The rough road of single motherhood — and one mom who defied the odds
Megan Resch, Megan Resch Photography
Jamie Dever was alone at the hospital with a nurse and midwife when she went into labor. The baby boy was big, almost nine pounds, he was face-down and she arrived too late for an epidural. The pain was terrific; the midwife held her hand and repeated, “Be brave, be brave” with each wave of contractions. Dever was unattached to the child’s father, and she labored without kin or partner. But she didn’t feel lonely — she felt it was an experience between her and her newborn child.
When he arrived, four hours later, Dever fell asleep with her baby boy on her chest. She didn’t send him to the nursery and didn’t part with him even to eat. At one point, she was moved to a room with another new mom who was married and surrounded by family. Dever remembers lying alone on the other side of the curtain that separated them and hearing laughter and happiness as grandparents and siblings passed the baby around. “I was envious that she had so much love around her new baby,” Dever said. “But that was that lady’s life. That’s wonderful for her. But I knew that wasn’t my life.”
Dever’s experience of childbirth wasn’t what most women want or expect for themselves. Much of her life wasn’t what she expected.
Her mother was a drug addict, and Dever spent much of her childhood passed around to family and fending for herself. She made the best of what she had; she was content to fall in love with the child on her chest.
Dever is one of a wave of young women in America who have decided to have children out of wedlock in their 20s. For much of the last century, teenagers made up the bulk of single parents, but in the early ’90s that began to shift. About 41 percent of births in America now occur outside of marriage, according to the CDC, and it’s 20-somethings that drive the nation’s all-time high of non-marital births.
Single parenting — a role usually shouldered by women — is still often a rough road. It can go hand-in-hand with poverty; indeed, the proportion of single-mother families in poverty increased for the fourth straight year last year to 41.5 percent, compared to 8.7 percent for married couples.
And although an increasing number of college-educated women are having children on their own, they are usually older and have higher incomes, according to Pew Research studies, while single mothers with a high school diploma or less make much less money than their educated peers. They are vulnerable as single earners who are often paid less than men and have trouble collecting child support. A recent Harvard study even shows that their kids are much less likely to move up the income ladder as adults.
So why are so many young people, especially at the low end of the socioeconomic ladder, having children out of wedlock?
The baby carriage
Jamie Dever, now 37, spent 15 years as a single mother of three boys. She had a difficult childhood. By the time she was 8 years old she knew how to cook heroin for her mother and her friends. Taking care of her younger sister was left largely to her, as the house was often strewn with passed-out adults. “We would nudge mom because she was in the same spot for four days at a time, and we would take whatever money was in her pockets, or her friends’ pockets, and walk a mile or two to buy food for Angela because she would rock back and forth and cry, and say that she was hungry.”
Eventually, an aunt intervened and took the girls in, but she was a cold and strict guardian. When Dever was done with high school, she didn’t have money for college, so she left Massachusetts and moved to New York with a cousin. She eschewed drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and wanted nothing of the habits that had ruined her mother. She wanted a clean, quiet life, so she moved back to a small town in Massachusetts, where she found odd jobs babysitting and started dating her neighbor. Then, she discovered she was pregnant.
She wasn’t scared. “I just really wanted a baby because that was unconditional love, and I had never really had anyone to love me. I wanted to love someone and be loved back. I wasn’t scared, which was weird. I was happy.” She remained on good terms with the father, but he was more into frequenting the bar than fatherhood. Smoking, drinking and partying wasn’t the family life she wanted. After the child was born, he paid child support and visited occasionally — but she didn’t feel she had found the right man. She felt right about the child.
Sociologist Kathy Edin spent two years living in Camden, N.J., one of the poorest cities in the country, where she interviewed hundreds of poor, single mothers and fathers. Her discussions with them, and five years of follow-up research, are recorded in her books “Promises I Can Keep” about low-income single moms and “Doing the Best I Can” about unmarried dads.
She said that one of the things people don’t understand about single motherhood is that cases like Dever’s are common: Young women find themselves without viable partners, and marriage can seem out of reach. But they still see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful way to spend their lives. For some of them, this is rooted in religious beliefs, for others it’s just human nature — and a milestone of adulthood that feels attainable when things like college and career are not.
Low-income young men and women would like to do things “within sequence” —meaning dating, then marriage, then children — but they don’t see a clear path to make that happen, she said. Financial security is usually seen as a precursor to marriage for both the poor and affluent, and financial security is a long way off for many low-income young people.
“The chances of being economically stable prior to your 30s, if you are low income, are quite low,” said Edin. “That’s the rectal thermometer on the American economy — you have more parents working at near-minimum wage and scraping by. Then, life course sequencing gets off because nobody wants to wait until 35 to have a baby — the middle class does it, but they are not smart to do it — because fertility goes way down.”
Edin’s work reveals that it’s not just low-income women, but also low-income men that consider having kids as an important part of fulfillment. Given bleak career prospects and little hope for upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities and roles that feels attainable to the 100 inner-city fathers that she follows in her second book. They describe their children as their “saviors” and inspiration for getting off drugs or getting off the street.
It’s the economy
For number-crunchers and conservatives alike, the response to the rise in single parenting has been to try to re-establish the link between childbearing and marriage. Marriage as a solution for poverty has been pitched since the 1990s, when Clinton welfare changes gave federal funds to state marriage promotion programs. With a few exceptions, hundreds of millions of dollars of counseling has not improved rates of marriage or poverty.
Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins and author of “The Marriage-Go-Round,” said desire for marriage is not the problem. The vast majority of Americans want to get married, and most will — at some point.
“Up and down the income ladder, across virtually all races, everyone would like to be married,” said Cherlin. “Those who think they can do it well do in fact get married. Those people tend to be financially stable and educated.”
The issue with the current decoupling of childbearing and marriage is two-pronged, he said. There’s a common belief that men have to have a job to be married, and yet men without college degrees used to work in factories. Now those jobs are gone, and the current economy leaves young men without stable employment or means of providing for a family. “The decline of the industrial economy has been crueler to young men than young women,” said Cherlin.
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.
It’s easy to assume that single motherhood leads to poverty, which leads to unhappiness for all parties, but that isn’t necessarily true, said Edin. Middle-class women have college and careers to look forward to, and it’s financially advantageous for them to put off having children. It’s not the same for poor women, whose circumstances have “diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them further.”
A few years ago, Dever moved her family to Arizona, where the weather was warmer and she could afford to rent a nicer home with a yard for her boys. At her son’s school, she met a divorced dad, a police officer. He gave her a tip on a cheaper condo in his neighborhood and helped her move in. He steam cleaned her carpets and her car and cut down a lemon tree in her yard. He was working, getting a master’s degree and was a good dad who took his family to church. When he asked her to marry him, it was finally a no-brainer, she said. “I was like, of course!”
Now Dever is 37 years old and trying to get pregnant as a married woman for the first time. The irony is that now that she’s finally met the right man, she’s having trouble getting pregnant, and is pursuing IVF and fertility options. She said that it will break her heart if she doesn’t get pregnant, but the thought of having a child with her husband “puts the goofiest smile on my face. Having a child with a person that you truly love and care about who thinks about you, I can’t describe it.”
Dever feels like she finally “won the husband lottery.” If she had met him when she was younger, things would have been different, she said. “Not better, just different.”
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