National Edition

The rough road of single motherhood — and one mom who defied the odds

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Consider this figure: More than one in six men between 25 and 54 years old — prime working years — aren’t working, according to a Brookings Institute report that came out earlier this week. That’s 10.4 million men, more than double the population of Los Angeles. When you think about how many men are without jobs, it’s much easier to understand why they are not getting married, said Cherlin. Unemployed men don’t make attractive mates, and they are skittish about committing to marriage themselves.

In the early 1970s, only 6 percent of men ages 25 to 54 were jobless; by 2009, at the height of the recession, that number had climbed to 20 percent, and since then has hung at 17 percent, according to the study. Based on his research, Cherlin said that tackling economic issues, rather than cultural ones, is the way to address the rise in single parenthood. Short of kickstarting the American economy, raising single men out of poverty — through raising the minimum wage or extending the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to men not living with children — might be steps toward creating more viable families.

Timing and choices

Edin’s work suggests that one way of looking at the rise of single parenthood is the human desire, even under the worst of circumstances, to create family. Edin has found that even when there don’t seem to be viable partners, even when financial resources are stretched tight, people crave that parent-child relationship.

“The real problem is not giving people at bottom other sources of hope. We know that best predictor of whether a girl will get pregnant out of wedlock is her perceived ability of going to college,” said Edin.

“People at the bottom are losing hope in the American dream. They are afraid they can’t even pay rent. And they are right! But babies represent hope. Babies give people a reason to strive for a better life.”

Dever had three boys by different fathers. She also went on to put herself through nursing school with child-care help from her grandmother, who was loving and provided a good role model for motherhood. She said she beats herself up sometimes — that she never wanted to have three kids by three different dads.

“I felt dirty and wrong about it for a long time, I felt like a ‘s-l-u-t,’ ” she said, spelling out the word as though it might be too painful to say.

She can’t explain why she didn’t use contraception — even when evidence proved otherwise, she just didn’t think that she would get pregnant again, especially because she wasn’t dating very often, or for very long.

“I was just a fertile Myrtle,” she said. “I was naïve.”

The fathers of her children just weren’t the marriage material that she was looking for. She considered aborting her second child but couldn’t bring herself to do it, and when the third came along she thought, “Why not? I already know that I can do this.”

Neither abstinence nor birth control were discussed much when she was young, and now that she has two teen boys of her own she has to think about how to handle that.

“I’m very strict,” she said. She essentially expects abstinence from her own boys, whom she doesn’t allow to date, and she feels lucky that so far they haven’t expressed much interest. “They know better than to ask about dating — they know they have to graduate from high school first.”

And in Edin’s work, she found that there was almost no discussion of abstinence among the single parents that she interviewed, which signals a departure from previous generations.

Despite Dever’s ambivalence about her own choices, she doesn’t regret having her little family. “I loved my boys and I loved being alone,” she said. “I didn’t want a messy man to take care of.” Being a single mom hasn’t been easy, she said, but she hasn’t been unhappy either.

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