But the obvious biological difference between men and women is that women can have babies. And we also know that an increasing fraction of babies in the U.S. are being born out of wedlock. Does that mean that we are experiencing an increase in the number of single mothers by choice? When questions like this come up, the first place I go is to the website of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. What I found there is a reference to an article that in appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Contexts (published by the American Sociological Association). Sarah Hayford and Karen Guzzi argue that, in fact, there are relatively few women who choose to have a child without at least some quasi-marital help. Using data from several sets of National Surveys of Family Growth they found that:
They argue that is important to get past the myth of single mothers by choice (SMC) so that we can focus on mothers who really need help.Looking at the lifetime experience of women who were aged 40-44 in each survey, we can see that the proportion single at the time of their first birth—not married or cohabiting—more than doubled between the 1988 and 2006-2010 surveys, from 9.2% to 19.7%. But few of these women were single mothers by choice.Less than a third of the women who reported a non- marital, non-cohabiting first birth said that the birth was intended, and only a tiny fraction of unpartnered women with intended first births had these births at age 35 or over. Among women with a college degree, many fewer became single mothers—only 6% by the most recent survey.
Most importantly, the focus on SMCs takes attention away from the high levels of single motherhood, often not by choice, that have existed for decades among the disadvantaged and are linked to structural social and economic conditions.These arguments mirror those of Isabel Sawhill in her book Generation Unbound, which I have commented on several times in the past.