Single Mothers by Choice

By Mannis, Valerie S. | Family Relations, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Single Mothers by Choice


Mannis, Valerie S., Family Relations


Single Mothers by Choice*

This study used in depth qualitative interviews with ten women who chose to become single mothers to describe multiple individual and social contextual factors that women felt made their nontraditional choice possible. A grounded theory analysis revealed that for this sample of educated, financially autonomous women, single motherhood was chosen with support from family, friends, employers, clergy, physicians, and sometimes the foreign adoption industry. These results give a new face and voice to the single mother, expanding our understanding of postmodern families.

Key Words: lone mothers, mothers by choice, self-sufficient mothering, single mothers, solo mothers.

Single-mother households constitute a significant part of the contemporary American family profile. In 1970, homes maintained by a mother with children under 18 made up 12% of the U.S. total. Single-mother homes rose to 19% in 1980, to 24% in 1990, and to 26% in 1995. Nonmarital births have increased in all age groups from 15 to over 35 years of age. In 1970, 10.7% of all births were to unmarried women; by 1993, this had grown to 31%. By 1994, 37.8% of all births were to unmarried women; of these, 20.6% were births to unmarried women between the ages of 30 and 44 years (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1996).

This demographic change in the American family has been met with different responses. Some scholars take a pessimistic view seeing the family in decline, the father vanishing from the lives of children, the loss of traditional values, and a breakdown of the social order (Blankenthorn, 1995; Popenoe, 1993). Others hold a postmodern view suggesting families are not declining but changing, with new family configurations emerging to cope with new work and social patterns (Stacey, 1993, 1996). Some emphasize that women's choices are influenced by economic forces (Gerson, 1985) and by men's changing attitudes and commitment to family life (Gerson, 1993, 1997).

Researchers do not agree on the reasons for widespread, nonmarital births. Many believe that mother-only families result from a breakdown of a stable family or death of the father. In academia, the bias that single-mother families are a misfortune rather than a choice remains (Miller, 1992). This concentration on the negative does not sufficiently incorporate an understanding of the variance in this population group. A notable exception to this approach is Burns and Scott's (1994) study describing and explaining the increase in single mothering worldwide. This was not, however, an ethnographic study that would allow us to hear from single mothers in their own voice.

Though divided in interpretation of the trends, little disagreement has been voiced that change is occurring (Stacey, 1993; Glenn, 1993; Cowan, 1993; Popenoe, 1993). Single mothers in the United States and worldwide represent an ever-growing proportion of the adult population (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1996), and the proportion of mothers who are single is growing across all socioeconomic groups (Thompson & Gongla, 1983).

While there is slow but growing acceptance of single mothers in the popular press (e.g., Leslie, 1994; Ludtke, 1997) and some self-help efforts have surfaced to even encourage this family form (Mattes, 1994; Saffron, 1994), most scholarly research and public policy continues to focus on negative aspects of single mothering. Concern is justifiable considering the disproportionate levels of poverty found in mother-headed families, their social consequences, and their intersection with race, class, and gender inequities (Foster, Jones, & Hoffman, 1998; Garfinkel & McLanahan, 1986; McLanahan & Booth, 1989; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Polokow, 1993).

Taking a lifecourse approach enriched by a feminist perspective, this study focused on a subgroup of single mothers that has not received much scholarly attention: financially independent, adult women who are single mothers by choice. …

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