Just imagine what would happen if June and Ward Cleaver were negotiating family life these days. The scenario might go something like this: they meet at the office (she's in marketing; he's in sales) and move in together after dating for a couple of months. A year later June gets pregnant. What to do? Neither feels quite ready to make it legal and there's no pressure from their parents, all of whom are divorced and remarried themselves. So little Wally is welcomed into the world with June's last name on the birth certificate. A few years later June gets pregnant again with the Beav. Ward's ambivalent about second-time fatherhood and moves out, but June decides to go ahead on her own. In her neighborhood, after all, single motherhood is no big deal; the lesbians down the street adopted kids from South America and the soccer mom next door is divorced with a live-in boyfriend.
Figures released last week from the 2000 Census show that this postmodern June would be almost as mainstream as the 1950s version. The number of families headed by single mothers has increased 25 percent since 1990, to more than 7.5 million households. Contributing to the numbers are a high rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. For most of the past decade, about a third of all babies were born to unmarried women, compared with 3.8 percent in 1940. Demographers now predict that more than half of the youngsters born in the 1990s will spend at least part of their childhood in a single-parent home. The number of single fathers raising kids on their own is also up; they now head just over 2 million families. In contrast, married couples raising children--the "Leave It to Beaver" model--account for less than a quarter of all households.
Demographers and politicians will likely spend years arguing about what this all means and whether the shifts are real or just numerical flukes. But one thing everyone does agree on is that single mothers are now a permanent and significant page in America's diverse family album. "We can encourage, pressure, preach and give incentives to get people to marry," says Stephanie Coontz, author of "The Way We Never Were" and a family historian at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "But we still have to deal with the reality that kids are going to be raised in a variety of ways, and we have to support all kinds of families with kids."
This new breed of single mother doesn't fit the old stereotype of an unwed teen on welfare. She's still likely to be financially insecure, but she could be any age and any race. The median age for unmarried mothers is the late 20s, and the fastest-growing category is white women. She may be divorced or never-married. Forty percent are living with men who may be the fathers of one or more of their children; as the Census numbers also showed, there's been nearly a 72 percent increase in the number of cohabiting couples, many of whom bring along children from previous relationships. She may also be a single mother by choice. Unwed motherhood has lost much of its stigma and has even been glamorized by celebrity role models like Rosie O'Donnell and Calista Flockhart. "Twenty years ago middle-class women believed it took a man to have a child, but that's no longer true," says Rosanna Hertz, chair of the women's studies department at Wellesley College. "We've reached a watershed moment."
More women are better educated and better able to support themselves--so a husband is no longer a financial prerequisite to motherhood. That's a huge social change from the past few decades. Carolyn Feuer, 30, a registered nurse from New York, decided not to marry her boyfriend when she became pregnant with Ryan, now 6. "It wouldn't have been a good marriage," she says. "It's better for both of us this way, especially my son." Her steady salary meant she had choices. "I had an apartment," she says. "I had a car. I felt there was no reason why I shouldn't have the baby. I felt I could give it whatever it needed as far as love and support and I haven't regretted it for even a minute since."
For many women, the barrier to marriage may be that they care too much about it, not too little, and they want to get it right. If they can't find the perfect soulmate of their dreams, they'd rather stay single. So they're postponing that walk down the aisle until after college, grad school or starting a career and putting a little money in the bank. "Paradoxically, more people today value marriage," says Frank Furstenberg, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "They take it seriously. That's why they're more likely to cohabit. They want to be sure before they take the ultimate step." The average age of first marriage is now 25 for women and 27 for men--up from 20 and 23 in 1960. That's the highest ever, which leaves plenty of time for a live-in relationship to test a potential partner's compatibility. "Today it's unusual if you don't live with someone before you marry them," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. "Before 1970, it wasn't respectable among anyone but the poor."
Some of these women are adult children of divorce who don't want to make their own offspring suffer the pain of watching a parent leave. They see living together as a kind of trial marriage without the legal entanglements that make breaking up so hard to do--although research indicates that cohabiting couples don't have a much better track record. "They're trying to give their marriages a better chance," says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. "They're not trying to be immoral and get away with something."
And if the first (or the second) relationship doesn't work out, many women think there's no reason to forgo motherhood. Wellesley researcher Hertz has been studying middle-class single mothers older than 35. Most of the 60 women she has interviewed in depth became pregnant "accidentally." While their babies may have been unplanned, they were not unwanted. Hertz says that for many of these women, the decision to become a mother was all about the modern version of "settling." In the old days a woman did that by marrying Mr. Almost Right. Now settling means having the baby even if you can't get the husband. "When I started this project in the mid-'90s," Hertz says, "these women were tough to find. Now they're all over--next door, at the playground, in your kid's classroom. They've become a normal part of the terrain."
