All the Single Mothers

In the Atlantic, David Frum explains that abortions rates have gone down and the number of single mothers have risen is because of “the Bristol Palin Effect.” Social conservatives have succeeding in changing American morality about abortion and inadevertantly legitimatized parenthood without marriage. Nearly half of all first births are to unwed mothers. “Single parenthood has become the norm for non-affluent Americans of all races.”

This is the fascinating irony of the pro-life movement. The cause originated as a profoundly socially conservative movement. Yet as it grew, it became less sectarian. Women came to the fore as leaders. It found a new language of concern and compassion, rather than condemnation and control. Most radically and decisively, the movement made its peace with unwed parenthood as the inescapable real-world alternative to abortion.

Given these unexpected outcomes, Frum says that social conservatives have to talk about policy solutions. Wonkbooks has some suggestions.

15 thoughts on “All the Single Mothers

  1. There were so very many shotgun weddings back when I was growing up. Even the priests didn’t like that as an alternative to single parenting. At least, they started to refuse to marry people they thought were not capable of being successfully married just because bride was pregnant.


  2. How long a response do you want? Frum is overthinking this, and giving far too much credit to conservatives (and not enough credit to the feminist movement). The biggest rise in single motherhood is coming from women who have some college or post-secondary education but not a bachelors degree. The “strivers”, so to speak—upwardly mobile working class women.

    There’s more of us than there are of our male counterparts. Basically, because of the imbalance, the realistic question for us isn’t “why aren’t you getting married” (duh–but I will explain for anyone that doesn’t get it), but “do I want to be single and childless, or single and child-ed”. Single and child-ed is what most of us, in the absence of a realistic chance for marriage, are choosing for many reasons, many of them similar to the reasons women of higher SES choose to have children.

    To be quite blunt, when you can’t get everything you want, it’s a common human solution to settle for part of what you want.


  3. What’s also worth a mention: the double-standard is dead and gone. It is not coming back. There’s many reasons for that too, but let’s start with the most obvious—smaller families. Even the most conservative parents welcome out of wedlock grandchildren, because it beats the living hell out of zero grandchildren.


  4. I’m as pro choice as they come, and thus wouldn’t say a single word against a woman choosing to have a child, when she wants one. If the “Bristol Palin” effect means that a woman who is pregnant doesn’t feel pressured to have an abortion because of what others think, that’s a good social change, not a bad one.

    I’d be concerned about addressing whether there are women who are having children because they do not have access to abortion — a worry especially in the states that are making it harder and harder. But, I don’t believe the majority of the increase in single mother hood comes from that source.

    The motto was always “Every child a wanted child”. As a liberal, I support easy access to birth control for all sexually active women, access to abortion, and education about the economic costs of motherhood. Beyond that, the only advice I would give to a pregnant woman is to one I am related to, and it would still be their decision. And once a child exists, they are a part of our community, with all the rights of any other child, with the right to education and the support of the community.

    I think Frum’s question about how conservatives would address the changing world is a good one. I think he’s right that we are on to a world where unmarried childrearing will be a norm. But, I’m not really waiting for any answers beyond lecturing.


  5. And, unfortunately, I think the choices, of single parenthood, and no marriage, without any other changes in society (because one choice is individual, the other communitarian) is going to result in more and more bifurcation of society into haves and have nots with rising inequality. I think that’s a trajectory for systemic failure, but don’t know if we’ll stop before we get there.


    1. Will it accelerate the already pre-existing inequality, the inequality that created the increase in single parenthood to begin with? Sure. But it’s still good to keep in mind that the systemic failure already happened—the destruction of the type of gainful employment that made marriage possible. That loss of gainful employment made the cost-benefit ratio of marriage go upside down for most people. But people still have a sex drive and most still want children (not to mention the cost-benefit ratio over the long term of having children still comes out firmly on the side of the average person being better off on many levels if they have children—and yes, especially for single women. Poor single women who are childless are worse off in the long term—even financially! Read “Promises I Can Keep”).


      1. This is a very surprising assertion to me. In Price of Motherhood Crittenden talks a lot about the strong, well-documented correlations between motherhood and poverty. I don’t understand this math at all, how a single woman with no children can end up worse off financially. Is there a cliff’s notes summary of the reasoning?


      2. Purely speculating, but I’d guess that it would be that women with children are likely to have been paired or part of extended family networks, even if they are not married. And, if the statistic is valid, I would expect it to be true for the 2/3 of non-affluent women (not the college educated/working women, but those whose job prospects are not lucrative anyway).


