Is staying unmarried becoming the norm for a new generation?
If women's financial independence is one reason the number of single women has grown, our increasing freedom to have children without a partner is another.
When Eileen Fishman, a self-employed CPA and business consultant, moved from New York to Atlanta six years ago, she was 39 years old and pregnant with her first child, whom she'd conceived via artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. (She later adopted a second child.) "I'd have preferred to have a baby with a husband or life partner," she says, "but it didn't look like that was going to happen."
Despite her original preference for marriage, Fishman has come to feel that single motherhood might even be easier than the other kind. "I loved being in relationships, I really did," she says. "But they are a lot of work. You have to put in an enormous effort, and I don't have any of that worry right now. I have the pleasure of doing my own thing, being with my children, my friends and family."
Although single parenthood can create tremendous economic pressures on a family—one-third of those led by mothers alone live below the poverty level—oddly, there is a kind of logic to Fishman's argument. How many working mothers feel they have time and emotional room for exactly what Fishman describes: work and motherhood and little else?
Fishman moved to Atlanta to be with family (her two sisters lived there). Soon after she arrived, however, she found support not just from her blood relations but from a network of other moms (both single and married), as well as friends who don't choose to have children of their own, but who dote on Fishman's. "My daughters have eight or nine aunties," she says.
Even for single women who don't have kids, community is a crucial issue. Cecilia Smith, an award-winning composer and vibraphonist in New York, has no children, but she has forged many familial bonds over the course of her life. Raised by community-minded parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, she's created her own close circle, many of them musicians, in Brooklyn. The group has shared potluck Christmases, and they help one another out when they are ill or hospitalized. "We know the details of each others' lives," she says.
Helen Pearlstein, an educator in Brooklyn Heights, gets something similar from her independence. "My life is richer for being single," she says. "I have close friends from age two to 92." Rather than turning inward to a family, she's been able to keep turning outward, to new friends, to causes she believes in. ("Helen, I can compete with any man," an old boyfriend used to tell her, "but I don't know how I can compete with the whole [teachers'] union.") "The men I dated all wanted too much attention for themselves," Pearlstein says. "Maybe I didn't meet the right guy, or maybe he just wasn't out there."
"People say, 'Single people, oh, they're what's making us less of a community,'" DePaulo says. "But that's so wrong, because single women often have whole networks of people who are important to them." She points to two national studies that find people who are single are more likely to do the work of maintaining connections with neighbors and friends, and the intergenerational work of keeping families connected. Fishman, for one, moved her parents down to Atlanta with her when she relocated, and she still volunteers regularly for Meals on Wheels and a number of other organizations that cater to seniors.
Even the way that housing is structured seems to accommodate new possibilities for finding a balance between independence and the need for community. For the past 10 years, Ann Zabaldo has been living in Takoma Village Cohousing, in Washington, D.C. Cohousing, a collaborative living model that originated in Denmark, has been growing in popularity here since the 1980s. (The Cohousing Association of the United States estimates that there are more than 100 such communities in this country.)
A collection of apartments or closely situated homes, cohousing is typically built with large common areas—kitchen, workshop, dining room—and those who sign up to live there do so with the understanding and hope that they will be forging close bonds with their neighbors. Decisions are made by consensus, and some communities regularly share meals.
Zabaldo, a former greeting card designer, is a principal partner in Cohousing Collaborative, LLC, a development company that specializes in building cohousing communities. Six years after helping found Takoma Village, Zabaldo, who has multiple sclerosis, had to start using a wheelchair. "Although I could do it, I would find it very difficult to live on my own," without cohousing neighbors, she says.