Michelle was 22 when she found herself pregnant. She was in a committed relationship with all signs pointing to marriage, she says, but since she had just completed college, with ambitious career plans for her future, children weren’t on the horizon yet.
“Although I did want a baby with my now-husband (even at the young age of 22), I was devastated because I felt like my life was ruined,” she writes in a blog post. “Everything I wanted to accomplish — everything I wanted to be — was now gone. And I didn’t get this from my own head — I got it from friends, family, TV, movies and complete strangers.”
Most young adults are putting off starting a family in their 20s, she notes, and the cultural expectations surrounding delayed marriage aided in the initial devastation that surrounded Michelle’s pregnancy.
“My body felt ready, but my brain didn’t,” she elaborates. And though she went on to marry the father of her child and raise their now 4-year-old son, her decision was not made without a lot of anxiety and despair.
”I do wish that someone would have told me that my life wouldn’t be ruined. That I could go on to have a successful career, a happy marriage and a fulfilling life,” she lamented. “I wish someone had told me that choosing earlier-than-expected pregnancy isn’t a tragedy, but just a different lifestyle decision. I wish someone would have told me that a 22-year-old mother can be the best kind of mother.”
Michelle’s story of her unplanned and unmarried 20-something pregnancy is not that uncommon, though her success in achieving a happy balance between marriage, family and career may be.
A new report, co-authored by Kay Hymowitz, Jason Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox and Kelleen Kaye, and co-sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, The Relate Institute and the National Marriage Project shows us the new face of unmarried motherhood: 20-something women.
According to the report, titled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” unmarried 20-something mothers are more common than teen mothers. “By age 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married,” the report details. “By the time they turn 30, about two-thirds of American women have had a baby, typically out of wedlock. Overall, 48 percent of first births are to unmarried women, most of them in their twenties.”
Among women with college degrees, 12 percent of first births are to unmarried women. However, for those with less than college degrees, the percentages are much higher.
Among those women with high school degrees and perhaps some college education, 58 percent of first births are to unmarried women. Among high school dropouts, 83 percent of firstborn children are born to unmarried women. For these women, an economic recession and a struggling job market have already hindered upward mobility, but out-of-wedlock childrearing only further reduces chances of prosperity and flourishing.
But much like Michelle, many of these young adults are torn by the tension of their desire to have a child with the seemingly bad timing or situation of their pregnancy. In fact, according to the Knot Yet report, “roughly half of unmarried young adults ... said they would like to have a baby now if things were different (53 percent of men and 47 percent of women), and even among those who said it was important to avoid pregnancy right now, over a third went on to say they would be happy if they got pregnant.”
“Not surprisingly,” the report continues, “this ambivalence rises as education levels, marriage prospects and job opportunities fall.”
The Harms of Delayed Marriage for Children
In an age of ever-changing beliefs and public acceptance of different family structures, many may not consider 20-something unmarried parenting to be that bad. Yet sociological data indicate, the report notes, that children born to a single parent or cohabiting couples on average suffer emotionally, academically and financially in comparison to their peers in homes where the mother and father are married to each other.
A footnote in the Knot Yet report points to research by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill that suggests “that recent increases in single parenthood have played an important role in driving up child poverty in the United States.”
A recent federal study, as explained by Knot Yet co-author Brad Wilcox, shows that children living with their mother and her boyfriend, as opposed to their married biological mother and father, are 11 times more likely to experience sexual, physical or emotional abuse, and six times more likely to experience physical, emotional and educational neglect.
Children living with their biological parents who are cohabiting but not married experience all the same struggles, only to a slightly lesser degree, when compared to their peers living with their married mother and father. Children being raised by their unmarried but cohabiting parents are four times more likely to be sexually, physically or emotionally abused, and three times more likely to be physically, emotionally or educationally neglected than their peers living with their married biological parents.
“The science tells us,” Wilcox explains, “that children are not only more likely to thrive but are also more likely to simply survive when they are raised in an intact home headed by their married parents, rather than in a home headed by a cohabiting couple.”
These young unmarried mothers and fathers are struggling, too. Parents between the ages of 24 and 29 who are not married are more likely to report struggles with depression and drunkenness, as well as lower levels of life satisfaction than their peers who are married parents, according to data surveyed in the Knot Yet report.
For those currently aged 18-29, being a good parent is important, more important than having a successful marriage. According to Pew Social Trends, 52 percent of today’s 18-29-year-olds say being a good parent is “one of the most important things in their life,” whereas only 30 percent say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things.
Marriage remains a life goal for most young adults, as Hymowitz, Carroll, Wilcox and Kaye point out, with about 80 percent of all young adults reporting that marriage is an important part of their life plans. Marriage also continues to bring emotional and financial benefits for adults and children alike. So, why are young adults delaying marriage but not parenthood?
A host of reasons contribute, including economic factors related to the recession. But the report suggests that many young adults are unintentionally putting the “baby carriage in front of marriage” due to today’s reltaionship culture, which “offers virtually no signposts for young adults seeking to navigate romance, sex and relationships in ways that will be fruitful for their current lives and their future families.”
Still, they conclude that “we can and should bring marriage and childbearing back into sync,” for the sake of today’s 20-somethings and their children. They admit this will be difficult; “there are no panaceas for strengthening family formation among contemporary young adults.” But many young adults and their children are struggling in the current relationship culture, and as a result, America is seeing a demographic shift in family formation that is not promising emotional, physical or fiscal flourishing for most of the individuals involved.
