As Christy Everson was nearing age 40, she made a decision: She wanted to have a child, even though she was single and it meant doing it all alone. Her daughter, conceived via a sperm donor, is now 2 1/2 years old, and Everson hopes to have a second child.
“Was it worthwhile? Well, I’m thinking of doing it again, aren’t I?” she says. Everson and women like her are part of a shift in American society. An Associated Press-WE tv poll of people under 50 found that more than 2 in 5 unmarried women without children — or 42 percent — would consider having a child on their own without a partner, including more than a third, or 37 percent, who would consider adopting solo. The poll, which addressed a broad range of issues on America’s changing family structures, dovetails with a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau that single motherhood is on the rise: It found that of 4.1 million women who’d given birth in 2011, 36 percent were unmarried at the time of the survey, an increase from 31 percent in 2005. And among mothers 20-24, the percentage was 62 percent, or six in 10 mothers. The AP-WE tv poll also found that few Americans think the growing variety of family arrangements is bad for society. However, many have some qualms about single mothers, with some two-thirds — or 64 percent — saying single women having children without a partner is a bad thing for society. More men — 68 percent — felt that way, compared to 59 percent of women. The survey found broad gender gaps in opinion on many issues related to how and when to have children. One example: At a time when the can-you-have-it-all debate rages for working mothers, women were more apt than men to say having children has negatively impacted their career. And this was true especially among mothers who waited until age 30 or older to have children. Fully 47 percent of those mothers said having a child had a negative impact on their careers. Of women overall, 32 percent of mothers reported a negative effect, compared with 10 percent of men. For Everson, who lives in a suburb of Minneapolis and is now 44, being the only parent means daily responsibilities that naturally suck up some of the time she used to spend on her career as a financial consultant. “To be honest about it, it’s hard to be a rock star” when parenting a baby, she says. But she sees it as more of a temporary career setback, and feels she’s already getting back on track with her toddler now over age 2. Soon, she says, “I’ll be getting back on my A-game.” For Joyce Chen, a hospital occupational therapist in San Francisco, it’s a question of what kind of career she wants to have. Chen, 41 and also a single mother, is happy to have work that she not only enjoys, but that she can balance easily with caring for her 10-year-old daughter. “I’ve been blessed,” she says. “I have a decent income. I don’t feel like I need to climb the ladder. I enjoy what I do, but I can leave it at the end of the day and not think about it.” Chen also credits a strong community of friends from church for helping make her family work. “That community has helped me raise my daughter,” she says. She hopes to get married one day if the right situation comes along. But Chen feels that a single mom can do just as good a job of raising a child as two parents can. Overall, the poll found decidedly mixed results on that question: Thirty percent of respondents said yes, 27 percent said no, and 43 percent said “it depends.” At 26, Jacqueline Encinias is at a much less established point in her career. A married mother of a month-old baby in Albuquerque, N.M., she aims to go back to school to study accounting. For now, though, she says she’s “just looking for something to get me by.” Encinias says that she would probably not have made the choice to be a mother alone. “I wouldn’t want my child to grow up with just one parent,” she says. “If other people want to do it, it’s OK, but it’s not for me.” Support of a partner is crucial to her, she says. (Finding the right person to parent with was a key factor in the decision to have a child, the poll found, cited by both current parents and non-parents.) Shermeka Austin, a 23-year-old student in Warren, Mich., feels the same way. “That would not be a choice for me, being a single parent,” Austin says. She hopes to get married and have children one day, but first, she says, she wants to focus on her goal of opening her own bakery. Once she achieves that, she’d be happy to make sacrifices in order to have kids. In the poll, about three-quarters (76 percent) of women without children said that it was important for them to reach certain career goals before they start a family. While 42 percent of unmarried women said they would consider single parenthood, compared with 24 percent of men, answers varied greatly as to the ways they’d consider going about it. Thirty-seven percent of women said they’d consider adopting solo (compared to 19 percent of men), about a third of women — 31 percent — said they’d consider freezing their eggs, and 27 percent would be willing to use artificial insemination and donor sperm. Stacey Ehlinder, a 28-year-old event planner in Denver, says she would consider some of those options at some point if necessary — though she’s currently in a relationship headed towards marriage. She says she’s surprised by the high percentage of poll respondents who had doubts about single mothers. “It just seems like these days there are so many more definitions of a family,” she says. Ehlinder is confident that if she does have children, she’ll be able to balance career and motherhood. “In my industry, and in companies I’ve worked for, I’ve seen flexibility given to mothers,” she says. “It makes me feel confident that I could juggle things and be the mother I want to be.” Many respondents, in interviews, said that while the optimal situation for raising kids is two parents, there’s no prescription for the perfect family. Matthew Dean, a father of three in San Antonio, Texas, said he was glad that his wife, a former teacher, is able to stay home with their kids, an arrangement that was originally supposed to be temporary. “It was first, let’s do it through kindergarten, then it was, let’s do it through second grade...” he quips. Ultimately they decided it was best for the children. “I look around and realize how everything would have been so chaotic and rushed, otherwise,” Dean says. Still, he says, he understands that many different arrangements work, including single-parent families. “It’s maybe not preferred, but it is what it is,” says Dean, 46. “It’s an added challenge, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s no guarantee in any situation. People can have a two-parent situation that is a complete wreck.” The AP-WE tv Poll was conducted May 15-23, 2013 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel. It involved online interviews with 1,277 people age 18-49, including interviews with 298 women who have children or are currently pregnant with their first child and have never been married. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for all respondents. KnowledgePanel is constructed using traditional telephone and mail sampling methods to randomly recruit respondents. People selected who had no Internet access were given it for free.
• AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.