Not all single mothers by choice wait for a serendipitous pregnancy. There are so many options: sperm banks, adoption. New Yorker Gail Janowitz, a market researcher in her mid-40s, decided to adopt two years ago. She always wanted to be a mother, but never married. "As I got older," she says, "I didn't know if the timing of meeting a man was going to work out. I thought, well, I'll do the child part first." A year ago she adopted Rose, now 18 months old, in Kazakhstan. Although there have been difficult moments, Janowitz says she has no regrets. "I've never stopped knowing it was the right thing to do," she says. "I think I will still have the opportunity or the option, hopefully, to get married. But right now, I have a family."
Even under the very best of conditions, single motherhood is a long, hard journey for both mother and children. No one really knows the long-term consequences for youngsters who grow up in these new varieties of single-parent and cohabiting homes. Much of the research in the past on alternative living arrangements has concentrated on children of divorce, who face very different issues than youngsters whose mothers have chosen to be single from the start or are cohabiting with their children's fathers or other partners. "We need to start paying attention to how these kids" living in cohabiting homes are doing, says Susan Brown, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "All the evidence we have suggests that they are not doing too well."
Single mothers in general have less time for each individual child than two parents and cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages. That means that children living in these families are more likely to grow up with a revolving set of adults in their lives. And the offspring of single parents are more likely to skip the altar themselves, thus perpetuating the pattern of their childhood. "Children living outside marriage are seven times more likely to experience poverty and are 17 times more likely to end up on welfare and to have a propensity for emotional problems, discipline problems, early pregnancy and abuse," says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It can be a recipe for disaster."
The average kid in a single-parent family looks much the same emotionally as children who grow up in the most conflicted two-parent homes, says Larry Bumpass, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin. But, he adds, "the average is not the script written for every child. The outcomes are not all negative; it's just a matter of relative probability... the majority will do just fine." Lyn Freundlich, who is raising two boys in Boston with their father, Billy Brittingham, says her home is as stable as any on the block. Freundlich and Brittingham have no plans to marry even though they've been living together for 13 years. "It's not important to me," says Freundlich, 36, who works for the Boston AIDS Action Committee. "Marriage feels like a really unfair institution where the government validates some relationships and not others. I can't think of any reason compelling enough to become part of an institution I'm uncomfortable with." When she was pregnant with their first son, Jordan, now 6, Brittingham's parents "waged a campaign for us to get married," she says. His father was relieved when they decided to draft a will and sign a medical proxy. These days, the possibility of marriage hardly crosses her mind. "I'm so busy juggling all the details of having a two-career family, taking care of my kids, seeing my friends and having a role in the community that it's just not something I think about," she says.
If Freundlich isn't thinking about marriage, a lot of politicians are--from the White House on down. In a commencement address at Notre Dame on Sunday, President George W. Bush planned to stress the need to strengthen families and assert that "poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy," according to an aide. Bush believes funding religious initiatives is one way Washington can foster family stability. Policies to encourage marriage are either in place or under discussion around the country. Some states, such as Arizona and Louisiana, have established "covenant" marriages in which engaged couples are required to get premarital counseling. It's harder to get divorced in these marriages. Utah allows counties to require counseling before issuing marriage licenses to minors and people who have been divorced. Florida now requires high-school students to take marriage-education classes that stress that married people are statistically healthier and wealthier.
Some researchers who study the history of marriage say that such efforts may be futile or even destructive. "Giving incentives or creating pressures for unstable couples to wed can be a huge mistake," says family historian Coontz. "It may create families with high conflict and instability--the worst-case scenario for kids." Other scientists say that lifelong marriage may be an unrealistic goal when humans have life expectancies of 80 or older. In their new book, "The Myth of Monogamy," David Barash and Judith Lipton say that in the natural world, monogamy is rare. And even among humans, it was probably the exception throughout much of human history. In "Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire," biographer Amanda Foreman details bed-hopping among the 18th-century British aristocracy that would make even a randy Hollywood icon blush.
If a long and happy marriage is an elusive goal for couples in any century, most women--even those scarred by divorce--say it's still worth pursuing. When Roberta Lanning, 37, of Woodland Hills, Calif., became pregnant with her fifth child after a bitter divorce, she decided not to marry her boyfriend and raise Christian, now 9, on her own. As a child of divorce herself, she never wanted to raise a family on her own. "Single motherhood is not a good thing," she says. "It's definitely one hurdle after another." And despite everything, she hasn't given up. "It's been my heart's desire to have a father and mother in a structured home situation" for Christian, she says. "It just hasn't happened for me. Believe me, I've certainly been looking." If she finds the right man, chances are he'll probably have a couple of kids of his own by now, too.