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Single moms: common, proud and determined

(Second of four parts)

As Janice Edwards drives home after work to the small, neatly kept house she bought last year, she tells the proud story of how she has kept her family going since her husband left her five years ago, just before their second child was born.

"I thought we'd fall apart with no man there," she said. "There was a time I had no money for formula, no gas, no water, no electricity and I didn't know what in the world we would do."

What Ms. Edwards, 27, has done is work _ an office job during the day, and another job after hours, at K mart, or, at one point, delivering newspapers from 2 to 5 a.m.

"I'm going to work 17 jobs if I have to, but I'm going to take care of these children," she said. "I'm not going to listen to people who tell me single mothers are bad. I'm not single by choice; I'm single by force, and I'm not going to listen to those negative things."

As single motherhood becomes an ever more common fact of American life, millions of women raising children by themselves are grappling with practical problems of child care and tight finances, and more elusive concerns about their children's development and their own place in society.

Most feel themselves in unfamiliar terrain, bringing up their children in a landscape profoundly different from the one in which they themselves were raised.

But in dozens of interviews with single mothers, the feeling that was expressed most often and most strongly was a great pride in finding that, against all expectations _ theirs and society's _ they are managing reasonably well.

Given their pressing financial needs, most of the single mothers seem to spend less energy than their married counterparts agonizing about how to divide their energies between children and career, and suffer less guilt about the trade-offs working mothers make.

As Sarah Banton, a divorced mother of two sons, put it, her standards changed when she became a single parent. "I now say to myself: "So what if I didn't make homemade cookies?'

" said Ms. Banton, who lives in Columbia, Mo. "If everybody's been fed and everybody's got clean underwear, the needs have been met."

But, she and others said, coming to terms with single parenthood is not a simple task.

Ms. Banton, a nurse, remembers laughing hilariously when another single mother showed her a 1953 etiquette book she had unearthed, full of outdated advice about how divorced women should not have their children at the ceremony if they remarry, but stopped laughing when she realized that some vestiges of the old attitudes remain, even inside herself.

"My self-image as a parent had a difficult couple of years when I got divorced," she said. "I believed that my children could have a full rich life with only one parent, but I wasn't sure I could be and do all that. It's only this last year that it's begun to feel natural to live this way, the three of us as a family unit."

That transition is one most American families may have to make, for the stunning demographic fact is that more than half of all children born in this country in 1980 will probably spend some time living in a single-parent household before they reach the age of 18.

Last year, according to the Census Bureau, a quarter of the nation's children under 18 lived in single-parent households, 22 percent of them with their mothers, and 3 percent with their fathers.

In 1970, only 12 percent of America's children under 18 lived with one parent, 11 percent with their mothers and 1 percent with their fathers.

"Sure, there are still some segments in society that look down on single parents, but I think we're beginning to outnumber them," said Stephanie Seate, a divorced mother of two teenagers in Atlanta.

Public discussion of single mothers today tends to center on either pregnant teenagers who go on welfare or, with the recent attention to Murphy Brown, older, single career women who decide to have babies before it is too late.

Last year, one in four babies was born to a mother who was not married, and that percentage has been growing steadily _ a worrisome phenomenon, since unmarried mothers tend to be younger, poorer, less educated and more dependent on welfare than those who were married at the time of the birth.

While never-married mothers are the fastest growing group, they are still a minority. Two out of three single mothers today are married women who have been divorced, separated, abandoned or widowed, according to 1991 Census Bureau data.

The problems' roots

While it is clear that children in single parent families are more likely to have behavior and academic problems than those in families that are intact, it is difficult to sort out the causes. For all the mothers' worries, sociologists say there are little data showing that single parenthood, in itself, causes dire problems for children.

Most of the problems, these experts say, appear to result from the poverty that often accompanies single parenthood, or the disturbances preceding the divorce, rather than the parenting itself.

"The economic differences between children from one parent-families and children from two-parent families are much greater than the psychological differences," said Frank F. Furstenburg Jr., a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a long-term study comparing children growing up in divorced families with those in two-parent families, he said, there were consistent differences on things like mental health, problems with the law and school achievement.

"But they were modest differences," he said, "and a fair amount of the differences were due to what preceded the divorce."

The link between single parenthood and poverty, however, is clear. Almost half of all female-headed families with children under 18 live in poverty, and the median family income for two-parent families is about three times that of female-headed families.

The changing image

Douglas J. Besharov, a family-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a research center in Washington, argues that there are basic differences between never-married mothers and those who married, had children and became single parents when their marriages dissolved.

"The ones who were married, as a group, have higher family incomes, are older, better educated, more likely to hold full-time jobs, less likely to go on welfare," he said. "When we talk about single parents as a social problem, we're really talking about the young unmarried mothers, 40 percent of whom end up as long-term welfare recipients, compared to only 14 percent of the divorced mothers. The worrying thing is that never-married mothers account for most of the children now entering single-parent households."

The merging of the two categories in public parlance is relatively recent. Until the 1970s, women were either called divorced mothers or unwed mothers, and there was no all-inclusive label.

The widespread acceptance of the undifferentiated term "single mother,' experts say, signaled a de-stigmatization of the role.

But many children still wish for a mom-and-dad household. Ms. Banton, the Missouri nurse, described the picture her son made this fall when his first-grade teacher asked him to draw his family.

"He drew himself and his brother and a mother and father, all holding hands," she said. "I felt sad for him when I saw it, the kind of twinge you get in the playground if your kid isn't picked for the team."