For an unwed 20-something mother, life is a whirlwind at the center of a trend

She wakes at 5:30 a.m., quiets the alarm. In the dark, she pads across her crowded room and bends over a toddler bed.

Thank goodness. Her son is still sleeping.

She pulls up his Thomas the Tank Engine sheet and heads for the shower.

At 6, she gets him up and dresses him. While she dries her hair, he watches Scooby-Doo. She pulls on slacks, a black and white blouse — something she can wear to school and work. She won't be home for 12 hours.

By 7, she's pouring juice, cutting a waffle into bite-sized squares. "Go ahead and eat, Caden," she tells her son. "We've got to go."

Jamie Lee Zehnder, 24, lives with her parents and 2-year-old son in a two-bedroom cottage in northeast St. Petersburg. She shares her girlhood room with her boy and all his toys.

Raising a child alone as a 20-something is a challenge, but it's hardly unusual. Zehnder is part of a newsmaking trend: Today, more than half of births to American women under 30 take place outside marriage.

The fastest-growing group of single women having babies? Moms just like Zehnder — white women in their 20s with some college education.

She never thought it would be like this.

"I wanted the dream, you know? Every girl's dream: marriage, kids, that white picket fence," Zehnder said. "But my choices didn't fit into my plan."

By now, she thought she would be a college graduate, a second-grade teacher, wife of the first man she had ever really loved.

But things with Caden's father didn't work out, and Zehnder found out what it means to be part of a sweeping societal change.

• • •

The Washington, D.C., research group Child Trends released a study last week based on 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. It reported that the number of children born to single mothers has been increasing steadily for the past half-century. But this is the first time that more babies are born to young, unwed women than to married moms.

What's driving the trend? Some say access to birth control has changed attitudes about sex and reproduction. Others say the sinking economy has limited the number of men who can afford to have families. Still others say women don't need men to provide for them, that they can raise kids on their own. Many ask, "Why get married?" You lose government benefits, get tangled in someone else's finances, risk divorce. Why not just live together?

Zehnder has her own theories: Women believe men when they say they'll be there, but they know that if something happens they can handle things alone.

Her mother, Donna Zehnder, 52, has other ideas: Having sex doesn't mean you're committed anymore, she said. Men create pregnancies and just walk away. The more children who grow up without dads, the fewer value fatherhood. "Boys don't grow up wanting to be good husbands and dads anymore," said Donna Zehnder, a nurse who has been married for 32 years.

Researchers say children born outside marriage are more likely to struggle in school, endure behavioral and emotional problems, fall into poverty.

Zehnder is determined to make sure Caden doesn't suffer because he doesn't have a dad.

"I want my son to have as normal a life as possible, to know he has a whole family who loves and accepts him," she says. "I don't want him to be affected by my choices."

When Zehnder decided to keep Caden, she steeled herself for the 4 a.m. feedings, the diapers and vaccinations, nightmares and tantrums and terrible twos. She knew she would have to drop out of college and live with her folks. She expected to be poor, and was prepared — at 21 — to devote the rest of her life to her son.

"Being a mom didn't scare me," she says. "Being single scares me."

• • •

She was always a good girl, she says, always wanted to be a teacher — and a wife and, especially, a mom. At age 8, she started lining up her stuffed animals to give them spelling lessons. By high school, she was leading Sunday school classes at Liberty Baptist Church.

She graduated from Keswick Christian School, went to Pensacola Christian College and got homesick. So she moved back to St. Petersburg, back in with her parents, and enrolled at Clearwater Christian College.

In her second year, a friend introduced her to a handsome young student at Stetson law school. They had been going out for more than a year when, for the first time, she bought birth control pills. If anything happens, she said he promised, you know I'll be there.

"I was 19," Zehnder says. "I really, really loved him. He said all the right things."

In October 2008, Zehnder drove to the dollar store, bought a pregnancy test and called her older sister, crying. What was she going to tell her parents? Her pastor? How would her boyfriend react?

"I hoped maybe we would get married," she says. "I thought at least we would live together and both raise our baby."

When she told her boyfriend, he stared at her. Then he said, "Let's make sure." He dragged her to the health department, then to Planned Parenthood. When he started asking about abortions, she walked out. For her, she says, that was never an option. Neither was adoption. She wanted her baby.

