Most stories about “millennials” focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
Lindzey McDonnold was 21 when she and her boyfriend of four months discovered she was pregnant. They hadn’t been planning for a child, but as their relationship got serious, they hadn’t been avoiding it, either. She’d been working as a waitress at a Tex-Mex chain in Orange, a small Texas port city on the Louisiana border, but quit when the food aromas made her morning sickness too intense. She and her boyfriend weren’t financially prepared, but Lindzey felt mentally and emotionally ready. Most of her friends had kids, and she was their go-to babysitter.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was scared,” she says. “But then again, it was ok. It was sort of natural, like just what you do.”
Almost two years later, Lindzey and her boyfriend are still together, and he works as a salesman at Verizon Wireless. She hasn’t been working or going to school because she broke her leg three months after her son was born. Her doctor didn’t notice the break at first, she says, and she developed a reflex disease that makes it difficult to walk or carry her son. Recovery has been painstaking.
In some ways, the system has failed her—a better benefits package would have provided paid leave during the morning sickness; a better health care system would have caught the break earlier. But in other ways, it’s kicked in to help: She now gets food stamps, which allows her to make ends meet.
“We were getting behind on bills and it was a very stressful time,” Lindzey says. On the other hand, “being a mother is the most rewarding thing in the world.”
Lindzey is a fairly typical mom in many ways. She’s exactly the average age for an unmarried woman in the U.S. to have her first child, and her semi-unintended pregnancy—called a “planned accident” in sociological circles—echoes many young parents’ experiences. This is a woman who struggles daily, but she’s not living in dangerous conditions or extreme poverty, either. There are millions like her. And yet, a mom like Lindzey is virtually invisible in the story of young American motherhood.
We do hear a lot about that independent woman in college—let’s call her Libby—who sleeps around and wouldn’t dream of having a baby anytime soon. She talks fluently about feminism and cost-benefit analyses, sparking both cheers and concern-trolling for how she’s anesthetized herself to love. Once Libby gets out of college, she avoids pregnancy at all costs until her life is perfectly set up for a child with a partner and a fulfilling, stable job, which may or may not ever happen given her high standards and our precarious economy. When Libby finally decides to breed (and stats say she probably will), she’ll be in the demographic targeted by endless dissections of upper- and middle-class parenting dilemmas. But for now, she fits right into the oft-quoted studies about an educated, underemployed generation delaying childbirth at an impressive clip.
I set out to write this story as part of a series called Uncovered about millennials the media often ignores: the ones who grew up poor, who don’t have a college degree, whose problems would seem foreign to a woman like Libby. I fit the stereotype of Libby to a T. I spent all of college terrified of missing my period, and even though I’m now 31, have a good job, and live with my partner of many years, I still wouldn’t be thrilled to fail a pregnancy test. I assumed the ignored millennial was the teen mom—let’s call her Eve—who has blown up her life by having a child too young. In the public’s imagination, going to school or holding down a job feels like an insurmountable, isolating struggle for girls like Eve, whose friends still get to act like kids. This woman was burnished in my brain as the “uncovered” mom I should be reporting on.
So I contacted Lynnette Davis, a nurse in Port Arthur, Texas, who works with young mothers through pregnancy and infancy, to get a sense of what her clients go through. She dutifully told me about her more extreme cases, like the 14-year-old pregnant girl who can’t bear to see Facebook photos of her friends horsing around in bikinis or the 17-year-old mom-to-be struggling with drug addiction. The high school dropouts who’ve had major wakeup calls about what motherhood entails.
But then she informed me that most of her clients are in their early twenties, “live in the moment,” and don’t plan ahead. Their problems aren’t isolation—like Lindzey, all their peers are having kids—so much as unstable relationships, misinformation about prenatal health, and endless financial problems in a deeply class-divided society. Most of the moms’ partners are AWOL.
“There are invisible dividing lines between college kids in the news and most of the mothers I work with,” Davis told me. Then she gave me Lindzey’s number.
The thing is, the teen mom isn’t typical, and she isn’t all that “uncovered” either. The rate of teen pregnancy has been dipping for decades and is at an all-time low right now, yet it’s pretty easy to find poverty reporting that focuses on the most desperate situations, the ones furthest from a middle-class and upper-middle-class readership. These girls turn up in pop culture narratives all the time, from Precious to Teen Mom, which is now in its sixth season. Perhaps it’s because their storylines have the most potential for drama—or exploitation—but the issue of teen motherhood isn’t really ignored at all.
