Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Makes a Family, Part Two

After my post a few days ago on my personal feelings on family and children, I found this article about motherhood and marriage on the population level: “Out-of-Wedlock Birthrates Are Soaring, U.S. Reports“. The data are interesting in that they reveals the changing composition of families but the measures feel a bit antiquated and leave me wanting a better survey of families.

First, the stats: The Center for Disease Control released analysis of data collected in 2007 shows that 40 percent of all births in 2007 were to women who were not married. (Original data is here.)

Furthermore, parsing out the data reveals interesting trends in pregnancies and family composition. Teen pregnancies do not make up the majority of

Before 1970, most unmarried mothers were teenagers. But in recent years the birthrate among unmarried women in their 20s and 30s has soared — rising 34 percent since 2002, for example, in women ages 30 to 34. In 2007, women in their 20s had 60 percent of all babies born out of wedlock, teenagers had 23 percent and women 30 and older had 17 percent.

Lots more stats on nonmarital births through the decades, by race, by mother’s age, and compared to other industrialized countries.

But these data are interesting in what they measure and what they leave out. It keeps track of “nonmarital births”, birth to a woman who has never been married, or is widowed or divorced. It’s a question asked when a birth is registered. But the terms “nonmarital birth”, “unwed mother” and children “born-out-of-wedlock” have gradually lost the same meanings they did when these studies were originally done. That is, it is becoming more mainstream and less … shameful that marriage is not a requirement for motherhood. I suppose being “born-out-of-wedlock” is one step up from being “illegitimate.”

My feelings on this were confirmed by a New York Times news commentary piece about these stats. I think one commentator sums it up very well:

The fact that 40 percent of American children are now born out of wedlock is yet another example of why policymakers and researchers need to discard one-size-fits-all generalizations about the causes, consequences, risks and benefits of different family forms. Average outcomes from married and single parenting hide huge variations.

There is great variation among mothers who are not married. It did used to be that teenagers made up the majority of nonmarital births, which means that we could have a whole host of assumptions about the kind of life the children of teenage moms would have: probably low-income, low-education, no father, etc. But unmarried moms are now in general older and their lives are far more complicated. They could be cohabiting, could have other children, etc.

I’m not exactly faulting the CDC for the results because they are, by themselves, interesting. Their data come from birth registrations, so it really shows that even our data collection is antiquated. It is less and less meaningful to only know whether or not a mother is married. It would be even more interesting to read about a comprehensive sociological study of the state of motherhood.

x-posted at Choice Words

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