Single-mother births soaring

BY ELIZABETH PIET
STAFF WRITER

When filling out her marital status, Jennifer Lorenzo checks "single," but she feels funny doing it.

Ms. Lorenzo, 25, of Archbald, has been dating Rich Morgan Jr., 27, for 10 years - since they met in a high school bowling league.

The couple moved in together and soon after, Ms. Lorenzo was pregnant with Matthew, who is now 4 years old. Zachary was born in November.

"We did everything backward," Ms. Lorenzo says. "But it works for us."

At one time, an unwed mother of two like Ms. Lorenzo was an exception to the rule. Not anymore.

Births to unmarried women are skyrocketing locally and nationally, with some of the largest increases coming among 20- to 24-year-olds.

"It's not all teen mothers, as might be conventional wisdom," said Tasha Snyder, Ph.D., an associate professor of rural sociology and demography at Penn State University.

In 1990, 21 percent of births in Lackawanna County were to unmarried mothers. The number jumped to 39 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which records are available. Nationally, nearly 37 percent of births in 2005 occurred outside marriage, up from 28 percent in 1990.

Dr. Snyder attributes the increase to a combination of factors, including the rising age of first marriage. If marriage is postponed, there is a longer period in which women are single and sexually active.

"It still boils down to risk," Dr. Snyder said. "There's a longer time in an unmarried state."

The increase also appears larger as the number of births within marriage is dropping. In 2005, there were about 30,000 fewer births to married women than there were in 1990. Comparably, there were 1,363 births to married Lackawanna County women in 2005 - 726 fewer than in 1990.

In 2005 - for the first time - more babies in Scranton and Throop were born to unmarried mothers than their married counterparts - by 73 and eight respectively, according to the state Department of Health.

In Carbondale, unwed births have outpaced married births since 2001, with the exception of 2004.

Whether parents by choice or surprise, the face of the unmarried mother, and the American family, is changing.

'Shotgun weddings' passe

Experts point to cohabiting couples as a major contributor to the growth in unmarried mothers.

Nationally, about half of unmarried women who give birth are in a cohabiting relationship, said Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D, a senior researcher at Child Trends, a national nonprofit research center that collects and analyzes data on children.

"Many say they would like to get married at some point, but they're not married right now," Dr. Manlove said. "There are no more shotgun weddings. There was more social pressure in the past."

Mr. Morgan and Ms. Lorenzo have been engaged for five years, but are not in any hurry to tie the knot.

"We've been to three weddings and seen three divorces," Mr. Morgan said. "We've watched them date, marry and divorce in the time we've been together."

The couple owns a house, the kind of purchase traditionally made by married couples. Mr. Morgan is a chef, while Ms. Lorenzo works a few overnight shifts as a waitress so she can stay home with the kids.

A wedding would be expensive, Ms. Lorenzo said, and at the moment, unnecessary.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 2,020 randomly selected adults, about a third of all Americans - and more than 40 percent of those under 50 - have been in a cohabiting relationship with a person to whom they were not married.

Public opinion, however, remains negative toward unmarried mothers - even when they live with their babies' fathers. The Pew survey found 66 percent of respondents described single women having children as a "bad thing" and 59 percent said the same about unmarried couples with children.

As couples like Ms. Lorenzo and Mr. Morgan become more common, society will have to adjust to many different family structures, said Brenda Seery, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Worthington Scranton.

"The term 'unwed mothers' suggests something negative," she said. "The group of unwed mothers or single mothers includes a lot of diversity."

Many women - especially those who are older - choose or plan to have children on their own, creating a different dynamic than an unexpected pregnancy, Dr. Seery said.

While both Ms. Lorenzo's and Mr. Morgan's families are supportive of their decision, Ms. Lorenzo does consider public opinion. She is considering marrying before Matthew begins kindergarten next year.

"I want him to have the unity of the last name," she said.

'Much less stable'

For Jackie Mendez, being pregnant in 11th grade meant the awkwardness of a growing belly and nasty fights with her mother about preparing for a child.

"I couldn't accept it," she said, overwhelmed by the responsibilities.

Nationwide, teen births are at a record low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. In Lackawanna County, however, they have been nearly static the last 15 years, with 227 teen births in 1990 and 212 in 2005, the most recent data available.

Now the mother of a healthy 1-year-old daughter, Alydia, Ms. Mendez, 18, graduated from Scranton High School in June and is hoping to attend Marywood University with the goal of someday counseling teen mothers like herself.

"My life changed when I got pregnant," Ms. Mendez said. "I had to learn to be more responsible in life."

Ms. Mendez lives with Alydia's father, Filiberto Ramirez, and while she is not considering marriage now, she is confident in his support.

Recent studies, however, have shown that within two years of a birth, 6 percent of married couples split up, compared to about 30 percent of cohabiting couples, Dr. Manlove said. A child develops best in a low-conflict environment with his or her biological parents, she said.

While a cohabiting relationship could provide such an environment, "The bad news is cohabiting relationships are much less stable," Dr. Manlove said.

