The defining characteristic of single motherhood in the contemporary United States is that it is not easily defined. Women who mother without partners may be very young or mature adults. They may be high school drop-outs or have advanced degrees; separated, widowed, divorced, or never married; desperately poor, barely scraping by, or financially secure. An unknown number of married mothers also experience extended periods of sole responsibility for the practical and emotional work of keeping their families going, including wives with husbands in the deployed military and those whose partners work long-distance or travel full-time.
Despite the diversity of lone motherhood in America, media reporting tends to concentrate on three groups: teen mothers, portrayed as jeopardizing their futures by becoming sexually active too soon; "welfare mothers," who may be depicted as scamming the system or as hardy survivors who manage to beat the odds; and the new breed of affluent "single mothers by choice," self-determined professional women who suspend their quest for a suitable life partner and become mothers through donor insemination or adoption. Of the approximately 10 million single mothers in the U.S., relatively few conform to common stereotypes. For many women, single motherhood will be a transitory or shifting state as they marry, re-marry or cohabit with partners who assume parenting and economic roles in their children's lives. For others, single motherhood will be a long-term project as they raise their children and grandchildren, alone.
There's little doubt, however, that single mothering is an especially risky undertaking in a nation that has not made poverty reduction a priority and lacks basic social supports for maternal employment. Of the 10 percent of U.S. children living with a lone, never-married mother in 2006, 4 out of 5 lived in poor or low-income households, as did 3 out of 5 children living with a lone, divorced mother or a lone, never-married father. (Overall, 23 percent of U.S. children under 18 live with a single mother; 5 percent live in single father households.)(1)
Several recent books try to untangle the variations and meanings of single motherhood in the United States, but each provides only a glimpse of the complex whole. Jane Juffer's "Single Mother: The Emergence of the Domestic Intellectual" (New York University Press, 2006) attempts to theorize the central experience of single mothering as rooted in the practices of "everyday life." In "Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream" (University of California Press, 2006), sociologist Ruth Sidel seeks to correct the "harsh, hostile, often erroneous, sometimes venomous stereotypes about single mothers, endlessly reiterated by pundits, politicians and members of the media." "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage" by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (University of California Press, 2005), examines social and cultural pressures contributing to high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing among young women in low-income, urban communities, and concludes that marriage promotion is not an effective substitute for addressing the economic and structural conditions that discourage marriage among the poor.