Single Motherhood: Good For Babies And Moms?

The non-profit Child Trends reports that a growing number of children are born to single mothers. Journalist Bonnie Goldstein — who was a single mom — argues that single women should think twice before deciding to have children. Host Michel Martin talks with Goldstein, single mom Resa Barillas, and Dani Tucker, a regular parenting contributor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we want to talk about an eye-catching report in The New York Times that appeared earlier this month that confirmed what many people probably already knew or saw in their communities - that single motherhood has actually become the norm in this country.

The majority of babies now born to women under 30 were born outside of marriage, that according to a recent report based on government data by the nonprofit group, Child Trends. And according to this report, the fastest growth in the last two decades has been among white women in their 20s who have some college education.

And, while a lot has happened in the last generation to make it easier for single moms, less stigma, more financial clout, for example, one former single mom is saying, not so fast. In a recent piece in The Washington Post "She the People" blog, journalist Bonnie Goldstein reflected on her own decision to embrace single motherhood back in the 1970s and she urged young single women thinking of having a baby on their own to think again.

And Bonnie Goldstein joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Hello.

BONNIE GOLDSTEIN: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Along with Dani Tucker, one of our regular moms contributors. She's the single mom of two teenagers. Hi, Dani. Welcome back.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Resa Barillas. She is the single mom of a one-year-old and she's also a contributor to Mamiverse.com. That's a site for Latina moms. Resa, thank you so much for joining us.

RESA BARILLAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Bonnie, I'm going to start with you. You were 22 when you got pregnant in 1971. You later married and had another child, and you say that the daughter you had as a single mom is all grown up, she's happy and she's successful. So why did you want to write this piece?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I'm not saying that children of single mothers don't thrive. Many, many, many do. What I wanted to just stop and let some of the teenagers and young women without a lot of resources to think about is how difficult it'll be on them, that a child needs constant supervision, constant supervision. Whatever freedom you have is now concentrated on taking care of a child. And that's just the beginning. It's gets - I mean, you have teenagers. Right?

MARTIN: No. My kids are little. They're actually little.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, they're still little?

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it gets even worse. It gets even harder.

MARTIN: Well, we're not - let's set teenagers aside for a second.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MARTIN: Because I think everybody agrees that teenagers - you know, that that's different. We're talking - and as the report indicated, the fastest growth in single motherhood is older women, women in their 20s, and so - and I just want to write about - which was you. And you wrote that, quote, "My casual fertilization was not an accident, but the result of an insanely naive notion. I wanted a companion, a small clone who would be my sidekick and best friend."

And I'm wondering if you think that that is how a lot of other young mothers feel or how they become mothers.

GOLDSTEIN: I suspect that people make decisions to have children out of, you know, as many different reasons as there are people that have them, but I think loneliness and I also think that some sort of narcissism might be involved in some of the decisions. I also - I eventually got what I wanted, although by that time, I wasn't having a sidekick and knocking around the world. I was working hard and, you know, getting to know myself as a responsible adult and it took quite a long time for me to educate myself on what it took.

MARTIN: Briefly, before we turn to the other moms, as you said, you know, you had it both ways. You were a single mom and then you also had another child while married. And did you find it a very big difference?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Well, it was a big difference for many reasons. Partly, because it was a different generation. It was - there are 16 years between the time that I had my daughter and the time I had my son and the world had done several back flips in the meantime.

So my daughter - I would give a token and, you know, shove out the door with a peanut butter sandwich and she would catch the public bus in Washington, D.C. And my son - we lived in the suburbs. We would - my husband and I would take turns walking four doors down to wait on the corner for the bus where all the other parents were also waiting with their children for the school bus. It was just a different time.

MARTIN: Resa Barillas, why don't we turn to you? Your son is a year old now and you had him at 23. What did you think about Bonnie's argument?

BARILLAS: You know, I understand the sentiment between - of warning moms or young girls against becoming single moms. It has been a really tough road. It's not easy. I don't have the freedoms that, you know, I did before I had him. But at the same time, you know, it's, I had him – he was, you know, so to speak, accidental. He wasn't intended. I didn't seek out to have a baby. That was actually, you know, far from the intention. But he, you know, he came into my life at a time that I was able to become a mother and support him. And I'm lucky that I have been able to. I have a great support net in my family. So, you know, to say that it's all or that to assume that young girls are considering becoming mothers out of a sense of loneliness or narcissism is a very broad-blanketed kind of notion.

I became a mother because I wanted to have children for my entire life, and it just so happened that, you know, even though it was earlier than I had intended, it was happening.

