"Hello, I'm Rachel. I'm 41, single and pregnant."
So begins writer and entrepreneur Rachel Sklar's essay, published last week on Medium, on the experience of carrying the child of a man who is (as the cliché goes) "not in the picture," and doing so as a woman who is supposedly (another cliché) "past her prime." After these first two lines, we may be preparing to feel sorry for our protagonist — preparing for a tale of twisted circumstances that brought her to this point: a partner who left, failure to find love at all, anticipation of a long and lonesome road ahead. Sklar nods to these preconceptions from the get-go. "I know how it looks," she writes. "At 41, single and pregnant, I’m a sad, lonely outlier. But it’s 2014," she continues. "I’m not."
Welcome to the new normal, Sklar says. Our society is shifting away from the conventional model ("boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy impregnates girl, smiling happy family ensues") even as we shy away from discussing our own personal detours from this model. What Sklar terms a "cone of silence" has risen up around women's challenges with fertility as we attempt to achieve "pregnancy perfection." Whether we try and fail to adhere to the prescribed sequence (first comes love, then comes marriage...) or we choose enthusiastically to diverge from it, we too often keep our mouths shut about our experiences. In an age when parents joyously post sonograms to Facebook before even leaving the doctor's office, "no one posts about their miscarriages or checks in on Foursquare from the fertility clinic," Sklar observed when we asked her about how the "cone of silence" manifests. These messy details, unwelcome at the water cooler or dinner table, are relegated to the domain of heart-wrenching personal essays.
Even so, American women are getting pregnant (or not) in increasingly different ways, at increasingly different times, with increasingly different relationship statuses. We're accelerating away from a conventional reproductive calendar, and it's time we talked about it. "The default notion of the 'ideal' family has created a lot of stress and shame for a lot of people over the years!" Sklar pointed out in conversation with us. "For a long time, if you didn't match the ideal of the nuclear heterosexual married-with-children ideal, there was the feeling of falling short or being 'abnormal.' We are lucky as a society that that's changing." By speaking openly about how she's deviating from the "ideal," Sklar's making it that much easier for other "unconventional" parents and would-be parents to do the same.
Between 1950 and now, the percentage of American households led by single parents has doubled; today, half of first births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers. Despite this sea change, as recently as 2011, a Pew study indicated that 61% of Americans believe a child "needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily." Even more Americans (69%) see the rising incidence of single motherhood as "bad" for society, while 38% hold that single parents' children face "a lot more" difficulty than other children.
At the same time as rates of single motherhood are surging, women's median age at the time of first childbirth is increasing — from 22.6 to 25.3 between 1980 and 2012 — and advancing reproductive technology is empowering women much older than that to bear children when they might not have been able to before. Though Sklar conceived naturally, as an "older" woman preparing for single motherhood, she finds herself at the intersection of these two trends. Of course, as a successful, white entrepreneur and writer with a degree in law, she likely won't experience many of the challenges we typically associate with single motherhood: 2010 census data indicated that only a quarter of American single mothers hold college degrees; some 40% of single-mother families are below the poverty line, and the majority of America's poor children are in single-mother families.
Sklar's own divergence from the single-mom "norm" highlights an important point. While many Americans still believe that single motherhood is "bad" for society, the reality is that the factors that conspire to make single motherhood so difficult for so many are what's bad — factors such as low education, limited access to childrearing resources, and deplorable workplace maternity policies (the U.S. remains the only developed country not to offer paid maternity leave by law).
The difficulties that children of single mothers tend to face, then, don't inherently come from lacking a second parent. They come from substandard or absent childcare and education, food insecurity, and lack of a support network. It's time to stop seeing single mothers — or older mothers, or mothers who parent with another mother, or fathers who parent with another father or on their own — as "problems" to be fixed, or as part of family structures to be ashamed of or silent about. When we start talking about the vast diversity of attitudes toward and approaches to parenthood, we can begin to tackle the real challenges that parents and children face today. As Sklar attests, it's time to press fast-forward on outdated ideas of what motherhood "should" look like and catch up to the reality of today's healthy, happy families of all kinds — so many of which are nowhere to be found in a playground rhyme.