Report: Being 'Unmarried with Children' Increasingly Popular

A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics indicates the rate of unmarried women who decide to have children is rising, which suggests a possibly emerging definition of family. This week's Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey and Asra Nomani, are joined by Audria Dunson, to discuss women who decide to have children even though they are not married.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, the African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

This week, a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows a rise in teen births, after years of decline. We talked about that yesterday. But the report also shows another interesting statistic. The rate of births among unmarried women hit a record high in 2006. The total number of births to unmarried mothers rose 8 percent. That was more than 1.6 million. And that represents a 20 percent increase from 2002. We wondered what this all means, so we decided to take it to the moms.

We're joined by Jolene Ivey, as usual, co-founder of Mocha Moms and a mother of five, Asra Nomani, a journalist and mother of a young son, and Audria Dunson, the mother of a young daughter. And both Asra and Audria are single moms by choice.

Welcome, ladies. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-founder, Mocha Moms): Hi, Michel.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Journalist): Hi, Michel.

Ms. AUDRIA DUNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And let me start with you, Asra. When I say that you chose to be a single mom, does that capture what it feels like to you?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, I stumbled upon a Web site early on in my pregnancy that said Single Mothers by Choice, and finally I felt liberated that there is a category for me. But the truth is that I wasn't planning my pregnancy. I was pregnant in Pakistan right after September 11th with a boyfriend who bailed very quickly. My choice was whether or not to have an abortion or to bring my baby into the world.

I - as a Muslim woman, was facing, you know, the same sort of stigma that Hester Prynne had in Puritan America. And it was because my parents said that they would support me and they didn't condemn me and shame me that I then did make the choice to have my son.

MARTIN: Did you ever consider not going for it?

Ms. NOMANI: I did. In Islam, we have a concept of nafs or ruh, which is when the breath of the divine enters a soul. So it's sort of that moment until Western society allows abortion. And so I was counting the days. I mean, I was looking at my calendar until I could sort of make that legal abortion, that choice from a religious point of view. And it was hell, all the way through the pregnancy, in fact, a really difficult decision because the sense of illegitimacy was so strong inside of me, and it took my mom walking me through our neighborhood in Morgantown, West Virginia, to say, Asra you don't live in a village. You live here in America, where you don't have to be defined by the judgments that others make about you. And she helped to free me, because otherwise, I know that my son would have inherited that same sense of shame. She just basically kicked my butt, you know, as a good mom does. And when I - he came in before…

MARTIN: But, you know, did your mother feel ashamed?

Ms. NOMANI: No. You know it was just really remarkable. And it - to me, it's testimony to, sort of, how wisdom knows no age. And, you know, we always think that we get sort of wiser and more sophisticated as we move along, and that the old folks might be holding on to old-school ideas, also, that you've got to have the wedding ring. But my mom just looked at the math, which was that I was in my late 30s by then. I had a job. I was settled. And so I could take care of my baby. And so she felt like this was going to be a responsible choice.

MARTIN: And Audria, what about you? Do you feel that you chose? Do you feel that you were a single mother by choice?

Ms. DUNSON: Definitely. I felt that I had three choices, basically: to be a mother alone raising a child, to abort, or to put her for adoption. And I quickly ruled out the latter two, abortion and adoption, because I looked at my age and I looked at where I was in life, much like Asra said, and I felt that God had given me this opportunity to be a mother, which, prior to finding out that I was pregnant I'd always stated that if I turned 35, 36 and was not married and did not have a child on the way or prospects of one, that I would adopt. So I always knew I wanted to be a mother. I just thought that I would be a wife and a mother first, and it just didn't happen that way.

MARTIN: Can I ask you both this question? There are those who would argue that this is a selfish choice, that having children is not easy. In fact, I think this has become an issue in the presidential campaign, as it sometimes is. There have been a number of presidential candidates this year who've talked about the need to restore what they consider to be, sort of, intact families. Here's an example of that.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Massachusetts Governor; Republican Presidential Candidate): We're people that are designed to live together as male and female, that we're going to have families. And that - there's a great line in the Bible that children are an inheritance of the Lord, and happy is he who has - or hath his quiver full of them.

MARTIN: That was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He was speaking on "60 Minutes" earlier this year.

Audria, what do you say to that? Do you feel stigmatized as a single mom? Do you feel the burden of that?