MARTIN: Resa, can I just, I have to push you. And I'm sorry, forgive me. I don't mean to sound mean.

BARILLAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But I think the – but I think Bonnie's point is it's selfish. It's selfish when you bring a child into the world – because, you know, you're certainly old enough to know how it works. And I think her argument is that it's selfish to bring a child into the world under circumstances that are not optimal. And I just wanted to ask – optimal as far as you can provide them, and part of that is having a partner...

BARILLAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to share the load. And so, forgive me if that sounds mean, but I do have to ask you, do you think that that might be true?

BARILLAS: Right. And, you know, I don't think that's true. I'm actually really lucky that his dad is so supportive. So in a sense I consider that we're co-parents. We don't live together. We aren't in any way - we don't have a romantic relationship but we're good friends and so in that sense, I don't think it's selfish because we do have two happy homes to provide a great life for our son.

MARTIN: We're talking about single motherhood, in light of a new report that finds that the majority of children born to women under 30 are born outside of marriage. I'm joined by Resa Barillas. She's a single mom in her 20s. That's who was speaking just now. Bonnie Goldstein is with us. She is a mom of two. She recently wrote an essay urging young women to think before they become single mothers, and also with us, Dani Tucker, one of our regular contributors.

Now Dani, you didn't set out to be a single mom. You were married to the father of your children but you later divorced. And you told us that you were giving Bonnie's piece some amens. And why did it resonate with you?

TUCKER: Total amens because it, I mean, you know, all respect to the mother that just spoke, to me it is a very selfish act when – because it's not what you want, it's what the child needs. And I think a lot of time what a child needs and the whole thing of parenting gets thrown in the back when a lot of single moms, OK, well, I've been to school, now I work and now I do this and now I can have children. No, this is not a decision to be made. This is a person's life. And parenting, nobody's ready for it. Don't even let them sit here and tell you they're ready for it. None of us were. I mean you can be prepared. You know, you can have a job. You can work. You can have an income, but nobody is ready to be a parent. That thing hits us all in the end.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who argue that actually women mostly raise children anyway around the world? Like let's say you are married and your husband is a soldier and you lose him...

TUCKER: No you don't.

MARTIN: ...you lose him to, but just let me finish my point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: That the argument is that really around the world and throughout history and time women really have been single parents because men go off to war – they go off to fight battles and they're gone, you know, for however long and that that's really – women pass on heritage anyway, so that's really the way it really is.

Villages raise our children. Parenting is not a solo act, it just isn't. It wasn't a solo act to get them here, so what makes you think it's going to be a solo act to raise them?

Just like the young lady said, technically she's not a single mom. Dad is still there. They just have two different households. They just have two different - but the father is still there and being a father. You can not do this by yourself.

When my kid's father stepped out and went on his charade for the years he went on, the village stepped in and helped me raise my children. You are not raising that child by yourself. You can't do it.

MARTIN: Let me ask also about this. You know, there's an enormous wealth gap between white women and black and Latina women. And this - and I wonder if you think this is related to that.

Child Trends found that nearly three out of four black children are already born to mothers outside of marriage. So this has long been the norm among black mothers. And there's obviously been a lot of commentary about that. Fifty-three percent of children born to Latina moms are now born outside of marriage compared to 29 percent of whites. And now we also know that there's an enormous wealth gap between white women and black and Latina women.

According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, single white women have the median wealth of $41,000. For black women it's $100. For Latinas it's just $120.

And so Dani, I'm curious if you think that that is related to the prevalence of single motherhood among particularly black and Latina moms.

TUCKER: I think it's related. I mean it governs what, to me what a lot that happens in the black community especially. Where you have a lot of moms who – like maybe the young lady who just spoke – they didn't do it on purpose but now they're pregnant and now they want to have this child, so a lot of them think their biological clock is ticking or whatever the case may be, or this maybe their only chance, but they make the decision, I have the child. Financially can we handle it? No, but they get a lot of help. They get a lot of help.

MARTIN: Bonnie, what about you? Do you think that that's true? Did you notice a very big difference? You said generationally so many things had changed. But did you feel just financially were you more secure when you were married?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I don't know. I was, I moved in with my mother when I had my child alone. And I don't, I couldn't possibly have managed without having my mother there and she worked also. But I got a job; I got two jobs. I took the baby to a very nice woman who had a child the same age who took care of her during the day. I'm embarrassed to say how little I had to pay her because it was 1972, but for me it was a big chunk of my, you know, my tip money at whatever income I had, and I couldn't have done it without having my mother as a backup. It was at least a year before I could afford to, you know, rent a basement apartment.

