`Unplanned but not unwelcome'

Women in their 30s and 40s partly behind rise in single mothers

December 17, 2006|By Dahleen Glanton and Bonnie Miller Rubin | Dahleen Glanton and Bonnie Miller Rubin,Chicago Tribune

Kimberly Dearth's biological clock was beginning to tick pretty loudly. So when she discovered she was pregnant, she had no problem putting diapers before a diamond ring.

"It was unplanned but not unwelcome," said Dearth, 37, who is raising her 15-month-old daughter, Samantha, as a single mother. "Two different doctors told me that I would need fertility treatments. So when I found out that I was pregnant, I was shocked, I was frightened, but I was also very happy."

Dearth, a medical assistant from Cedar Lake, Ind., is among a growing number of women over the age of 35 - when fertility rates begin to steeply decline - to become single mothers.

The number of out-of-wedlock births has reached a record high in the U.S., with nearly four of 10 babies born last year to unmarried women, according to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase was seen in all racial groups.

Unlike two decades ago, teenagers - who are having fewer babies - are not driving the trend. It is fueled, in part, by women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom had put off marriage and family to pursue a career. In recent years, single mothers have fought to remove the stigma of raising children out of wedlock.

Though some pregnancies were unexpected, health officials said, many older women have gone to great lengths to give birth, including turning to in vitro fertilization using sperm banks or donor eggs.

"Society's attitude has changed a little in that people understand that this is an option for single women who have not found the right man or were divorced in their 30s, and really do want to be a mother," said Jane Mattes, 62, who founded the networking group Single Mothers by Choice.

Most of the members of her group are college-educated women ages 35 to 45 with an established career, debunking the negative stereotype of struggling young mothers on welfare.

"When you hear the term single mother, most people think of teenagers or a divorced woman who was left with children, but most of these women aren't either," Mattes said. "They are choosing to become single mothers, which is very different."

As the number of births to unwed mothers rose 4 percent last year to 1.5 million, the number of births to teenagers - who two decades ago were considered synonymous with unwed mothers continued a downward spiral that began in 1991, according to health officials. Girls ages 15 to 19 experienced 40.4 births per 1,000 females - the lowest ever recorded.

While some older mothers are financially secure enough to care for their children, statistics show that is not the norm, according to Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

"This is a very disturbing trend because children who grow up with single mothers are susceptible to a host of problems. They have a greater risk of poverty, emotional problems, school failure and of becoming single parents themselves when compared with children with two parents."

According to Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, a traditional family structure gives children a better foundation.

"Cohabitating parents don't show quite the same strength. Neither do stepparents. Marriage carries with it a whole set of messages about how to live."

Dahleen Glanton and Bonnie Miller Rubin write for the Chicago Tribune.

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