She was four months pregnant when her boyfriend left her a voicemail. A baby wasn't part of his plans right now, he said. He told her to contact his lawyer. He didn't want pictures, didn't want to know the kid's name. Of course, he would pay child support. He didn't want any trouble.

"When he walked out, I was terrified," Zehnder says.

Her parents were there for her, but she had to drop out of Clearwater Christian College. "They didn't abide by unmarried pregnancies," her mom said. She worried about telling everyone at church.

But that Sunday, when she shared her secret, the congregation embraced her. The pastor pulled her aside and encouraged her to be strong.

And instead of punishing her, she says, God blessed her with an easy pregnancy.

• • •

Birth classes were hard. All of the other women had husbands or boyfriends by their sides. Zehnder had her mom, "Which was so great of her. But weird. And really sad."

At night, when her baby kicked, she would lie awake feeling his tiny feet — wishing someone were there to put his hand on her belly. In the morning, when she was sick, she longed for someone to stand behind her and hold back her hair.

There was no one to reassure her she was still beautiful, that they would get through this together. No one to help plan a nursery or pick out names.

"I missed having a husband there with me at the C-section, missed having someone to share that first, 'Oh, my gosh! That's our baby!' Or give him his first bath," she says.

Of course, all of Caden's milestones were memorable: first dimpled smile, first garbled word, first stumbling steps. "But there wasn't anyone to really celebrate those with me," Zehnder says.

Caden's cousin taught him to throw a baseball. His granddad bought him a Gerber life insurance policy. Caden deserves a dad to play superheroes with, his mom says, to teach him to fly.

Zehnder gets government help to pay for child care and food. She doesn't pay rent at her parents' house. If not for them, she says, she would be working two minimum-wage jobs, trying to scrape together rent for a tiny apartment. She appreciates her parents' help — but misses her privacy. "There's no space that's just mine," she says. Her son's father pays $740 a month in child support. But he has never seen Caden, sent a birthday gift or even called.

In May 2010, Zehnder returned to school, enrolling at St. Petersburg College. She went back to work at the day care where she also takes her son. She stopped going to movies with her friends, stopped eating out, started giving her parents $100 a month for groceries.

She let go of the dream of having her own house, that picket fence, that perfect husband and dad for her son. "I gave up on the whole idea of getting married," she says. "I couldn't imagine a guy wanting a girl with a baby. I know that whole stigma about being a single mom."

• • •

She finishes her last class at 5:30 p.m., hurries to her car, races across town to the day care to work the last shift.

Thank goodness. Her mom already picked up her son.

She feels bad when he has to stay there for 12 hours.

By 7, she is diapering the last baby, sending him off with his mom, and heading home to her own son. She gives Caden a bath, reads him a story, bends beside his toddler bed to hear his prayers.

Then she sinks into the living room couch to do homework until midnight, listening in case he calls.

• • •

A year and a half ago, after she realized she really could do this on her own, one of Zehnder's friends encouraged her to "get back out there, do something for yourself." She helped Zehnder make a profile on a dating site, Plenty of Fish.

One of her suitors: a 25-year-old named Joey who takes care of his grandmother, works with disabled adults and wants to be a police officer. He lives in Inverness and thought Zehnder sounded amazing.

They wrote to each other for almost a month without ever talking or meeting. Yes, he was a Christian. No, he didn't mind if she had a son.

When they finally got together, Zehnder knew he was the one. He was crazy about her. He wanted to meet her son. After six months of taking Caden to the playground, playing T-ball and wrestling with him, Caden started calling him Daddy.

"Joey helps with him all the time," Zehnder says. "He really loves him."

When they get married in June, Caden will be the ring bearer.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

By the numbers | Single moms

41 Percent of American babies born to single women

66 Percent of all American children born to women under 30

53 Percent of American children born to single women under 30

60 In Florida, percent of children born to single women under 30

6th Florida's rank among states for babies born to single women under 30

73 Percent of black children born outside of marriage

53 Percent of Latino children born outside of marriage

29 Percent of white children born outside of marriage

92 Percent of college-educated women who are married when they give birth

62 Percent of women with some college who are married when they give birth

43 Percent of women without any college who are married when they give birth

27 Percent of pregnancies to married women that are unintended; of those, 25 percent are aborted

74 Percent of pregnancies to single women that are unintended; of those, 50 percent are aborted

Source: Child Trends, a Washington, D.C., research group that analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics

For an unwed 20-something mother, life is a whirlwind at the center of a trend 02/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 11:17pm]

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