This weekend, my daughter's father flew in from California to visit her. Because his visits tend to be brief—long weekends every three to five months to accommodate his work schedule and travel budget—we often cram far too many activities into a three-to-four-day period. This time, we dined in two restaurants, dashed through the National Zoo, visited grandparents, squeezed in a just-before-mall-closing carousel ride, explored a local toy store, assembled and played with a toy he bought her, and said our goodbyes at the airport.
Admittedly, weekends like these would not be possible if he were unemployed. Weekends like these are costly. They were barely possible when our daughter was born nearly three years ago, as our separate part-time and freelance incomes ebbed and flowed in opposite directions. And the visits are still challenging now; they require a good deal of sacrifice, both financial and emotional. But, for better or worse, we enjoy our daughter and enjoy the work-in-progress our bi-coastal co-parenting relationship has become. The gains we have made as a family have been hard fought and hard earned.
Ours is just one story. But when researchers and writers parse single parenting demographics, stories like ours tend to slip through the analytical cracks. Last week, sociology professor Philip Cohen grappled with new statistics on unemployed men, college-educated women, and unmarried parenting, positing ideas about who's in the best (and worst) financial or social position to marry and/or to become pregnant.
He asserts, in his piece, "The Connection Between Unemployment and Unmarried Parenting":
Given the hardships faced by single mothers (especially in the United States), it looks like women with more education are making the more rational decision to avoid childbearing when they're not married... which increases their marriage prospects, and makes it more likely they will be married and financially better off when they have children in their 30s.
Then he makes a connection between single parenting and unemployment, observing that states with more single men who are out of work have high rates of nonmarital births.
With the number of unmarried parents continually rising, it makes sense to speculate about the reasons for this spike. But when we write about unmarried parenting—its causes, its effects, its costs, who exactly is the intended audience? And who should be responsible for the usually slapdash "crisis solutions" built into these articles' final paragraphs (Be more moral! Create more jobs! Get more education! Keep waiting for someone moral and educated with a high-paying job to propose to you!)?
Will educated unmarried women of a certain age read these studies and continue postponing a desired pregnancy? Will educated, single, over-30 mothers regret their decision to bear children? Will women and men who remain unconvinced that marriage is the only means to build a healthy household change their minds? Will unemployed men feel unmarriageable and unfit for fatherhood?
Probably not. Romantic relationships and parenthood are aspirational brands. We rarely make decisions about whether or not to pursue them based solely on our current level of education or economic status. Some prepare and postpone more than others, but ultimately, the decisions to marry and parent have less to do with what's rational and more to do with the risky, unpredictable market of love. Simply put: We are looking toward a favorable future.
I recently posed the following question via Twitter: "If your partner were dealing with long-term unemployment, you both wanted kids eventually, and you became pregnant, how would you proceed?"
Book blogger Terryn Denise said, "Have the baby, and ensure that I had insurance coverage and a stable job. We'd discuss the possibility of him being the stay-at-home parent. Free and quality child care is such a cost savings for a family. If he did want to find a job and couldn't, we'd discuss the possibility of him returning to school or finding intermediate employment."