The American family is quietly being transformed by a powerful social trend: more single women are skipping marriage in their quest to become moms. Women and men are delaying marriage until they are older, and fewer wed at all. One out of 3 children is born to a woman who is not married. While the number of teens giving birth has decreased, single motherhood is on the rise for women in their mid-30s to early 40s.
Cultural conservatives will surely decry this phenomenon as another sign of America's social decay. But today's intentionally single mothers are not undermining the two-parent family – and they are not out to create a world without men.
Instead, they are forging new families that they hope are as effective as a traditional family. A married mom and dad who have their own children – which today accounts for just 24 percent of American households – remains the yardstick against which families of all kinds are judged.
In my research, I've found that the majority of single mothers grew up believing that they'd get married. When the right partner didn't come along, they elected to bypass the storied progression from love to marriage to motherhood. After having a baby, these women continue to search for a partner who will love them and their child.
The place of men in the lives of single mothers and their children is a critical theme in the stories of single moms. Science may soon reinvent the way babies are made. But today, it still takes male and female gametes to make a child. That means all children have genetic fathers even if they are only paper profiles from an anonymous donor or a birth father in a foreign country.
Some single moms choose routes to motherhood, such as known donors and chanced pregnancies with boyfriends, that offer the possibility for the child's father to become an involved dad. Whether they have bio-dads who remain involved, or donor figures who show up on occasion, these children can know on some level who their fathers are. Beyond the genetic father, single moms recruit other men – including friends, uncles, or grandfathers – to become part of their families' lives.
These moms compensate for the lack of a dad by making sure their children develop emotional ties with these other men in their family. In a two-parent family, extended kin might gather for holidays a few times a year. But these mother-child families make plans for much more time with their extended male network. They weave themselves into a broader fabric of family and friends, often sacrificing career moves to remain tied to this group.
This is similar to families with an only child who work hard to create a strong tie with children in friends' families or with cousins. Although it's not a substitute for a sibling, the closeness makes for more family, and more connection, for the solo child.
Single moms find opportunities for children to become close to men in daily life. They often request that their child enroll in a male teacher's classroom in elementary school. They will sign their children up for a "Big Brother." As one mother said about her child, "A classmate of his asked him when he was no older than 7, 'Do you have a dad?' He told his classmate, 'Everyone has a father, but I don't have a father that lives with me. I have a Big Brother and he does things with me like a dad would.' "
Having men around isn't just about creating positive role models. Ironically, these women also want their children to understand male privilege in American society. Women want their sons to have a foothold in the dominant culture that gives men advantages, even if they do not support that culture. They want their daughters to be exposed to it, too, in order to combat gender discrimination in the future. There's no substitute for having men teach the lessons of living in a continuing world of patriarchy.
Single moms are not looking to make their kids into social experiments. They just want to be good moms. With or without a father in their lives, they have the same goal as any mother: to raise happy, healthy children who are comfortable with both men and women as they grow into adults themselves.
• Rosanna Hertz, a professor of women's studies and sociology at Wellesley College, is the author of "Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family."