On her 35th birthday, Tamar Abrams decided she could wait for Mr. Right no longer. So the Arlington, Virginia, public-relations executive made an appointment with the Columbia Hospital for Women Fertility Clinic to explore the possibility of artificial insemination. "I felt like I was at the end of the road for my fertility," explains Abrams, a partner in Radiant Communications."And I decided I could live without a husband but I didn't want to go through life without being a mother."
After an agonizing and slightly giddy review of sperm donors-one candidate was rejected because he was a bad speller, another because his favorite food was tuna casserole-Abrams found her man, and six months later became pregnant with her daughter, Hannah. She then prepared for a radical life change. A woman who had never had so much as owned a houseplant because her career required so much travel, Abrams moved to a house in the suburbs, bought a swing set, and arranged to work from home. "I did the same thing that anyone else would," she says. "I looked at my financial circumstances and my career.
"The only thing I worried about was if it was fair to bring a child into this world without a father. But I knew I would be a great mom and that my child would have a great life."
Abrams' means of becoming a mother may be unusual, but her status as a single mom in the United States is not. Ever since the television character Murphy Brown angered former Vice President Dan Quayle with her foray into dad-free parenting, single mothers have become increasingly visible in the culture. Celebrities like Madonna and Jodie Foster are showing that sisters are doing it for themselves. One of this year's best-selling novels is Where the Heart Is, the story of a teen-age single mom who lives in the Wal-Mart. And Lifetime television has even developed a comedy called Oh Baby, about a thirtysomething single woman who chooses to have a child by artificial insemination.
But the trend transcends mere popular culture. According to the Census Bureau, 40 percent of never-married women in their 30s have a child. And single motherhood for both divorced and never-married women continues to rise. In 1970 there were 3.4 million single mothers in the United States; now there are nearly 10 million. What's more, a Census report released last year found that for the first time in 60 years-when the organization first began tracking marriage and family data-the majority of first children (53 percent) were born to or conceived by an unmarried woman. Sixty years ago, that figure was 18 percent.
Why so many single moms? One reason is that the single population in general is growing. Between 1970 and 1998, the number of divorced persons more than quadrupled, from 4.3 million to 19.4 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Asthe age at first marriage continues to rise-in 1998 it was at an all-time high of 25 years for women, up from 21 in 1970-the number of never-married adults has doubled since 1970. "The rising age of marriage puts more women out there either having accidental pregnancies or making decisions to get pregnant," says Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Really Are: Coming To Terms With America's Changing Families (Basic Books).
And when they do get pregnant, women no longer feel that they are locked into marrying the father-or anyone, for that matter. Coontz says that this can be attributed partially to society's increasingly accepting view of divorce and single motherhood, although the stigma hasn't gone away entirely. "We are still finding that teachers and other students might have prejudices about the behavior of children of single mothers," she says.
More important, the increased independence of women means that husbands are less of an economic necessity. And Andrea Engber, director of the National Organization of Single Mothers, points out that being married is still no guarantee that a woman will get help around the house. "A lot of women think, 'I have a job, I can make money, and I'm going to be the one doing the dishes anyway,' " she says.
This is not to say that most single mothers wouldn't prefer to have a man in their life. "Most women don't choose to go to a sperm bank," says Engber. "They wouldn't shun an Alan Alda-style, diaper-changing daddy. But when their biological clock is running out and Mr. Right is no where in sight, they aren't settling for Mr. Adequate."
Abrams agrees, pointing out that although she is a member of a group called Single Mothers By Choice, she doesn't really consider herself one. "I'm a mother by choice. The single part just sort of happened," she says.
So with so many single moms out there in the marketplace, are corporations recognizing them? J. Walker Smith, a managing partner of Yankelovich Partners, says most businesses have been slow to see the importance of single-parent families. "It's not really an issue that's on the radar screen of our clients. We don't hear them asking for insights into single-parent households. They ask us about empty nesters and Gen Xers forming households, and we're getting a lot of questions about teens."
It's not hard to see why single moms get short shrift. Although their household incomes continue to increase, 41 percent of single-mother households still subsist below the poverty line. Not exactly a figure that makes the average executive see dollar signs. Nevertheless, Smith urges his clients to pay attention to them. After all, poor single moms buy diapers, just like middle-income mothers do. In fact, single mothers account for $174 billion in annual expenditures, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey.
"We talk first and foremost about the changing family," Smith says. "Two-parent households with parents aged 30-to-44 are going to decline by 4 million in the next 15 years. There are more sorts of households than ever before and if your marketing is only using images of traditional households then your marketing strategy won't resonate for a lot of people."
Anne Marshall a partner in WomanTrend, a Washington, D.C.-based research and consulting firm, agrees that single moms are a group to watch. "Marketers who don't target single mothers are certainly missing the boat. Because single mothers are not only a growing pool, they are also making decisions on their own. There's no downtime where they discuss things with their husband."
To that end, WomanTrend recently completed a study on single mothers for Lifetime television, a network specifically geared toward women. Sue Rynn, vice president of research for Lifetime, says that the study, released last month, is part of a larger effort by the network to look beyond age demographics and focus on life stages. "Women play so many different roles, and we found that we really need to look beyond age and find out what's going on with their lives," Rynn says.
