First Comes Junior In a Baby Carriage

Tara Rhodes always assumed her life would unfold in the usual order--she'd date her boyfriend, they'd get married and then have a kid or two. But then Rhodes, a legal secretary in Philadelphia, learned she was pregnant. She delivered a son, Jalen, five years ago. Though Rhodes's relationship never blossomed into marriage, her boyfriend stuck around--at first. But the couple split up when Jalen was 3. Rhodes, now 35, has no regrets about being a single mom. "A lot of people get married just to say they're married. But they're really unhappy," she says. Still, Rhodes hasn't given up on the idea of marital bliss. "Eventually," Rhodes says, "I would want to do it the right way."

More American women than ever are putting motherhood before matrimony. New data released by the Centers for Disease Control show that nearly four in 10 U.S. babies were born outside of marriage in 2005--a new high. These unwed moms aren't all teens--last year teen pregnancies fell to their lowest levels in 65 years. Some--like 44-year-old Mary Lee MacKichan, who used a gay friend as a sperm donor--are professional, older women who want to have babies before their biological clocks run out, but most are low-income twentysomethings. (Unwed births among 30- to 44-year-olds are up 17 percent since 1991; among those 25 to 29, they're up 30 percent.) And some 40 percent of those moms aren't going it alone--they're cohabiting, at least for a while. That's creating a major shift in what a generation of children are coming to call a family. "Marriage is still alive and well, but it has a lot of competition," says Wellesley College sociologist Rosanna Hertz, author of "Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice."

Ironically, sociologists say, marriage may be on the decline precisely because it has become so idealized. People expect more from marriage than they did a century ago, when it was mainly a practical arrangement to provide financial stability for women and a place to raise children. "Now it's not only love and romance but also self-fulfillment and personal growth," says Pamela Smock, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Since there's no longer much of a stigma attached to getting pregnant outside of marriage, many couples have replaced "shotgun weddings" with "shotgun cohabitations."

But marriage is still the ideal for many women. Smock found that young couples wanted to wait until they could afford a "real wedding" instead of going "downtown" to the justice of the peace. (Many women even refer to their live-in partner as "fiancé" when a wedding date is nowhere in sight.) Some women don't want to settle for a guy who isn't financially secure. Others may fear divorce. That could help explain why the average age for first marriages has been slowly rising--it's now 25 for women and 27 for men. "Marriage used to be the first step into adulthood," says Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin. "Now it's the last."

Conservatives warn that the surge in out-of-wedlock births will lead to problem kids who perpetuate the cycle. "It's a disaster," says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who calls unwed births the primary cause of child poverty and welfare dependency. But sociologists say many of these kids actually fare pretty well, especially when two parents are involved. The determining factor seems to be family stability--and marriage has no lock on that. "When you compare the child of a stable single mother with a child whose parents got married and later divorced, the child with the stable family may do better," says Stephanie Coontz, a history and family-studies professor at the Evergreen State College.

The Bush administration is hoping to counter the mom-before-marriage trend by persuading more couples to tie the knot. Over the next five years, it will spend $500 million on a Healthy Marriage Initiative, including anger and stress management, premarital assessments, conflict resolution and communications skills. An additional $250 million will fund programs designed to encourage responsible fatherhood. Statistics show that most Americans will eventually get married--the key will be helping them stay that way.