The National Campaign’s Wrong Approach to Sex
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is in a prime position to partner in efforts to relink marriage and children. With reported success in helping to lower the national teen-pregnancy rate, the National Campaign has the ears of government leaders and significant amounts of money (from both donors and the government); they consult for various television programs and movies; and they have an extensive staff of researchers and talented social activists.
They’ve already started working to curb 20-something unplanned pregnancy. But a review of their efforts, especially in conjunction with the Knot Yet report findings, indicates that their work may not be a sweeping success.
Their three-year multimedia public-service campaign, called Bedsider, is co-sponsored with the Ad Council. Its goal is to promote consistent and effective use of birth control among 20-something women by way of making birth control use “sexy.”
With a mix of humor, sleek imaging and practical data on the basics and logistics of artificial contraception, Bedsider is “an online support network for women ages 18-29” with one main focus — a sex life that is fun and baby-free.
Bedsider’s tag line is “You didn’t give up on sex, don’t give up on birth control.” Its “About Us” section touts a woman’s right to “a happy, healthy sex life without worrying about an unplanned pregnancy.” And it offers members an app that encourages anonymous sharing of one’s sexcapades in an online database.
Indeed, Bedsider has stuck to its goal of making birth control “sexy,” making the site almost all about sex and much less about properly aligning relationships with future goals for marriage and family.
The National Campaign didn’t set out to create a site promoting contraception, Bill Albert, its Chief Program Operator (who is given editorial acknowledgment in the Knot Yet report), told me in an interview about a year ago. Their research showed them, he said, that young adults were having sex frequently but were uninformed about contraception and didn’t trust it.
Their research, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, also showed that nearly nine out of 10 young adults between ages 18-29 have had sex, and 78 percent of these have had sex within the past year. The overwhelming majority of these unmarried young adults — 94 percent of men and 86 percent of women — believe pregnancy should be planned. Despite the fact that 82 percent of these unmarried adults have used contraception at some point in their sexual activity, nearly one in five are currently not using any contraception.
The National Campaign’s data indicate that 30 percent of 18-29-year-olds say “they know little or nothing about condoms.” Sixty-three percent say “they know little or nothing about birth control pills.” And 56 percent say “they have not heard of the birth control implant.”
“Young people don’t know as much as they think they know [about contraception],” Albert told me. Citing yet another statistic from the National Campaign’s research, he pointed out that 40 percent of young adults agreed with the statement, “It doesn’t matter if you use birth control or not, when it’s your time to get pregnant, it will happen.” “[This] is simply an anti-science perspective,” Albert said, and one that the National Campaign is working to correct.
But notably missing from the conversation at Bedsider, and many other places in the culture, is a frequent reminder of the scientific fact that sex makes babies. Instead our culture, and Bedsider as well, would have us believe that “unprotected sex makes babies.”
Yet since the 1960s, when contraception became legal and more available, the percentage of nonmarital births has risen from 5 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2010. Further, researchers have noted that the presence of contraception has led to more “risk compensation,” the concept that the more “protected” one feels, the more risks one will take.
Indeed, Guttmacher Institute data shows that 48 percent of women facing unintended pregnancies were using contraception during the month they got pregnant. Perhaps this is due to human error or perhaps method failure, but the point remains — a pregnancy can occur, even when a woman thinks she is “protected.”
One searches Bedsider in vain for any encouragement that getting married and having children in your 20s is not only okay, but also biologically appropriate and potentially immensely fulfilling.
Their own data in Knot Yet tells them that adults and children do better when a mother and father are married as they welcome and raise children. So, the recommendation for women to engage in sexual activity raises an eyebrow. There are always exceptions to the welfare of children raised in single-parent versus married-parent homes, of course; but they are exceptions, not data-backed suggestions for a new normal.
Moreover, their suggestion to “shack up without the formality of a marriage certificate” fails to acknowledge that unintended births to cohabitating couples have risen from 14 percent of all births in 2002 to 23 percent of all births in 2010, according to the CDC.
Twenty-somethings are having sex and searching for meaning and purpose in their adult life, including in parenthood — even if they’re not married. Becoming a parent, especially a mom, often gives poor and disadvantaged young adults a sense of purpose and meaning in their often chaotic lives, according to sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, authors of the book "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage."
“[U]nderlying unintended pregnancy is a great deal of ambivalence — competing desires to have everything in place first versus having a baby now,” the Knot Yet report explains.
Young adults often choose to engage in sex because it feels right at the time, and they often want children; they just aren’t sure when. But many discover that unintended childbearing makes achieving their goals of a stable marriage, family and work balance harder to obtain. And this is where those clear “signposts” for relationships are incredibly important.
The National Campaign Should Expand Its Mission
I asked Albert why they didn’t use an effort like Bedsider to try to curb unplanned pregnancy by way of encouraging young adults to enter marriage and family life sooner. He responded that the idea of marriage is “beyond mission for us.” The National Campaign’s mission is to curb “teen and unplanned pregnancy,” and “we’re not the National Campaign to promote marriage,” he said.
He admitted that the outcomes for children are frequently considered at the National Campaign, and marriage is discussed too, but promoting marriage is simply “beyond mission.”
But now that the National Campaign knows some of the causes and costs of “unplanned” pregnancy, as well as young adult desires to marry and have children, why couldn’t helping them achieve these important life goals at least play a part in their mission to curb “unplanned” 20-something pregnancy?
Recent Bedsider content doesn’t indicate that their mission will expand. Yet one can almost be certain that young parents like Michelle, and the other 80 percent of 20-somethings who express a desire to get married, would find a breath of fresh air in content that approaches “unplanned” pregnancy with a case for young marriage and family life.
This article was first published on The Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse on April 8, 2013. Meg McDonnell is the communications director for the Chiaroscuro Foundation.