The latest numbers on unmarried parenting are out. The National Marriage Project reports that 58 percent of first births in lower-middle-class households and 40 percent of all U.S. births are to unwed mothers. Like clockwork, society has turned its collective gaze to the social and economic crises facing the single mother. And like clockwork, we mothers these statistics represent brace ourselves for the public's moral scrutiny and fiscal concern. We become like specters; we may be at the center of national conversation, but we don't often see much of our real lives reflected in it. Everyone's asking around us; few people are speaking to us.
The Wall Street Journal's recent piece, "The New Unmarried Mom" speculates that, for the under-educated, single parenthood takes the place of college graduation and career advancement as an essential "rite of adulthood."
But John Halpin of ThinkProgress insists that unmarried mothers desperately want higher-wage jobs, and the creation of more well-paid positions should be a top priority for progressives.
The Atlantic's Derek Thompson even asserts that technological advances like Lunchables and washing machines are making single motherhood easier.
What these most recent trend pieces on unmarried motherhood have in common is that they fail to include any conversations with single parents about their lived experiences.
The simplest way to gain accurate perspective about unmarried mothering is to ask unmarried mothers. Beyond Baby Mamas, a new online support and advocacy initiative for single parents of color, focuses on facilitating this type of discourse. As its founder, I invite mothers to write personal essays and commentary about their families for our website and to engage in discussion via social media. Most importantly, we talk about our social, emotional, and financial needs and how they might best be met.
These ongoing conversations are far better at contextualizing unwed parenting statistics than once-a-year hypothesizing and hand-wringing.
A popular notion about unmarried mothers is that we make hasty decisions to have children with commitment-averse men. Conversations with mothers offer other stories. Single women are not soothsayers or mind-readers. And when circumstances change, attitudes often follow suit. The leaving type and the marrying type are not mutually exclusive. No one knows how well he will rise to the occasion of parenthood until he is in the daily trenches.
In an essay for BeyondBabyMamas.com, Damali Robertson, a grant-writer, anti-sexual violence advocate, and single mom of two, writes of her son's father:
It became apparent quickly that he intended to live his life much as he had before our son's birth—out all night, rarely home, resistant to daily diaper changes, feedings, and sleepless nights. Before I knew it, the relationship was on shaky ground. Things came to head one day, and he moved out.
Another of our writers, Nesha Finister, a divorced mother of two who works in the oil field sector, explains how, in her case, marrying before children didn't exempt her from family trouble:
I was married for seven years before the marriage failed and I filed for divorce. I felt that the marriage was so volatile that it would only produce unbalanced children. I did everything everyone else said to do to save the marriage, but in the end, we make great co-parents, and horrible mates.
In our most recent Twitter discussion, facilitated under the hashtag #whyimnotmarried, our followers weighed in. When asked if any participating women considered themselves, "single mothers by choice," one mother responded, "Yes. I chose to get impregnated by the wrong man who threatened to kill me if I terminated the pregnancy." Hers is not an isolated narrative.
According to the CDC, black women ages 25-29 are about 11 times more likely as white women in that age group to be murdered while pregnant or in the year after childbirth. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also reports that, of the 324,000 women who experience intimate partner violence while pregnant each year, 30 percent say the first incident occurs during pregnancy.
Post-childbirth marriage is never a viable option in those cases. But what of the women who do marry their partners, post-childbirth? Is it the financial and emotional curative so many believe it is? That depends on the state of the pre-marriage relationship. Beyond Baby Mamas supporter Cara, author of the popular blog BitchUJusMad.com, became the mother of twins four years before marrying their father. They maintained a long-distance relationship during the twins' earliest years and now enjoy a thriving spousal bond. Conversely, another respondent to our Twitter conversation had this to say about marrying, post-childbirth:
We ended up divorced. When you marry, you must focus on your relationship just as much as or more than you do the kids. Your marriage [becomes] most important, if you want to stay married.
Incurring a financially struggling partner's debt was another deterrent for mothers who joined our Twitter discussion, as was becoming comfortable enough with their current dynamic to not have much interest in altering it. One Twitter follower explained:
The older I become, the more set in my ways I become. It takes a lot of compromise to be in a relationship, especially a marriage. Plus I have a "what if" constantly running in the back of my mind when it comes to the safety of my boys.
Given their diversity of single-mother experiences, it stands to reason that focusing primarily on moralizing and number-crunching is counterproductive. Unmarried mothers' needs are not one-size-fits-all; meeting them will take more than generalizations. We aren't an epidemic to be stemmed or a crisis to be quelled; we're individuals in need of support from friends, family, and community. With the right system of support, we can certainly thrive.
Consider Jonterri Gadson, single mother to a special-needs 11-year-old and poetry professor at The University of Dayton. She credits an iron-clad support system for her ability to finish both undergraduate and graduate study:
My family lives in Idaho and I did my bachelor's degree in Miami and my MFA in Virginia. For the last portion of my Bachelor's degree, my son lived with my family in Idaho and I visited every 2-3 months and over the summer. Then we headed to grad school together. I was able to make friends in both places that were a bit of a support system.
Gadson's case is different from Cara's or Damali's or Nesha's. But they all manage healthy households. One of Beyond Baby Mamas' goals is to connect women who've already accomplishing this with those who are still struggling to do so. The only way to determine how support should take shape, for all of their families, is to consider each source.