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Are 20-Something Unwed Moms the New Teen Moms?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Horton

Welcome Michelle Horton of Early Mama, our newest regular contributor to Mom Without a Filter! Read more about Michelle.

Today’s modern woman seems to be putting off marriage and motherhood longer than ever—after their careers are established and their wild oats have been sowed. Of course, there are exceptions within religious groups or regional populations—but delayed motherhood and marriage is, without a doubt, rapidly becoming a new normal in our society. 

It was certainly normal in my society four years ago when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant at 22 years old, living and interning in New York City where it’s practically unfathomable to have a child before 35. The pregnancy put me in a minority, yet among 20-something pregnant women, I was actually right on-trend - unmarried. 

Today’s 20-somethings are more likely to have babies outside of marriage than within holy matrimony, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in case you’re wondering—yes—this is the newest detriment to our society. (Take a back seat, teen moms.)

The baffling phenomenon of unwed young mothers is a majorly hot topic right now, with statistics and stereotypes flooding the Internet from publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The National Marriage Project.

According to the WSJ, “If 30 is the new 20, today’s unmarried 20-somethings are the new teen moms. And the tragic consequences are much the same: children raised in homes that often put them at enormous disadvantage from the start of life.”

And here we spiral into the same-old shaming and stereotyping, just as with teen moms, which, in my opinion, only perpetuates the cycle. Using black-and-white statistics, it’s easy to paint a picture of uneducated, poverty-stricken young women doomed for a life of misery, as if we’re emblazoned with a Scarlet Letter symbolizing a lack of education and class. 

But as a young pregnant and unwed woman who faced so much judgment and so many insensitive comments, and as the founder of EarlyMama.com where I get countless emails, comments, and guest posts about the isolation and embarrassment of young pregnant women (many unmarried), I can assure you that this trend is more complex and multi-layered than the lack of “marriage before carriage.”

Rather than pull unmarried 20-somethings into the same rhetoric we’ve heard for teen moms—that we’re destroying our children’s lives, not to mention our own—why not have a real discussion about the real changes in our society? 

Maybe we should be wondering why so many young women choose the wrong mates. Could it be because today’s 20-somethings are in a unique state of prolonged adolescence, where we’re expected to date excessively, “find ourselves,” and wander through the decade? Many of us feel biologically wired to want babies in our 20s (instead we get dogs! or cats!), so maybe we should teach young adults to be more selective in their dating. Maybe we should treat 20-somethings like the adults they are.

Maybe we should discuss the fact that, although all of the articles label these unwed young moms as being “uneducated” for not having a college degree, many are balancing college and grad-school with work and motherhood — successfully, I might add.

Let’s talk about the reality that many of today’s 20-somethings grew up in a world where their parents (and their friend’s parents) were divorced—not to mention a culture of public infidelity scandals, celebrity one-night marriages, and shows like The Bachelor. (And WE’RE responsible for the degradation of marriage? HA!) We don’t really have the best examples to learn from.

And let’s acknowledge that 20-something wives and mothers are met with a shocking lack of support and an unacceptable level of judgment, which leaves young women feeling hopeless and discouraged.

Maybe we need to stop telling young couples that their relationships won’t last. As a 26-year-old married woman, I can assure you that us coupled-up 20-somethings are choking on grim statistics and doomsday warnings. We are constantly hearing how our relationships don’t stand a fighting chance. So when times get rocky — which they usually do with marriage let alone with young kids, no matter your age or education or socio-economic class — these warnings might be convincing enough to throw in the towel.

And if it turns out the stable two-person household doesn’t work out, I refuse to perpetuate this idea that untraditional families, including single, young parents, are automatically doomed. I absolutely think that a stable two-person household is an important foundation for children, and I wish we were all given the tools to sustain a healthy, long-lasting relationship, but traditional marriage is not the only missing link.

Maybe if more young women felt support and encouragement for their relationships (young relationships never last!), their careers (you’ll never accomplish anything important!), and their families (your children are doomed and disadvantaged!), we might see bigger strides toward success. 

Are 20-something unwed moms the new teen moms? If referring to how both groups of mothers are treated and shamed, then yes: we are the new teen moms.

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