Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 16-year-old unmarried actress who plays the Virgin Mary in the new movie, The Nativity Story, is pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend. Last week CNN could talk about nothing else: Amazing the coincidence, the announcers said, of this woman getting pregnant when she was playing the role of the most famous unmarried mother in history. And would you believe, the commentators crooned, her boyfriend is even a carpenter, just like Joseph.
Listen. It takes a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment to rile me these days, but after two days of hearing about the “miracle” and “wondrous news” of this young actress’s pregnancy while playing the role of the Blessed Virgin; I got a little ticked off. First of all (and this is so obvious, but apparently needs to be stated), Keisha Castle-Hughes’ pregnancy has practically nothing in common with the Mary’s. This pregnancy was no mystery. She and her boyfriend had sex, and ooops, she’s pregnant. The mystery is why the media thinks that this is a good thing.
Second, while talk shows and entertainment magazines focus on Ms. Castle-Hughes and her ever-growing belly, we’re ignoring the real story: More American children are being born to unmarried mothers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us. Don’t let anyone convince you this is not bad news.
Older Single Moms
Note, the CDC preliminary data released last week: a record 37 percent of all U.S. births were to unmarried women in 2005.
It’s not a teen issue: The birth rate for under-20 women fell to the lowest on record. But births to unmarried women aged 20 to 44 continued a long-term rise. The fact that these single mothers are older doesn’t make their decision to have a baby on their own any wiser—for either them or the children.
The headlines may go on about Hollywood stars who opt to become single moms, but the majority of women having children outside of marriage are on the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder. And the grim fact is that having a child without a husband sinks these women’s chances for a stable, prosperous future.
Unmarried moms and their children are five times more likely to live below the poverty line.
And Baby Makes Two!
The CDC data show that more than half of the births to women aged 20-24 were outside of marriage, and nearly a third of those to women 25-29. (Among mothers 30-39, the rate was above 15 percent—having more than doubled since 1975.)
It doesn’t help much that nearly half of those non-marital births are to women who are cohabitating. The numbers on this are very clear: America’s nearly 1.7 million unmarried-couple-with-kids households just aren’t as stable as married family homes.
For starters, few parents head to the altar after “baby makes three.” A 2004 study in Demography found that, a year after the birth, only 15 percent of cohabitating couples had married.
Indeed, having a child out of wedlock decreases a woman’s chances to ever marry—by up to 30 percent, in some estimates.
UC/Berkeley economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen trace the boom in out-of-wedlock births directly to the decades-long decline of “shotgun marriages”—that is, to the end of social pressure to get married once pregnancy is obvious.
Indeed, stigmas about extramarital births have receded so far that it’s become the norm among some groups. In 2005, nearly 70 percent of black children and 48 percent of Hispanic children were born to unwed mothers.
The media rarely focus on this, of course. The out-of-wedlock births of the rich and famous get plenty of positive ink: When Angelina Jolie had Brad Pitt’s child before marriage, few questioned the decision.
Similarly, the media give lot of attention to career women who, hearing the tick of their biological clock, opt for in-vitro fertilization, sperm donors and other methods to have a child without a spouse. More than half of affluent, well-educated women consider this a possible choice (so found a Harris Interactive poll I commissioned this year)—a powerful signal about how prevalent the idea of single-parenting has become.
But the truth is that more education that a woman has, the less likely she is to have a child out of wedlock. More than half (52 percent) of births to women without a high-school diploma were nonmarital, against just 9 percent of births to women with a graduate or professional degree.
That’s because educated women want to raise educated, successful children—and they realize that having a husband in the picture makes it easier to devote time to a child’s development, argues Kay Hymowitz. Indeed, she sees it as a new class divide—her new book is titled “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.” She even cites research showing that only a small fraction of students at top universities come from single-parent homes.
Children born to unmarried mothers are less likely to have stable living arrangements—or lives. As young adults, these kids are less likely to achieve academically and more likely to be unemployed. They’re also a better bet to have children outside of marriage themselves.
The why is hard determine here—is it that the child didn’t grow up with two parents, or that the child grew up with fewer social and monetary resources?—but the vicious circle is clear.
Separate and Unequal Gap
The gap between separate and unequal families is increasing, Hymowitz notes: Highly educated women are more likely to be married, and less likely to divorce; the opposite holds lesser-educated women. “It’s a self-perpetuating predicament,” she says, “and it’s very threatening to our most basic values of opportunity, mobility and individualism.”
This is not just another variation on the ever-changing American family, and it’s not something we should simply accept. It’s a social problem of the highest order.
Graduate-educated, 37-year-old, single women going to sperm donors and fancy IVF clinics may get all the press, but the real story is the millions of women for whom single motherhood is the norm, who reinforce their place —and their child’s place—in an increasingly divided American society by having a child outside of a stable family environment.
I wish Ms. Castle-Hughes and her baby all the best. Unlike so many other unwed mothers, she’ll probably avoid welfare checks and soup kitchens. But do me a favor: Next time you hear any comparison between her and the Blessed Virgin, turn off the TV and say a prayer for all the unmarried mothers out there who are struggling.