October 22, 1997 in City

So Common, Yet So Poorly Understood

Donna Britt Washington Post
 

Seeing Melissa Ludtke’s new book, “On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America,” uncorked countless memories of the years I raised two sons on my own after my first marriage ended.

I remembered being tired all the time and forever wondering how to provide vital male role models. I remembered trying to breathe around the fact that some bills just weren’t getting paid - and that there was no one with whom to share my fears. Mostly, I remembered telling everyone who asked about the experience of single motherhood: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Millions of single moms - divorced, never-married and adoptive - would agree. Take never-married Shonda, 27, a magazine editor whose daughter is 7. Shonda was a college student when she accidentally became pregnant by her then-boyfriend. “Doing it all alone - monetarily, spiritually, emotionally providing everything - can be depleting,” Shonda says.

My friend, Jackie, adopted her son, now 22, in 1979. Asked to finish the sentence, “Single motherhood is …,” Jackie says, “hard. … Everybody projects onto you the way they view it.”

People who approve, she explains, “say, ‘Wonderful. How can I help?’ Those who see kids as a burden ask, ‘Why did you do this to yourself?’ People put their spin on it, rather than you defining it for yourself.”

That’s exactly why former Time magazine correspondent Ludtke says she wrote “On Our Own”: to give voice to the single mothers whom everyone from Dan Quayle to Daniel Patrick Moynihan would define. By quoting dozens of such mothers, Ludtke hopes to “complicate” an issue oversimplified by those most likely to discuss it publicly: men.

“It’s women who make the decisions - about whether to become pregnant, to continue their pregnancies, about … how their children will be raised,” says Ludtke, the single adoptive mother of a year-old daughter, Maya. But “the political debate has been argued by men.”

The book’s statistics challenge many stereotypes. Most unmarried mothers aren’t teenagers - women ages 20-24 make up 35 percent of single mothers, and another 35 percent are 35 or older. Birth rates among unwed black teenagers are dropping; births among unmarried women of all races over age 35 are rising. Between 1984 and 1994, the number of single women working as managers and professionals who had babies nearly tripled. And though minority women still have many more out-of-wedlock births proportionally, white women are the fastest-growing group of unwed mothers.

But it’s the women behind the statistics who are most fascinating - and most necessary to our understanding of why women become single mothers and what can, and should, be done about it. Beginning with an agonized description of her own back-and-forth struggle over whether to become an unmarried mother, Ludtke then explores unwed teenage mothers and those much older, single women’s varying child-rearing choices and the men who father the children.

For most older women, the description “single mother by choice” is inaccurate. “Most are single mothers by second choice,” says Ludtke, quoting a therapist who has counseled hundreds of such women. “Many came to (single motherhood) after a relationship broke up over the issue of having children or after years of looking for a relationship. It isn’t the way most women dream of starting a family. It’s where they come out in the end.”

For all the resurgent talk about “illegitimacy” and youngsters, she continues, marriage isn’t a “silver bullet” that would cure the problems of teenage mothers and their children. “If these births were occurring within marriages to these same individuals, you can’t make a strong argument that the children, or in many cases, the girls, would be better off.” Although teenage birth rates are falling, so is the age of girls giving birth. Who wants to see 13-year-olds getting married?

Ludtke’s research spurred her to develop a program for Boston-area Girl Scouts, ages 10-14, employing discussion, mentoring and group activities to help keep girls from becoming pregnant. The idea is for girls to become “players in their own lives and communities,” says Ludtke, who in her book cites a young woman who confessed she never ever had a dream. “She told me bluntly that life ‘just happened,’ that she felt she had no control. By 19, she had three children.”

Among the biggest misperceptions: that single moms don’t believe in marriage, dismiss the importance of fathers and “prefer” being single, without a man in their lives and the lives of their children.

Ludtke is living proof to the contrary.

“I still hope Maya and I find someone to share our lives with, for her and for me,” she admits.

“It gets lonely sometimes, even with her.”

xxxx


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