The Baby or the Bathwater: Tossing Out Marriage but Keeping Motherhood
These women still considered marriage as essential to motherhood. Thus before considering motherhood, they had to confront marriage. The belief that it takes a partner to have a child was a cultural mandate that even these successful women were unable to ignore. Most busied themselves with work, hoping the right partner would materialize and start the sequence. But as marriage was transformed by women’s employment, women no longer depended on husbands for economic survival. As marriage became less of a risky exchange of economic security for homemaking, women sought marriage in its idealized form—two people joined by love, forsaking the pragmatic arrangements that formerly characterized the institution. Put simply, women raised the bar for marriage. It started on the first date—women no longer let men pick up the dinner check, and they expected good conversation and respect to escalate to intimacy. As a result of women’s diminishing need for marriage, they were more fully able to invest in the romanticized vision of the institution, in which the magic of love overshadows more practical considerations.16
Claudia, who shared similar experiences with many of the other single moms in this study, talked about how she wanted to experience life before settling down. She wanted to take things on her own terms. She couldn’t fathom moving out of her college dorm to follow a boyfriend who had entered graduate school. In her words, “the relationship had potential but the timing was off.” Timing, I was told repeatedly, was critical to forming intimate and lasting relationships. Timing was not simply a matter of finding the right person. Both people had to be ready to commit, and not just to a relationship but also to a future that included marriage and children. Lily, age thirty-nine and with a one-year-old conceived through anonymous donor insemination, described succinctly what for her turned out to be nearly two decades of bad timing and weak commitments:
The way I look at it in a nutshell is that in my twenties, I wasn’t ready. In my thirties I was. I dated three men in my thirties. The first one wasn’t ready to get married; I would have married him, wise or unwise. The second one I would have married, but he said, “You’re the most wonderful woman I’ve ever dated, but I’m not in love with you.” And the third one I definitely expected to marry.
I was like, “Oh, I’m glad the other two didn’t work because this is the one forme.”
And he wasn’t ready. He said he was, and then once I got on board, that totally changed things for him, and he couldn’t take it.
Like Claudia, Lily felt she had time on her side. She was convinced that a much better prospect was just around the corner. Her optimism was buttressed by the
fact that her search did not have to be confined to a small community such as her hometown or fraternity/sorority house on a college campus; now the possibilities seemed to extend infinitely (including the Internet). This is not to say that these women, heterosexual or lesbian, lacked in relationships. The overwhelming majority described long-lasting and, in many instances, very fulfilling commitments. But in every instance, whether the relationship was simply romantic or included cohabitation, marriage, or partnership, circumstances conspired to stop things short of the full package—commitment with children. Nearly a quarter of the women had been married, but their relationships, on average, lasted just over a year, and only two children in this study were born from those marriages. Another quarter of the women, including both gay and straight women, had cohabited; though the partners’ split may not have been solely about having children together, these breakups often occurred when talk of children turned serious.17
Men’s ambivalence about commitment loomed large in women’s accounts, and a man’s waffling often derailed plans for moving forward. Over coffee, Charlotte gave me the abridged version of the men she had dated:
The guys I meet are either married or gay. The married ones I’m not interested in. The guys that are straight—well, they’ve just broken up with the most fabulous woman on earth. Or they’ve just broken up with a bitch who happens to look just like me. Or they’re in transition from marriage and they need more space. If they don’t need space, they just can’t commit. Or they can commit but they are afraid to get close. There are men who want to get close, but those are the men I don’t want to get near.
Nicole, forty-five years old with two adopted young teens, claimed that after twenty-plus years of continuous dating she could tell in the first fifteen minutes of a date if there was even a slim chance that there would be a second date. She explained how incompatible she was with a man who responded through a dating service shortly after her long-term relationship ended. 
As humorous as these two accounts are, they point to the frustration with the lack of eligible potential partners that women met in their attempts to find love and intimacy. The men Charlotte met could not commit. By contrast, Nicole’s date blew exactly what he wanted, and she was not it, immediately disqualified by the way she squeezed her toothpaste. Women grew tired of these men who were not good matches either in their expectations for a relationship or in their compatibility as future partners.
Frequently, but not unanimously, a woman would succumb to moments of self-blame for not finding a marriage partner. The pressure to find suitable partners is not limited to straight women—gay women in this study also felt a sense of failure to find someone with whom they could both spend their life and have a child. At some level, self-doubt and self-criticism insinuated themselves into every woman’s story: “Is there something wrong with me? Am I to blame? Did I refuse to compromise? Am I naive?”
The painful irony is that women would blame themselves for not marrying at a moment in history when the institution of marriage is itself changing, perhaps even failing.18 For heterosexual women and men, the postponement of first marriage is at an all-time high.19 The phenomenon that Lily described as “not ready yet” has resulted in the age of first marriage stretching into the late twenties for both women and men. Divorce rates—that is, failed marriages—have declined in recent years but remain extraordinarily high. The percentage of couples cohabiting steadily increases.20
The women I interviewed looked toward marriage and found themselves depressed by the dwindling odds of finding love that would lead to children. They were hardened through horrible dates, failed relationships, and bad timing, and marriage took on an elusive quality that had been previously reserved for motherhood. As they believed marriage to be slipping further and further out of their reach, motherhood, on the other hand, moved closer, drawn in by their desire for children. As Claudia put it, women were “running two races and losing at both.” Faced with the decision to choose one or the other in order to win, women found themselves making a difficult life decision. While social norms would dictate throwing the baby out with the bathwater—that is, discarding motherhood because marriage seemed unattainable—women salvaged the baby. Women shed the burden of marriage, determined to win the race to motherhood alone. Taking stock of the road ahead, women saw a course very different from that of women in generations before.