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Going it Alone: The Trend in Single Motherhood

Amanda Dundas
March 9, 2011

What do Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, and Kate Hudson have in common, besides being goddesses of the silver screen?  They're all single moms, choosing to have children without a hubby by their side.  And this trend isn't limited to A-listers: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 41% of all births are to unmarried women.  Unlike in years past, when most unwed mothers were teenagers, today's single moms are more likely to be older, well-educated women making a conscious choice to have children on their own or unmarried with a partner.

Today, about 60% of births to women in their early twenties and almost one-third of births to women ages 25-29 are to single mothers, according to the CDC.  "For older women, there's a conscious choice to have children because their biological clock is ticking, and they had hoped they would be in a secure relationship but they aren't," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College.  "These women are educated, financially secure, and while we don't have long-term studies yet, it doesn't appear that they experience any of the problems associated with single parenting."

That was the case for Jennifer, a single publishing executive who made the decision in her late thirties that if she wanted to have a family, she would have to stop waiting for Mr. Right to come along.  "I didn't want to get married to the wrong person just for the sake of having children, and then not have it work out," she says of her decision to go to a sperm bank.  "I'm just doing things out of order - having the children first while still looking for the right person to join my family."  Now 47, Jennifer is a mom of two young girls, ages three and six, both conceived with sperm from the same donor.

Then, there are women whom, like Kate Hudson or Angelina Jolie, are in committed relationships but choose to have children without a marriage certificate.  "Often, it's not that they don't value marriage but that they don't feel stigmatized by having children without being married," says Coontz. 

Jessica, a divorced Brooklyn-based restaurant owner, understand this well.  As she approached her 40th birthday, she and her boyfriend discussed having children.  "It just didn't feel like there was a rush to get married, but given my age, there was a rush to have children," she says.  When Jessica and her boyfriend Bobby announced to their families that they were pregnant, the reaction was mixed.  "Everyone was happy, but concerned that we weren't married, especially his parents," she says.  "We made sure that everyone knew this was something we planned, and that we were very happy."  Still, Jessica says marriage isn't out of the question.  "I think for other people it'll be a sign that we're definitely committed to each other," she says.

For mothers in committed relationships, the question of marriage may become more practical rather than romantic.  "There are often tax advantages and health care options that are available only to married couples," explains Nicky Grist, executive director of Alternatives to Marriage Project, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for the rights of unmarried people.  "Depending on where you live, you may be able to get some of those advantages if you register as domestic partners."

Grist hopes that as more women opt for single motherhood, society - and federal laws - will become more accepting of non-traditional families.  Highly visible single celebrities may help make that possible, although Grist cautions that women must carefully examine their circumstances before making such a momentous decision.  "Few of us have the resources of celebrities, such as private jets and full-time nannies," she says.  "Just because they make it okay, doesn't mean they make it viable."

Coontz agrees, adding that single parenthood becomes problematic only if women aren't equipped to deal with the challenges on their own.  "Economic and residential stability, along with maternal education and aspiration, are the best predictor of good child outcomes," she explains.  "Happily, most of the women making that decision today have all these things going for them."

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