Ms. DUNSON: Initially, I thought that I would before I began to share with those that were around me that I was going to have a baby. I did worry about how people would perceive me and how people would take to me. I was very active in the church. And I just felt that possibly this could cause some others to fall or others, particularly the youth that I hung around with or talked to, to see me as a hypocrite. And what I decided to do was just go to their parents and talk to them and let them know that as someone that they talked to and shared their issues with, that I was pregnant and I had decided to have a child. And to my surprise, all of them welcomed me with open arms.

MARTIN: You know, in the African-American community, obviously, this has become a dominant family style. I think a majority of kids in African-American households are probably born to single-parent households at the moment, or at some point will live in a single-parent household. And yet, it's still not a completely agreed upon choice, if you know what I mean. There are a lot of people in the African-American community who would argue that this is not positive. What do you - how do you sort all of that out?

Ms. DUNSON: I think if you're raising a child in the way that you know is best for you and that child, that, yes, it would - it may be better to have two parents in the household, but that's not always possible. And as long as you're doing your very best to give that child the love and the care and the values and the morals that it needs to survive in this world, that's what it takes. That builds a family. And like you said when you opened the show, it takes a village to raise a child, it really does. And a village may not be fathers. It may not be uncles, but it may be a group of women who are just experienced enough to know what do and how to handle situations to give a child round - a well-rounded view of the world and of life.

MARTIN: Jolene, what do you think about all this?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I think that it's really the most difficult job you can have is to be single parent. You know, my mom left when I was very small and my dad, he raised us for several years pretty much on his own with some help from his mom, my grandma. And he eventually remarried. And I know it was not easy for him, and it was not easy for us. And it was so much better when he did remarry and we had a woman who was in our lives routinely, who did all those things that kind of complete a family, somebody else who could, you know, back him up. And I know how fortunate I am to have a husband who's very supportive of me and helps with the kids. He doesn't just help. I mean, sometimes, he's the main parent these days, and he does such a great job. I would hate to think that I would have to raise these kids by myself. Obviously, I would do it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, it's our regular weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. And we're having a special Mocha Moms, talking about the increase in the number of woman having children on their own.

Jolene, do you - what about, you know, the Mocha Moms - I know part of the credo of the Mocha Moms is not to judge people's choices, not to judge that women who work outside the home and pit them against the women who don't, you know, work - choose to primarily stay at, you know, at home. But what about that? Do you think that there's sometimes a tension between women who've chosen to have children within marriage against women who've chosen to have otherwise? They feel like you guys are causing problems for me, or what? Or are you just, you know, you're dragging us down, or what?

Ms. IVEY: No, I don't feel that way at all. What I feel is that we are defining this so incorrectly. Why should the single mothers feel there's any judgment to them? For every child that comes along, there is a man who impregnated this woman who is responsible. And if they are not coming and contributing to the household financially, if they're not coming to help with those children - they might not marry the woman. Maybe they don't want to get married. That might be the best choice. But to abandon the family, now that's the problem. Why do we look at statistics and say how many of these are single, unwed mothers? What about all these unwed fathers who are not contributing? That's what I want to complain about.

MARTIN: Do you feel that there's a - I'm wondering - it's always been the case. I know, you know, Jesse Jackson - Reverend Jesse Jackson tells the story of his mother, you know, who had him out of wedlock, having to stand up before her congregation at church and…

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. And where was his father?

MARTIN: …and seeks their forgiveness, and the father was never asked to do that.

Ms. IVEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But I don't know what that means. I don't — you know…

Ms. IVEY: Well, that means if we have to…

MARTIN: You can't reverse 2,000 years of social history overnight. I don't know.

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. I really want us all to stop and say, what about the fathers, and stop blaming the women.

MARTIN: But are we blaming them?

Ms. IVEY: Well, in a way, we are.

MARTIN: That's why I'm asking. Are we blaming them?

Ms. IVEY: If our whole thing is going to sit here and say, oh, but then the women are heading these households that don't have enough money. Well, should we just say, you know, therefore, you shouldn't have had the child? Or should we look at the men and say, therefore, you shouldn't have impregnated her? Therefore, you shouldn't have left her and not brought her anything but a pack of Pampers? That drives me crazy. I mean, the men have to be responsible, too. They have to think about, do I want to have sex with this woman who could potentially bear my child? Don't just put it on the woman.

MARTIN: Well, but there's two sides to that, Jolene, as you would know. For example, I think there are other men who would argue that they don't - aren't given as much choice about whether a woman proceeds with the pregnancy or not…

Ms. IVEY: True.

MARTIN: …and yet they're expected to be financially responsible.

Ms. IVEY: Then wrap it up, baby.

MARTIN: That would be that argument. Okay.

Ms. IVEY: Go put that condom on.

