested to hear your reaction to the debate over whether the government should pay for IVF treatments too (a few posts down).

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