Their findings belie the common perceptions of single moms as beleaguered and downtrodden. For example, they appreciate the way that the lighthearted TV show Oh Baby portrays single motherhood as something other than tragic.
"These are women who feel more in control of their lives than you might think," says Rynn, who explains that the women in their study are highly motivated and have a very clear sense of purpose."I found myself behind the glass saying, 'I'll never complain again.' This was a very dynamic group of women with a very can-do attitude," she says.
The study found that single mothers are more likely to pursue or continue higher education than women overall, with 59 percent of single moms saying they are taking or planning to take some kind of adult education, as opposed to 46 percent of women overall. "Here they were the most time-strapped group, but they realize that making life better for themselves is making life better for their kids," says Rynn.
That was Terry Rice's incentive. The 47-year-old nurse from Olympia, Washington, was at one time working 50 hours a week, pursuing a nursing degree and participating in the Army Reserves in order to ensure economic stability for her two children, who are now 18 and 21. "My son still jokes about the earth-to-mom years," Rice says. "But I did it for my children's future and my own long-term future."
Health is another major issue. "The single mothers we spoke to know that if they aren't healthy, the entire house of cards will fall down," says WomanTrend founder Diana Holman. That's a sentiment understood by Cathy Guyton, 44, an ultrasound technologist from Astoria, New York, who says that the combination of being single and growing older makes her own health a pressing concern. "You get to a point with your life and your body where the doctor doesn't say, "That's okay, we'll see you in a year.' They say, 'I think you should go see someone else'," says Guyton, who is considering taking out a secondary health insurance policy for herself (her 7-year-old son, Alex, is covered by her ex-husband's policy).
Some insurance and finance companies have realized that single mothers see themselves as the first line of defense in their families, and they have tailored advertisements and programs specifically for them. The John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, for example, created an ad that specifically targets the women's market and features a single mother. The ad begins, "You are alone. You are strong."
Diana Scott, vice president for direct-distribution for John Hancock, says this is one of many ads the company gears toward women, who now comprise 43 percent of their clientele. "We're trying not to get stuck in stodgy old insurance land," says Scott, who says that insurance companies have traditionally not been good at serving the women's market. "It's like buying cars. The attitude was, 'Okay, honey, come back when you're ready to come with your husband.' Well, the world is changing. Women are taking a much more active role in making the decisions and financial management of their future."
Salomon Smith Barney saw opportunity with another single mom market: divorcees and widows. The company's "Women in Transition" program is geared toward women who need advice on how to manage large settlements or inheritances. "We saw that there was a group of widows and divorcees who had issues that were very specific and very similar and we should respond to that," says Mindy Ross, director of target marketing initiatives for Salomon Smith Barney. Ross says that one of the biggest challenges with single moms is convincing them to invest aggressively. "They tend to be overly conservative," she says.
Life-and-death services are not the only ones single mothers are looking for. They also want help around the house. "I feel like I have no time for anything," says Guyton. "It's just a day-in and day-out grind of things you have to take care of, while trying to have some fun." Guyton says she tends to neglect the "have to" things-dishes, laundry, bills-in favor of spending time with her son. "Right now it's 9:30 at night and I have dirty dishes in the sink. I'll probably just wait until tomorrow to do them. So you're constantly living in an environment that is not completely chaotic, but not completely together."
With their 24/7 lifestyle, Holman says that single mothers have very little tolerance for anything superfluous. "They are very solution-oriented," she says. "They want what works."
In this way, they don't differ so much from other working mothers, who may have the support of a husband but are still in a high-wire act of balancing work and family. "Single mothers aren't all that different from mothers in general," says Cynthia Tripp, editor of the newsletter "About Women & Marketing." "They face the same problem-lack of day care, and family issues. And their biggest issue is time. They have to fit shopping around their work schedules and so are looking for companies that offer extended hours or that will deliver something to the office."
That's what Terry Rice says she wants at the top of her wish list: Someone who will change the oil in her car in the company parking lot while she's working, stores that will deliver on Saturday, services that will pick up her laundry and bring groceries. "There are a lot of products that busy working mothers need and are willing to pay for, because even at the lower incomes, women are willing to pay out to spend time with their kids," says author Coontz.
Packaged-goods companies are also trying to get into the service business. For example, Minute Rice has a toll-free number that cooks can call for the recipe of the day. And Campbell's Soup Company has a Web site that offers a recipe archive for harried moms trying to figure out what to make for dinner. "Consumers are asking, 'What can you do for me?' " says Lew Cashman, Campbell's vice president for global marketing research. He says that 70 percent of consumers don't know what they'll be having for dinner at 4 o'clock.
Catering to the needs of women is a wise move, says Tripp, since women purchase 80 percent of all consumer goods. For her part, Katherine Arnoldi, author of The Amazing "True" Story of a Teenage Single Mom (Hyperion), believes that marketers will soon realize that the nation's nearly 10 million single mothers are a group that can not-and should not-be ignored. "That's a lot of Pampers, cars, homes, and toys," she points out. "We're not going to let you guys forget us. We're going to be a force."