MARTIN: What would you like, what do you want to happen as a result of your piece, Bonnie? What would you hope would conversations would be sparked by it or thoughts?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I didn't mean to be a didactic or doctrinaire. And I'm sure that I didn't mean to suggest that moms like Resa aren't, you know, raising healthy babies and happy children and love their children. And I just sort of wanted to say stop and think about the responsibilities that are involved before you think about how adorable a little baby would be or even a, you know, teenager.

MARTIN: Did you have that conversation with your daughter, as you point out in the piece, is also a single mom herself now?

GOLDSTEIN: But she's an adult. She was an adult with an established career and she was just at a completely different place in her life.

MARTIN: Sure.

Resa, what would you like people to know from this conversation? Or just from your life as a single mom yourself, is there some message that you would like to pass on?

BARILLAS: You know, and to go back to what everybody's been saying, it does take a village. And if I didn't have the support group that I have, I - then my decision would've been wholly different. And it is important to have that support group. If you don't have that kind of support group then it's going to be near impossible to raise a child.

MARTIN: Why do you think this trend is as it is? As we said, that this is something that has - it's been sort of a decade's long trend in the making, but it's now the majority of children and some of it has to do with the fact that, you know, black and Latina moms, it's now the majority in those groups. Why do you think that is? Any thoughts?

BARILLAS: You know, I think there are a lot of ways to the become a single parent and I think it is related to the fact that couples aren't getting married as early anymore. And it's, you know, the statistics say that it's single mothers or unmarried women are having children. It's not necessarily saying if the partner is in the or if the father is in the picture. So I think there are a lot of ways to become a single parent, but I think statistically speaking I think it does have a lot to do with the fact that, you know, young people aren't necessarily getting married as soon. They may get married down the line.

MARTIN: Do you think your - the baby's father is going to stay in the picture?

BARILLAS: Oh, absolutely. He's a wonderful dad there. You know, our goal was to have them doing weekend visits, like sleepovers. By the time he was a year old and, you know, it's been happening. I mean he's just great. He's been there every step of the way area. Before then, he would visit us on the weekends. So, I mean, it's - he's, like I said, been a great support and he has every intention of staying in the picture for Cameron's entire life.

MARTIN: But you didn't consult with him before making the decision to have the child.

BARILLAS: I didn't. I had made my decision and I let him know and I gave him the option, if you want to be involved you can be involved. But, you know, if that's not the case then that's your choice. You're an adult but this is what I want.

MARTIN: Well, we'll check in with you. I hope things will continue to go well.

Dani, I want to give you a final thought here.

BARILLAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: What do you think is behind this trend and what's your final thought here? What would you want people to think about in the wake of this conversation and this new information about how this has become the norm?

TUCKER: Take the I out of parenting. There is no I. I can do this. I wanted to do this. I thought this. We are in this real I mode. I mean, and like I said, all respect to the mother that just spoke, that's what you hear. I could do this. Well, I'll give you the option if you want to do this or that. No. Parenting is never solo. It's never an I. There's going to be a village. The TV, it can be part of your village. The neighbor could be part of your village. The teachers. But there's going to be somebody helping you raise that child. And you need to think about that. You need to think about that before you make the what-I-want decisions. Remember, that this is - there's a life involved here, OK, and it's more than just what you want.

MARTIN: I have the feeling we'll be talking about this again. So thank you all so much for visiting with us about this.

Dani Tucker is one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. She's the single mom of two teenagers, and she was here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Along with Bonnie Goldstein. She is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog and a freelance journalist and a mom of two. Resa Barillas is a freelance web designer. She lives in Orange County, California. She's the mom of a one-year-old son and a contributor to Mamiverse.com. That's the website for Latina moms. She was with us from Costa Mesa, California. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks, Michel.

BARILLAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: But before we go, I want to take a minute to remember Jan Berenstain, the co-creator of "The Berenstain Bears" series of children's books. She died last Friday, February 24th, at her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. According to her son, she had had a stroke.

Her husband Stan, with whom she created this series of books, died in 2005. But since their first book was published in 1962, it was called "The Big Money Hunt" - "The Big Honey Hunt." The couple sold more than 260 million books.

Now most American schoolchildren at some point will see one of them at least. Now in recent years some have criticized the books as old-fashioned. But many parents of young children appreciated them for their gentle guidance through the ups and downs of childhood and a celebration of simple fun, like going on car trips and picnics. Jan Berenstain, co-creator of "The Berenstain Bears" book series, died last Friday at the age of 88.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow.

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