Who Are the Mothers of Today’s Newborns?
by David Gibson
A complicated picture of marriage and motherhood in today’s United States emerged from a May 6 report titled “The New Demography of Motherhood” issued by the Pew Research Center.
On the one hand, a greater percentage of mothers of newborns are older than their counterparts were 20 years ago, and these mothers “overwhelmingly are likely to be married, compared with younger ones,” the report said. But, overall, “a record four in 10 births (41 percent) were to unmarried women in 2008.”
Pew researchers compared mothers of newborns in 2008 with their counterparts in 1990 by analyzing data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau. In addition, the study presented the results of a nationwide Pew survey asking a range of questions about parenthood.
Those conducting the survey heard from American parents that one reason outweighed all others for having a child, namely “the joy of having children.” At the same time, and curiously perhaps, some 47 percent of parents said that having a child for them was something that “just happened.”
The survey also found that the “cost of having an additional child” and a desire to “have time for the children they already have” were key reasons given by those who reported they did not plan to have more children.
Among the reasons for today’s “rise in births to unmarried women,” one cited by the Pew researchers was “the shrinking share of adults who are married” in the first place. The report suggested that a “recasting of American motherhood” is taking place “against a backdrop of relative stability in the total number of births: 4.3 million in 2008, compared with 4.2 million in 1990.”
But the U.S. birth rate, measured by the number of births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, “has declined 20 percent from 1990,” according to the Pew report. It said birth rates “have declined for all major race and ethnic groups.” Moreover, while “the birth rate for married women is stable,” the report said the rate “has risen for unmarried women.”
The Pew report analyzed marital status, educational attainment and race and ethnicity as factors in its portrait of motherhood. The researchers explained that all the trends cited in their report “reflect a complex mix” of factors. For example, they observed, today’s higher share of college-educated mothers reflects “women’s increasing educational attainment.”
Discussing the rise in the percentage of older mothers having babies, the report said that in 1990 “teens had a higher share of all births (13 percent) than did women ages 35 and older (9 percent).” However, “in 2008, the reverse was true: Ten percent of births were to teens, compared with 14 percent to women ages 35 and older.”
The Pew researchers found that “education levels and marital status are closely related.” Their report noted that “the overwhelming majority of mothers of newborns in
2006 who had some college education were married, 80 percent.” However, “the married share declined to 58 percent for high school graduates and 45 percent for women without a high school diploma.”
Additionally, while the percentage of mothers of newborns who were married “declined for all education categories,” it declined most sharply for women with the least formal education.
While older mothers “overwhelmingly are likely to be married, compared with younger ones,” the Pew report said nonetheless that the percentage of mothers of newborns who are married “has declined for all age groups.” In 2008, 81 percent of babies born to women ages 35 and older had married parents, “compared with 86 percent in 1990.”
At the same time, just 56 percent of babies born to women less than 35 years old had married parents, “a steep decline from 71 percent in 1990,” the Pew report stated. It said that “the majority of the youngest mothers of newborns are unmarried; 87 percent of births to teens in 2008 were to unmarried mothers, as were 61 percent of births to women ages 20-24.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.