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."
Meanwhile, as stigmas against single mothers have fallen, analysts cite significant continuing prejudice against children of unwed parents.
For instance, Coontz said, one study showed teachers tend to devalue the social and intellectual skills of children from single-parent homes. "If you show a videotape to teachers of the same kid and tell one group that the child is from a married-couple family and another group that he is from a single-parent family, that group consistently evaluates the same video more negatively." Moreover, she said: "We also find a big disparity in booking rates. Police are more likely to book a child of a single parent for the same offense that gets a child released to parents with a lecture."
Rather than blame parents, she said society can help by distinguishing patterns in new kinds of families and accommodating them.
For instance, single parents tend to spend less time with their children's homework, but talk to them more than adults in two-parent homes. This can work to a child's advantage if teachers alter their homework assignments by asking children to read to their parents while they make dinner or are driving, or do math while shopping. Teachers who tried it saw a dramatic difference in the academic performance of children from single-parent homes, Coontz said.
Beverly Schneider, 37, of Van Nuys said she takes the offensive when dealing with new teachers for her daughter Jessica, 8. "I talk to them right away, saying, 'In our family, we don't have a dad. That's our family.' So that they'll be more sensitive to stuff like Father's Day. They don't want to embarrass themselves, either."
Schneider, coordinator of the local chapter of the national organization Single Mothers By Choice, said, "I decided consciously that I would present myself with confidence and with the feeling that this is OK. I feel it's OK and you can also feel it's OK."
Because half of all children are now predicted to spend some of their childhood in a single-parent home, their children at least have plenty of company. "My son knows many others who don't have a father," said Trimberger, who lives in Berkeley. "They're divorced, never had one, whatever. He also knows children with two mothers or two fathers--gays who are out of the closet. There's such a wide range of family forms, at least in my community. I don't think he feels stigmatized."
Some single mothers said stigmas still exist for them and sometimes extend to the unwed fathers.
Ann Harrison, 34, an unwed mother from Orange and a program director for a Christian radio station, "People make comments that are politically correct. In their heart of hearts, people feel the same old thing: 'What's wrong with them?' "
Harrison said she became pregnant after getting "carried away" one evening with a boyfriend in an on-again, off-again relationship. She was self-conscious among fellow evangelicals, feeling sure some thought she was a "bad girl." But while she found some support for at least not having had an abortion, the situation was harder on her boyfriend, she said.
"People think he's the bad guy," she said. A doctor, he was once too embarrassed to accompany her to a medical appointment and opted to wait for her outside the doctor's office instead. Plus, she said, "The fact that he has an incomplete situation has affected all his other relationships with women."
Some unwed fathers are trying to take an active role in parenting, initiating searches for the babies adopted out by ex-wives or girlfriends. Some are suing for custody or visitation rights.
But, despite stepped-up efforts to identify fathers and collect child support, many unwed fathers still seem immune from stigma or responsibility.
According to Los Angeles psychologist Nora Weckler: "Most men tend to keep quiet about it. If a child tracks them down later, then they're really interested. They're delighted to find a grown child is interested in them. If it's a functional child, they take credit for it."
Many of the members of Single Mothers By Choice say they are not opposed to husbands, but simply never found one they wanted. Rather than risk another flawed relationship with a man, many prefer the anonymity of a sperm donor.
Connie Travis, 39, a corporate accounting manager in Laguna Niguel, had been divorced twice before she opted for artificial insemination at a fertility clinic. "I had decided even at a real young age, I didn't want to bring a child into a home with a bad relationship. I just think it's more difficult to date, difficult to meet people, to even have that opportunity. Then when women get to an age where they think, 'Oops, something's missing and it's something I really want,' this is an opportunity for them.
"I don't think fathers are unnecessary," she said. "Ideally, I would love to have a traditional family. A husband and children by that man and a father of my son. But I wouldn't compromise his life nor mine to achieve that." Her son Taylor is 13 months old.
Traditionalists need not fear that unwed parenting will become the norm in society, Skolnick said. For one thing, the United States is still the most marrying country in the world. "Almost all women in every socioeconomic group would prefer to be married," she said. Harrison said she agrees with Quayle. "A father and a mother are ideal for a child. So life is less than ideal. News bulletin." Yet as she watches her son Miles grow independent, she finds herself thinking of having another baby. She might consider starting a relationship. But "very few people catch my eye. I'm really kind of tired and busy," she said.
And, after seven years, she sees advantages to single parenting. "At least when I come home at night, I make the rules. You don't have to compromise. You're not subject to anybody else's mood swing."
It hasn't been easy or perfect. But all things considered, she said, "I think I'm a better person after having Miles."