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Births to unmarried women are increasing so much and the stigmas falling so fast that sociologists don't know yet the consequences. But it's not just Dan Quayle sounding the alarm. Liberals, too, warn of a threat to the American family as the United States experiences more cases of . . . : Mothers Go It Alone

July 22, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1965, Cindy Shacklett, then a middle-class student from Los Angeles, confessed to her parents that she was pregnant. To save face, her angry father and weeping mother sent her to a home for unwed mothers in Phoenix and told friends and family she had gone away to college. To ensure no one would find out, her parents paid the home with checks made out to the fictitious "Jane Adams."

Today, that sort of shame has largely gone the way of saddle shoes and sweater clips. The words "illegitimate" or "bastard" are rarely heard; teen mothers can find infant care in several regular Los Angeles Unified School District high schools; single career women deliberately seek pregnancy, often receiving praise and baby showers from friends and family.

Stigmas against unwed mothers have dissipated so dramatically in a single generation that seven months ago, Pasadena optometrist and civic leader Irene Sang, 33, had herself impregnated with donor sperm and raised nary an eyebrow. "I'm very responsible," said the Rotary Club member. "People had to take a second look and say, 'Wait a minute. If Irene has done this, there must be some legitimacy to it, rather than illegitimacy.' "

A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau states that 16.5 million never-married American women are now mothers. According to the report, they make up 24% of all unmarried women ages 18-44, a 56% increase from 10 years ago. If anything, the figures downplay the extent of single motherhood because they include only births to never-married women, and exclude mothers who have been divorced, widowed, separated or who have adopted children on their own.

"Clearly, this is a new trend but not as new as some people think," said family historian Stephanie Coontz, author of "The Way We Never Were." Rates of unwed childbearing have waxed and waned with times of economic and social stress. "We're just realizing how much white, unwed childbearing went on in the 1950s when children were adopted out and not recorded," she said. "Nevertheless, never before in American history have so many out-of-wedlock births occurred so openly."

Changes in attitudes and behavior have occurred too fast and unevenly for any consensus about the causes and consequences of unwed births, experts say. "Some do represent an important liberation and expansion of options," said Coontz, herself a single mother and professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "But others clearly represent a breakdown in responsibility. We just don't have a set of guidelines or therapeutic interventions that help us deal with it realistically and make distinctions."

Poor, uneducated women, and members of minority groups still constitute the greatest numbers of unwed mothers. But the biggest surprise in the Census Bureau's report was that the largest rates of increase were seen among white women, women with college educations, and professional managerial women who are openly choosing unwed motherhood--a phenomenon sociologists now call "Murphy Brownism."

Last year, then-Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the acceptance and proliferation of unwed motherhood, as symbolized by the television character, for much of the social dysfunction in the United States. The uproar he created was followed by an equally controversial Atlantic magazine cover story, "Dan Quayle Was Right." (See related story, Page E2.) Partisans have been fighting ever since over whether unwed motherhood represents a new reality that must be accommodated or an alarming trend that ought to be re-stigmatized.

Each side produces research to support its claim. One side cites studies that show fatherless households contribute to violence, poverty, emotional problems, and dropping out of school. The other side points to studies that show that unhappy two-parent homes produce children more damaged than those of divorced parents, or that never-married households produce higher-achieving children than those in step families.

The Census report raises the debate by making some distinctions among single mothers, said E. Kay Trimberger, a sociologist at Sonoma State University. Trimberger, 53, and a single, adoptive mother of a 12-year-old boy, said: "There are women who end up single mothers by divorce, others by choice. There are the very young and people who are poor. These are all very different experiences, and can't be captured by the phrase 'single mothers.' "

Arlene Skolnick, a research psychologist at UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development said, "What scares people is that they think (all unwed mothers) are being Amazons. . . . Some people think that the fact women are having children out of wedlock means the end of American society and the family. That's it. Other people are worried that maybe single parents are not good for children, or cause poverty."

Skolnick said the fight over single motherhood is one result of the "cultural earthquake" of the 1960s. Until society catches up, she said, "We're living in the rubble."

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