What's Normal Now?
The overall attitude toward relationships and commitment has shifted. More than half of female high school seniors say that having a child outside of marriage is acceptable, according to a recent poll from the University of Michigan Survey Research Center. And census data shows that 26 percent of all households are made up of a single person, living alone (as opposed to 13 percent back in 1960).
While a good portion of these singles are likely senior citizens, others are younger career folks who don't feel yesteryear's societal pressure to rush into partnerships.
"In 2002, the median age for a woman's first marriage was 27," says O'Connell. That's five years older than it was even in 1980. Sometimes young singles establish their individual identities so solidly that they never marry, even if they have children. These couples may partner up -- but without the papers.
Adoption, no marriage: Such was the case with Steve Wilson and Erin Mayes, a couple in their mid-30s living in Austin, Texas. They've been together for 10 years, own a home together, and though they've talked about it, have decided it isn't necessary to get married. Still, they wanted a family and, last June, adopted a baby boy.
Wedding after baby: Another example is Jared and Lori Goldman, of San Mateo, California. Their relationship was relatively new when Lori got pregnant in 2000. They agreed to raise the child together but didn't get engaged. But not long after their daughter was born, Jared proposed. "Reverse order worked better for us," he says. Lori agrees: "Our wedding felt more meaningful happening on its own time instead of on the traditional schedule. What girl wants a shotgun wedding?"
Single moms on the rise: Of course, because currently one-third of all babies are born out of wedlock, it's no surprise that many mothers remain single. When she got pregnant, Pam Hansell says her boyfriend initially seemed supportive. Then he began dodging her phone calls and e-mails, and eventually cut contact. Deeply hurt but determined to give her child a good life, Hansell moved in with her parents, outside of Philadelphia, and gave birth to a daughter in March. "When I realized I couldn't count on the father, it was devastating. I'm so thankful that family and friends have stepped in," Hansell says.
Two dads: Finally, Dean Larkin and Paul Park are living out another common-in-today's-world scenario. They live together in Los Angeles, and Larkin has a 21-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Now he and Park are planning a second child, via a surrogate mother. They'd like to marry, but gay marriage is not legal nationally.
Reactions from the Trenches
Perhaps no one has a better ringside seat to all these untraditional family setups than those involved in the childbirth industry. "I've seen unmarried couples come in, lesbian couples, mothers who have been here with one father and then come in with a new father -- the family dynamics and structures have changed a lot over the past 25 years," says Barbara Hotelling, president of Lamaze International and a long-time childbirth instructor.
Based in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Hotelling probably sees a good cross section of American families and, while she doesn't ask the marital status of her students, estimates that around 20 percent are unmarried, compared with maybe 5 percent when she first began her career.
Hotelling has shifted her language with the times. She says she used to call her students moms and dads, but now, "I say 'moms and partners' and hope nobody screams."