Babies Before (Or Instead Of) Marriage: What’s Your Opinion?

Does it matter when Baby comes?

The just-released State of Our Unions report tells us that the percentage of kids born outside of marriage rose from 18% to 40% just since 1980. Not only that, but the number of kids whose parents are “just living together” rose from just under half a million to over 2.5 million during that same period. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is on its way out. The same report states that among high school seniors, 71% of boys and 82% of girls said that “having a good marriage and family life is extremely important” to them. But at the same time, over half also said “having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle or not affecting anyone else.” (Except for the child, of course.)

In data collected by The National Campaign, 47% of 18 to 24-year-olds say they expect to marry and have a baby with their current partner, but not necessarily in that order. Certainly, the example set by celebrities is that it’s almost the norm to have one or more children–or at least getting pregnant–before marrying (if they even marry at all).  Are young people today following the lead of those who are in the public eye, or are the celebrities merely mirroring the changing norms of society? Or is it a little of both?

It might sound like I’m disapproving. And I am, a little. I can understand an unplanned pregnancy precipitating a wedding. I can even accept a woman having a baby when she doesn’t have an ongoing relationship with the father. But if you’re going to get married anyway, why have your baby before the wedding? Wouldn’t you rather be husband and wife before you’re father and mother?

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Women in the Military

AP Photo of Alexis Hutchinson and son Kamani

Back in November, the Associated Press reported on the case of Alexis Hutchinson, an Army cook and single mother who refused to deploy with her unit to Afghanistan because she had no one to care for her then 10-month-old son, Kamani. Spc. Hutchinson was arrested and charged with offenses that could have led to a court martial. Last Thursday, however, the New York Times reported that Hutchinson received a less-than-honorable, or administrative, discharge instead. (Which means no health care or other benefits.)

Needless to say, Hutchinson’s case caused a lot of controversy. People’s reactions ranged from empathy to outrage. Some felt that she should be court-martialed, because her duty to her country takes precedence over her duty to her child. Others felt that any woman in the military could find herself in the same situation through no fault of her own and that she should be cut some slack. There were those who criticized her for getting pregnant in the first place and others who criticized her mother for pulling out of her agreement to watch Hutchinson’s son.

This case is a prime example of the kind of situation anti-feminists point to when they say that feminism has created more problems than it has solved. But those who think feminism is unnecessary or even wrong don’t know their history. During World War II, women were sought by the military to man desks and do other non-combatant work to free the men up for fighting. Assistant Chief of Staff John Hildring explained that “we have found difficulty getting enlisted men to perform tedious duties anywhere nearly as well as women will do it.” *

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After a Divorce–When There Are Kids

Jon Gosselin has reportedly said, “Our marriage fell apart and I felt like I was free. And I kinda took advantage of it for a while and didn’t really think about my actions, obviously, until I started getting paparazzi and written about. But that’s maturing. That’s growing up.”

How nice. Our big boy is growing up. Now if he can just do it in time to help his children do the same–hopefully before their thirties and they have children of their own. And notice that it was the media attention that caused him to reflect on his behavior–not what his behavior might have been doing to his kids. Say what you will about Kate, she’s not the one dating several different people, going to clubs, buying an apartment that has no room for the kids. And that’s how it usually is. Divorced mothers seem to feel more of a sense of responsibility toward their children than do divorced fathers.

I don’t mean to pick on men, but in cases where they don’t get custody and only have visitation rights, it’s all too easy for them to become focused on their own issues instead of the day-to-day issues their children may have. It might be more fair to say that the parent who has custody is more conscious of and responsive to his or her children’s needs. But in a society where women are still awarded custody in the majority of divorces, it will naturally be the women who feel the responsibility more keenly than the men do. And so this post is about what women go through when they suddenly become single mothers.

