Why Unemployment Doesn't Stop People From Having Babies

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.

Nina Matthews/flickr

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."

Writer Mikki Kendall responded: "Get on public assistance, if we weren't already, [and] enroll in school to fill the gaps in my skill set so that we'd be in better shape."

Returning to school is an option often overlooked in studies about unmarried parents and education. But single parents comprise 13.9 percent of the national community college population. And, as demand increases, four-year colleges are expanding their resources for single-parent students.

Looking to the future isn't always just about academic and professional possibilities. Single women aspiring to motherhood also prioritize conception while fertility is at its peak. A human resources manager and mother of two weighed in to the Twitter query with: "Have that baby. It gets harder physically. I had one at 32 and another at 44. Keep looking, keep learning, and keep changing up on the job front."

Meg J, an aspiring nurse, felt the situation needed contingencies. "It depends on what my situation is. Do I have a well-paying job? Or am I also unemployed? Either way, careful review of money and a long talk [would be necessary]."

Digital producer Rashid Zakat believed that, even in a case where full-time employment proved elusive, other streams of income could and should be pursued. "I'd take odd jobs and freelance. Get creative. I'd also start looking for jobs outside of my field or consider moving the family, if my [partner] wasn't tied to location."

Each of these respondents is college-educated or gainfully employed, and most agreed that unemployment, even if long-term, is a temporary condition. They were willing to work with a partner who was actively seeking employment or willing to be a stay-at-home parent.

My daughter's father and I were 30 when she was born. During the eight years we were together, we both experienced bouts of unemployment and underemployment. At the time of her birth, we were certainly both concerned about whether or not our income would be sufficient for raising her. Our parenting workload isn't necessarily equitable; I do the lion's share of caretaking, with help from extended family, and he financially provides for and visits our daughter. It doesn't always make sense to people (including us), but it's working. If it stops working, we'll come up with a new plan.

Statistics don't often accommodate my story or the responses of those mentioned in this article or the evolving realities of so many other unmarried mothers and fathers. And since society often engages statistics as a means to curb the "shocking trend" of single parenting or to damage-control its fallout, we continue to miss the answers to other questions. Why, on the heels of a major recession, amid job loss and changing perceptions of marriage, are so many unwed couples still choosing to have children?

It's because we believe that where we are is not where we will remain. It's because education and employment are important, to be sure, but they don't always give you accurate insight into what kind of parent a person will be. It is because healthy co-parenting is neither synonymous with marriage nor mutually exclusive to unmarried parenting. It is because we all have ideas about what we're willing to bear, in order to have the lives to which we aspire.