Joanna Weiss

The unwed mother paradox

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / March 8, 2011

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POOR NATALIE Portman. She can’t catch a break.

OK, that’s not entirely true. Portman is a glamorous actress and a noted science whiz with a Harvard degree, and she did just win that Oscar. But when she showed up seven months pregnant at the Academy Awards, she managed to draw criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

In a predictable move, Republican presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee railed against her unwed status. (He later backtracked, saying he meant to criticize single motherhood in general. Maybe someone informed him that Portman is engaged to her baby’s father.)

But some feminists found fault with Portman, too, after she gushed, in her acceptance speech, that motherhood was “the most important role of my life.’’ The actress had undermined women, griped a writer in Salon: “Why, at the pinnacle of one’s professional career, would a person feel the need to undercut it by announcing that there’s something else even more important?’’

Cut Portman some slack: She was emotional, hormonal, and spouting both a cliché and a truth that’s perfectly compatible with a woman’s desire for meaningful work. She’s also a convenient scapegoat for social conservatives, who find it easy to criticize other people’s family-planning choices, but much harder to support social programs that give people access to family planning.

Still, Portman, 29, is the most prominent recent example of some striking trends. Births to unmarried women have soared in recent years. And women’s desire to have both children and careers is one major reason why.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of American births in 2008 were to unmarried women, more than double the rate of out-of-wedlock births in 1980. Hispanic and black women have the most births outside of marriage, as do women in their 20s in general. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of 20-to-25-year-old women who gave birth were unmarried, as were 45 percent of women who gave birth in their 20s overall.

It’s easy to attribute those trends to the destigmatization of single motherhood (for those inclined to think positively) or Hollywood-driven moral decay (for those who aren’t). But they also reflect how much our culture values marriage itself, says Barbara Katz Rothman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York.

In the not-so-distant past, she says, the institution of marriage was based largely on economics: a way to produce children to work the farm, consolidate landholdings, further the family business. Marriages of the 1950s and ’60s might be glorified today, but for women who wanted children, they were also a financial necessity. At the time, teaching was one of the few acceptable career paths for women, and when teachers got pregnant, they were routinely fired.

These days, marriage is more idealized: It’s supposed to be a union of soulmates, a relationship that trumps all others. Women who believe marriage is sacrosanct, Rothman says, have especially high standards for a husband. “If you really value marriage,’’ she said, “it’s almost more of a desecration to say, ‘Let me marry this guy because, whatever, let’s get it over with and have some kids.’ ’’

Economics is also a driving force, Rothman says, for lower-income women who are forgoing marriage. Unemployment rates for black and Hispanic men are high, she says. And if those men seem to be undesirable husbands, the women are more likely, and able, to manage on their own.

But they still want to be mothers; as Portman proved in her speech, children are deeply desired, even by women who love their jobs. And while Mike Huckabee gets the details wrong, he’s right that a culture that fawns over pregnant celebrities does most normal women no favors. It makes them feel bad if their stomachs aren’t perfectly flat within three weeks of giving birth. It fuels a ridiculous rush for unnecessary products. Worst of all, it deflects attention from the financial and logistical challenges of motherhood for women — single or not.

Portman can’t be blamed for the trends she represents, but in many ways, she’s more of an anomaly. After all, she gets the baby, the man, and all the financial security in the world. The rest of us know that Hollywood endings don’t come so easily.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at