      3. I don’t see what is so opaque about the reasoning. Children do eventually become adults and productive. It is a common demographic pattern that those with the least secure position tend to have larger families as a risk-management strategy.


      4. Jen, a part of it was that children inspired women to do better for themselves—get some more education, take on a second job, hustle and rustle to get money together. Poor women without children didn’t have that incentive. Another part was the strong social networks that mothers have. Poor women without children are left out of those loops. And like MH notes, children do grow up—-a poor woman who had children is likely to have more resources when she is too old or disabled to work than a woman without children.

        Single, childless women with college educations imagine that working class and poor women who don’t have children are in a similar position to themselves—just with less money. That isn’t the case. We deal with a completely different social and familial landscape, not the least of which is how being childless “signals” differently by class.


  6. I find the Frum piece comically bad. Perhaps from his perspective, “conservatives” are a unified group, fully backing moral shunning of single mothers and abortion.

    From my perspective, the abortion issue has been a long-lasting third rail in our politics. There are many people who might support it publicly, but never urge it on their daughters. There are many who would urge it on their daughters, but publicly praise adoption. I guess Frum doesn’t hang around women’s groups. In my experience, it’s an issue which gives rise to interesting answers among friends.

    I could well conceive (no pun intended) of a mother procuring contraceptives or an abortion for her daughters, without letting her husband in on the secret. (I’m sure there were any number of “conservative” women who did that.) The ability to get contraception by prescription from the family doctor, and the passing of the generations, so that mothers today grew up knowing about contraception (my parents told me several times of the impact the advent of the Pill in their generation), makes it harder and harder to morally shun people who use birth control. I think you’d make yourself laughable if you tried.

    Of course, fewer Americans are attending church, I think, so perhaps it’s not that the pro-life movement has been influential. It’s that it’s being ignored.

    However, it is possible that there’s another side to this. The future belongs to those who reproduce. Since the advent of the Pill, and Roe v. Wade, it has been possible to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies. Perhaps this has had the unintended consequence of selecting (in the evolutionary sense) for people who are not the sort of people to selectively end or avoid pregnancies. Perhaps if you’re organized enough to use birth control effectively, and/or to end a pregnancy, you’re likely to have fewer (or no) children. Think of it as if all the children who might have been born, were it not for contraception and abortion, and their children, were to die in a brief period. We’d have no difficulty recognizing that as a significant event.

    Along that thread, perhaps the increase in ADHD rates coincides with this man-made (no pun intended) selection event. It’s not an increase in children with executive function challenges–it’s the decrease in the population of the children with good executive function.


  7. “Perhaps this has had the unintended consequence of selecting (in the evolutionary sense) for people who are not the sort of people to selectively end or avoid pregnancies. Perhaps if you’re organized enough to use birth control effectively, and/or to end a pregnancy, you’re likely to have fewer (or no) children.”

    I’m going with nope on this. My maternal grandmother had an abortion, and then 4 children later *when she was ready to care for them*; my mother had an abortion, then put up a child for adoption, then went on to have 3 children *also when she was ready to care for them.* I also had an abortion, then 2 children when I was ready to care for them; each of my siblings has had children (so far my mother’s grandchildren number 7 and there are 3 great-grandchildren; sadly she did not live to see the latest grandchild nor any of the great-grandchildren).


  8. Remember that the demographics of those seeking abortions today are far different from 20 years ago. The most typical woman seeking abortion these days already has children, and wants to end the pregnancy because of economic concerns. (In the past it skewed towards teenagers, IIRC, and women who had no other children.) Put this together with falling teen pregnancy rates and to me this is a story about birth control, not access to abortion. And certainly not about Bristol Palin.


    1. The teenagers of 20 years ago are the thirty-somethings of today.

      My teenagers haven’t come home with rumors of girls seeking abortions. I’m in the liberal Northeast, so it’s not a typical American sample. I have the impression their peers are more likely to be hospitalized for anorexia, anxiety or drug abuse than to become pregnant. The peer group must be using contraception.


    2. Another difference between then and now is that with the ease of testing for pregnancy (over the counter) and the earliness at which pregnancy can be detected, teens could be pregnant and not pregnant before there are any rumors. But, I’m guessing access to contraception plays a big role, too, in teens who don’t want children not having them.


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