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No need for men? Single mothers in the US


This is the second of a two-part series on how single women are increasingly taking motherhood into their own hands.  Part one looks at the current situation in Denmark, while the piece below sees how things compare in the US.

“Some women make a book about their story and read it to their kids every night,” tells Jane Mattes, founder of one of the biggest and oldest support organisation for single mothers in New York called Single Mothers by Choice. Being herself a solo mother and psychotherapist, she has been guiding and supporting solo mothers in the United States for more than 30 years.

“I had my child in 1981 when I was 36, back then the idea was a puzzle to people and everybody thought about single mothers being teenagers not women in their 30s,” describes Jane Mattes. Her own experience was the starting point of a network that now provides online support to over thirty thousand members in the United States and also Canada and Australia. Just a look on their website shows more than 300,000 posts on almost 20,000 different topics related to single parenting.

“In 1980s we were questioned as man haters, now it seems to be much more understood,” compares Mattes. The need for sharing with peers, and not single teenage mothers, going through the same experiences pushed her to start a network that grew from a simple cake and coffee get-together in her living room  – without internet! – to being featured by the New York Times.

Single Mothers by Choice offers an online network with members from all around the world that share and support each other in an online forum. “I remember once a daughter had a medical test and the mother’s worries found 24 pages of responses in less than 36 hours. It was wonderful,” shares Mattes.

Concerns changed over time

According to Census Bureau, 40 per cent of births in the United States are of unmarried women, from which women older than 35 have seen a continuous increase in birth rate. Moreover, around 18 million American children live with a single female reference parent. Both single mothers by choice and single women, face the same challenges while being a parent alone in America: huge financial pressure. The average cost for a baby’s first year comes out to about 26,000 USD, according to a report of Business Insider.

The American health system is pretty much an opposite model to the Scandinavian welfare state system in Denmark. “The American system is a very controversial subject in terms of supporting the child,” says Mattes, highlighting that in the United States most women cannot access free treatment through taxpayers’ money.

So, what encourages them? Jane Mattes has some answers. First, aging. “Single mothers do not think of them as challengers of the traditional family per se, but they are rather motivated by a strong desire of being a mother before biological impossibility,” affirms Mattes. Most of the members of her organisation are women in their thirties and forties who are thinking, trying or already mothering a child conceived by insemination or adoption.

Mattes, who has seen plenty of women going through the decision process, affirms that their concerns have dramatically changed over time. “In the 1980s the main concerns were about being alone and the development of the child without a father in the picture,” summarises Mattes. These are not worries any more for American women consulting Single Mothers by Choice. Now women focus on being resourceful caregivers and even going for more: “Now they aim at conceiving two kids, at my time we thought that one was already a miracle,” laughs Mattes.

The solo mother and psychotherapist describes that women in America see many benefits in becoming a solo mother. For her, mothers see that there is a possibility of raising a child in an environment without conflict, what means a stable beginning in the first years of formative development of the child. In addition, they see it as a simpler way for the mother, who does not need to divide herself between the needs of the child and the partner. “It is a very child-focused way, but they still know that they will have less support and help,” says Mattes.

If there is a message she would like to share regarding concerns about the child’s development is that there is a misconception about children becoming troubled. “After 34 years of sharing experiences, this is not the case,” states Mattes. She thinks that in America women have overcome social mores. Especially, the first two generations, who were worried about the children’s development.  “At this point, it is obvious that they are doing as well as other kids,” explains Mattes.

A right within a welfare state system

Far from the American system where single mothers face treatments up to $15, 000 and day-care expenses of $2,500 a month, in Denmark women are entitled to the right of free treatment. Equality is guaranteed to any citizen to become a parent. “It is very important that we live in a society where all the people that want to become parents, get children,” says Lone Schmidt.

This is different from the situation in the United States, Denmark faces an aging population, as do many other societies in Europe.  According to the 2015 Aging Report, fertility rates have declined sharply in all EU Member States after the baby boom in the second half of 1960s. On top of this, life expectancy in Denmark today is close to 80 years, meaning that younger generations in Denmark will experience a huge pressure to support the elderly when they enter into their pension age. The over 65s (retirement age) constitute approximately 20 per cent of the entire population and projections estimate an increase of this group by 14.4 per cent in 2060.

For Lone Schmidt this is more than a valid reason to allow everyone who wants kids to conceive and raise them.  “We need to remember that single women are also paying taxes that cover the schools and health care for their babies,” says the researcher at the University of Copenhagen. The Danish welfare system provides single parents with an allowance of 1,400 DKK tax-free (approx. 200 USD) every 3 months for a first child and extra children, no matter how many they have. Denmark, compared to the free market values in America, has a big shared economy where people are happy to give half of their salaries to share expenses.

Even though she needed to pay for her own treatment in 2011, Signe Fjord feels proud to live in a society where it is free to access. She now dedicates her time to coaching programmes that help single mothers beyond Denmark. “Every day I look at my daughter and I think giving birth to her was the most wonderful moment of my life, but then I realise that I am wrong. It gets even better… my heart continues expanding and I did not think it was possible,” she sighs heavily.

The story of Signe, as many others in Denmark and around the world, is a living testimony that alternative fairy tales are possible, even without a Prince.

Images: Single Mothers by Choice

Words: Pamela Leiva Jacquelin

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