During her pregnancy, Ms. Mendez visited Maternal and Family Health Services, Inc, a nonprofit organization for low-income woman associated with Community Medical Center. The organization's prenatal program in Lackawanna County serves about 300 pregnant women each year, one-third of whom are teens.

The area's conservative approach to sex and contraception may be contributing to the county's static teen birth rate, organization chief operating officer Bette Saxton said. The organization works to prevent pregnancy through education at schools and clinics while providing medical and financial resources for new mothers.

"It's costly to have a baby, and a lifetime commitment," Ms. Saxton said.

Urban environments and racial diversity can also contribute to a higher nonmarital birth rate, Dr. Snyder said. African Americans and Latinos have significantly higher rates of nonmarital births, which often correlate with higher racial diversity and socioeconomic differences in urban cores, she said.

"Rural women really prefer marriage," Dr. Snyder said.

As nonmarital births increase, the stigma against them will continue to soften, she said.

But for Ms. Mendez, many friends still do not understand how her life has changed.

"Sometimes I feel awkward. I'm the only one with a baby," she said. "I have more responsibility than they do. I don't have extra cash in my pocket."

'The new teens'

With a minimum-wage job and cosmetology school at night, Jennifer Balducci's limited free time is filled with worries about providing for her daughter.

"I'm barely making any of my bills," she said. "I'm always thinking of the things she needs."

To make ends meet, Ms. Balducci, 27, and her 7-year-old daughter, Deztine, live with her parents in Mount Cobb. She hopes for a cosmetology teaching job someday to better support her daughter.

Women who give birth outside of marriage tend to be more disadvantaged than their married counterparts, both before and after birth, according to Child Trends research. Unmarried mothers generally have lower incomes, lower education levels and greater dependence on welfare assistance than married mothers, according to the report.

As society now expects women to graduate high school and move onto college, the age at which women have their first child has risen, Dr. Manlove said. It is more common to have a first child between 20 and 22, she said.

"The early 20s might be the new teens," Dr. Manlove said.

The drawbacks of young, unmarried motherhood can be lower financial earnings for the women and a strain on public services, said Teri Ooms, executive director of the Joint Urban Studies Center, a Wilkes-Barre-based think tank backed by the area's colleges.

"Those are the years they should be in some form of higher education," Ms. Ooms said. Because single women often do not work full-time while caring for children, they are not contributing to the local government or economy and are not increasing their potential incomes.

But being unmarried does not necessary lead to consequences for the child, Dr. Seery said. The best situation for children is one in which they are loved, basic economic needs are met, they are free from violence and learn proper conflict management, she said.

"Those kind of situations can happen in all types of families," Dr. Seery said. "It's sort of figuring out what the basic environment is rather than the family's shape.

For Ms. Balducci, it was best to sever her relationship with Deztine's father. Instead, she counters the lack of male influence with Deztine's uncles and grandfather and makes time for special time with her daughter.

"We'll go to the park and to the movies when we can afford it," Ms. Balducci said.

'This is what I want'

Mary Kate Culkin was determined to focus solely on her career until she was 35. But when she got there - with an extremely successful professional life - she suddenly envied the fulfillment her family and friends had in their children.

"Somehow, a child was coming into my life," she said.

While in smaller numbers than other age groups, births to older, unmarried woman have grown as fertility options have improved. In Lackawanna County, 45 unmarried woman older than 35 had babies in 2005 - and 54 in 2004 - compared to just 27 in 1990.

Ambitious and independent, Ms. Culkin, 42, graduated from the University of Scranton and excelled in local and state political jobs, then shifted to work with trade unions. She is now director of public projects for the International Masonry Institute.

A native of Scranton's Nativity section, Ms. Culkin moved back and built a home in Clarks Summit. She soon realized it felt empty without a child, and began to explore options, including in vitro fertilization and adoption.

Before she followed through, at 41 years old, a rocky relationship turned into a surprise pregnancy. Her daughter, Rosemary, is 7 months old.

"This is the most amazing thing ever, to have a child in your life," she said. "This is what I want."

Public opinion, however, is remains critical. The Pew survey found 71 percent of Americans see the growth in unwed mothers as a "big problem," and 69 percent say a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up healthy and happy. Despite the social stigma, a shift away from marriage in both the United States and other developed countries will likely lead to a continuing rise in births to unmarried women, Dr. Manlove said.

"It doesn't look like it's going to be a trend that's going to go away," she said.

Raised Roman Catholic, Ms. Culkin said she understands the region's conservative look at family life.

"I believed in the dream of mom, dad, kids and a house," she said. "It just didn't happen for me."

Her family and friends have been supportive, and Ms. Culkin has scaled back at work to make her daughter the priority. Some aspects of single motherhood are still challenging, and Ms. Culkin thinks about how to include positive male role models in her daughter's life.

"Those are things you think about when you lay in bed," she said. "Who is a good role model?"

Although confident she can handle single motherhood, Ms. Culkin also has not ruled out the possibility of finding "Mr. Right."

"I would love for Prince Charming to come and rescue me in his white pickup truck," she said. "I'm still holding out for that."

Contact the writer: epiet@timesshamrock.com

0

Pound Pup Legacy