MARTIN: I don't know. Asra, what do you say to that? You've written about the fact that if you were living in Pakistan now, that this would be very difficult for you. You would be…

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: …very much a target. What about him? Would he face any consequences?

Ms. NOMANI: He would. And for that reason, because I'm free of any expectation of him, I really don't have that rage and that anger that I had during my pregnancy, because I definitely learned that that is something that I don't want my son to inherit at all. I've talked to - I interview every male waiter, you know, Applebee's who's been raised by a single mom about what worked and what didn't work.

And the one thing I definitely hear consistently is that when their mom had a grudge against their dad and had them inherit it, it was painful. And I'm committed to not doing that. So I came up with some kind of story for my son that would have a positive spin on his dad about how he needed to protect his family. Because of that, I didn't mention - talk about all the shame and all of that stuff, but I wanted to have him as a protector and an honorable person. And I think that it's critical to sort of protect that in Shibli's mind, also.

MARTIN: What do you think? You know, you're also a journalist, Asra, and you know, you live in a world of sort of statistics and so forth when you choose to do that. And do you feel that is there something lost, or because that is the narrative that we're now in, that there's something, you know, lost when families are formed in this way, and that there are other people, you know, Audria, who's saying, you know what? Maybe this is just a new way to have a family. So I don't - I'm just wondering, you know, where you think this discussion goes. Is this just the new way that we will be living? Is this going to be part of the array of choices that we will live in now? Are we determined to continue having this debate over whether is this a good thing or bad thing or not?

Ms. NOMANI: No, I think we're going to deal with it as a society. And, you know, I look back to the birth of my own religion, Islam, and it began with a single mom named Hagar, you know, who is left in the desert by Abraham and raised her child Ishmael by herself. And I have to say that this has been, you know, a struggle since the beginning of time, I think, about how do we deal with a woman like that in a society.

This is the model that's going to be a part of our society. And we're dealing with it. Books - children's books will be rewritten with this kind of concept. I have to literally edit as I read some of my books to Shibli about bears and pandas where the father is sometimes the uncle, because I don't want to keep repeating that message as the only model possible in the family. And I think as society continues to absorb families like my own and Audria's. This is going to be our new reality.

MARTIN: What do you think, though, as a mother of a son? And I want to get Jolene's point of view on this. Do you ever worry that he won't understand what it is that a father does, or how he should function as part of a family? That he will think men are irrelevant?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, I have a really close relationship with my dad, for that reason, and we literally live together because I want him to have a male figure around. Now, my dad's a pushover. You know, he's a grandpa after all, and so I'm the one who has to have the dad voice. I mean, I've practiced the dad voice, and it's scary. I mean, and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNSON: (unintelligible).

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah. I listen to how the dads talk to their kids, and they have that really stern tone sometimes that's very clear that this is the bottom line. And so I've had to practice it, and Shibli literally says I don't want to hear that voice. I want my mommy back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NOMANI: And so, we're adjusting. But I reject those statistics that say that our kids are going be criminals, basically, because that's my life and my child that you're talking about, and I'm committed to raising a great public citizen.

MARTIN: Audria, a final thought from you. What are you teaching your daughter? I mean, she's little. You know, she's a little baby. But what do you think you'll teach her about the way families function or should function about men and about how they should be as part of your life?

Ms. DUNSON: Aurie(ph) has several male role models in her life. Actually, her dad is in her life, and - not as much as we would like, but he is there. So she does know that mommy and daddy is a unit, and they take care of me and they do what they need to do for me. She also has uncles and godfathers who are very active in her life and, you know, show her how a young lady should be treated. And that is the message that I want to get across to her is you need to have someone in your life that's going to treat you with respect and with dignity. And if they can't treat you like daddy or Uncle Cecil or uncle whomever, then you need to walk away from them.

MARTIN: It's a terrible question, and you never want to ask this question because I know how I would answer. But do you think if you had to do it over again, would you choose differently?

Ms. DUNSON: I wouldn't, at all. I am - I feel like this was the greatest gift ever given to me, and my conception was accidental, and I feel like it was divinely ordained because I sure as hell would have been an unhappy woman without a child. And that is my truth. You know, it's not everybody's, but it's like the experience of all mothers where the child changes your life and usually for the better, and - whether you have that wedding ring on or not.

Ms. NOMANI: I agree wholeheartedly.

MARTIN: Audria Dunson joined us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Jolene Ivey and Asra Nomani joined us from our studios here in Washington. If you have any questions or comments for the Mocha Moms, please send them to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

Ladies, moms, as always, thank you so much.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. DUNSON: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you.

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