  1. They’re always “on.” There’s no one else to spell them, to take over for even a few minutes.
  2. They have to take care of all the minutiae that makes up their children’s lives. The permission slip, the daily lunch money, the skinned knee, the upset tummy–the list is endless.
  3. They rarely have time for themselves. Not even to go to the bathroom.
  4. They don’t have anyone to share their kids with. At least not anyone who is privy to the same day-to-day information that they are. It’s lonely to not have anyone to turn to and say, “Remember when…?” or “Isn’t that cute?”
  5. They never get enough rest. You can’t when you’re trying to be two people.
  6. They never have enough money, even if they get child support. The little things add up quickly and the child support is basically used up by the big-ticket items (housing, food, clothing.)
  7. They are always being compared to the other parent and to other mothers (most of whom are not single). Especially by the kids themselves. And others: I once had my sister lecture me for being away from my kids nine hours a day, even though I had to work.
  8. They have to exercise superhuman self-control: over their mouths (and the things they want to say about their exes), their emotions, their sexual desires, their consumption habits, and their time.
  9. They are the only ones there to listen to their kids, an important but often underappreciated function.
  10. They have to give up their kids for part or all of every special occasion. The respite from caring for them never quite makes up for the loneliness.

I have a feeling that Kate Gosselin is aware of most of these things. And if she and Jon end up sharing custody evenly (and what do you want to bet that they don’t?), I hope Jon comes to accept these realities like the man he is striving to become.

Single Motherhood Again

I became a single mother after my marriage of ten years collapsed. So I wasn’t like the mothers who know before they have their children that there isn’t going to be a father figure around the house. I always assumed that there would be, or I doubt that I would had children. Even so, I became a single mother. But there are those out there who saw my single motherhood as a choice anyway. One co-worker told me, “No one made you get a divorce.” No, but I shudder to think what my life–and the lives of my children–would have been like if I had stayed married. I may have chosen to get divorced, but I never saw that as a deliberate choice to become a single mother. I would rather have avoided that.

However, sometimes it’s better to be a single mother than to be unhappily married. My children have often told me that they think we were all better off the way things turned out. Not because their father was no good, but because the two of us together were a disaster. It was much better that both of us were separate but happy than together and miserable. That doesn’t mean that single parenthood was easy for either of us.

Custody and child support issues are real problems for single mothers. The paying of child support often motivates the payer to seek custody–or at least to threaten it. I would have gladly foregone the child support in order to quell the resentment my ex-husband felt over having to pay child support. But I couldn’t afford to. So I had to put up with it–and his periodic threats to seek custody–for over sixteen years. Once he was off the hook, so to speak, our relationship became much less confrontational.

I don’t think it’s ever easy to be a single mother. It’s really hard to be a parent period, and when you don’t have anyone to spell you, it can be crazy-making. Single mothers who work outside of the home (which is most of them) need affordable, quality child care, but that’s not easy to find. Sometimes the cost of child care makes it impossible for a single mother to work. (Which is something the “Welfare to Work” programs don’t seem to understand.) Even if she can pay for it, she may not be left with much disposable income, if any. She can’t afford necessities, let alone luxuries, because so much of her pay goes toward child care.

My co-worker (who happened to be a fundamentalist Christian) would probably not be sympathetic with the plight of the single mother, no matter how she got that way. In fact, he would probably have been even more judgmental toward women who choose to have children without an “on-site” father. Of course, he wouldn’t have countenanced an abortion, should a single woman become pregnant. I guess the only answer in his eyes would be adoption. But why should a woman put her child up for adoption when she’s perfectly willing to raise her child herself?

No matter the reason for a mother being single, she is still deserving of outside help. She is fortunate if she has family to help her, but not everyone does. When the government forces her to work (and often a judge will require it in the case of divorce), society needs to back up what it expects of her with programs that actually help instead of make matters worse. Even well-off working mothers are in need of flexible work schedules and paid family leave. To do anything less is to tell the world that this country doesn’t care about its children.

And to judge by its actions and attitudes toward single mothers, I’m not sure that it does.

Attitudes Toward Single Motherhood By Choice

Accidentally On Purpose is a book about one woman’s decision to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy even though she was 39 years old, unmarried, and had conceived during a one-night stand. In June, 2008, interviewed the author, Mary Pols (“And Baby Daddy Makes Three”), about the continuing involvement of “Baby Daddy” in her son’s life. The interview was interesting but what really got me going were the comments. They are the reason that I’m writing this post in a feminist blog.

Here are a few examples:

I feel like this author pretty much admitted trapping this young man into fatherhood. She expected/hoped that he would flake on her – but he’s a stand up guy so now he’s a happy, proud father. But it’s still not right. I still can’t help but think that fatherhood should have been different for this man.

I don’t know. This story makes me deeply uncomfortable. And yes – I would have seen it all much, much differently had she gone to a sperm bank.