Far less discussed are women like Lindzey who lie between these two extremes. They’re not outcasts who had children at 16, and they’re not laser-focused career women worried about a child derailing their dreams. Although the average age of having a child in the United States is now 26, for an unmarried mom—likely a low-income and non-college-educated woman—it’s 21. That’s about the age of a typical first-time mother in 1970. The difference is that, socially and financially, young motherhood is far more punishing now. With stagnating wages, a shrinking safety net, and higher costs of housing and healthy food, being a young mother usually equals an uphill financial struggle. Education is the most reliable factor in determining both whether a single woman will have a baby in her twenties, and whether she lives in poverty. Race and geography matters, too; a Latina woman in New Mexico is far more likely to have her first child young than, say, a white woman in California. Many of those 21-year-old mothers in 1970 were also married. Nowadays half of first-time mothers under 30 aren’t, which hurts their bottom line.
Libby isn’t the only one with higher standards for marriage—low-income women have them, too. “They have a checklist they have to go through, and the economy is making it harder to get there,” says Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University and co-author of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. And yet studies show that for many, marriage is still the end-game. More privileged twentysomethings might be challenging the idea of the traditional family structure, but “down here in the South,” Lindzey says, “everyone wants the white picket fence, the whole American dream. It’s just one of the things that’s still aimed for.” Nowadays, marriage is an aspirational, middle-class luxury item.
This isn’t exactly how most single women think about motherhood. It’s not something to put off, because a baby is seen as a source of happiness rather than an added stress in their lives. “Children are intoxicating and wonderful and [they often signify] a fresh start,” says Kefalas. Many young women without a college degree “start to feel that motherhood is the most meaningful prospect in their life, especially if they’re working for $15 an hour at Aramark.”
College-educated women’s earning power is significantly hurt by having kids early, but for women like Lindzey who only have a high school degree, Kefalas says that having a baby actually doesn’t hurt her economic prospects. In fact, childbirth often means a “cash infusion”—food stamps, welfare, WIC, free childcare—that can help a young mother reach a better position.
“If you have a baby and you’re 22 years old, the state doesn’t completely abandon you,” Kefalas says. “The state helps [these mothers] and stabilizes them.” Their children are still more likely to live in poverty or a dangerous neighborhood, she adds, and state benefits are a shadow of what they once were, but in terms of this mother’s earning power, having a child doesn’t have much effect. This is exactly how Lindzey feels—in fact, she thinks the birth of her son has given her more motivation to finally get her nursing degree. To her, having a child is just another part of adulthood.
Lindzey’s friends and family know this, but others conflate her with the worst young-mom stereotypes. She says she constantly gets dirty looks from people assuming she’s a teen mom draining the system dry.
“When I’m at the grocery store and I pull out my food stamps, I just get stares and glares,” she says. “But what they don’t understand is that I just need a little extra help and I’m trying.” It pisses her off when strangers seem to assume she was a dumb kid who didn’t know better when she got pregnant. “My mom was very honest about what sex was…she made sure I didn’t get pregnant in high school.”
It was clear she was telling me that yes, she struggles, but she’s not one of those young mothers.
Part of our prejudice against teen pregnancy is that it’s always seen as a mistake. It’s the cautionary flipside to a widely accepted ideal that every child should be 100% prepared for. This ideal is the “planned” in Planned Parenthood, the happily-ever-after of that chiding ditty, “First comes love, then comes marriage.” Even Lindzey seems to feel guilty about the whim of her own pregnancy, telling me that “usually when people get married and have kids, they have money in their savings account.”
But in many American communities, that’s just never how it’s worked. With the rates of marriage waning, it certainly isn’t how it works now. The modern adages that “you’re never ready” and “there’s never a good time to be a parent” are gospel in lots of working-class American towns and cities, a mindset that cuts across race lines. It may be true that a child born to an older mother is less likely to live in poverty, but functionally that cultural ideal only serves to make low-income mothers feel like shit.
Marriage now reinforces inequality in our society; the relative success and longevity of it cuts deeply along education, racial, and income lines. Having kids, though, is still a major priority for young people, especially women without promising career prospects—which, regardless of how you interpret the economic data, is a huge number of “millennials.” Dan Quayle’s image of a million Murphy Brown career women having children with abandon never materialized; what’s happened instead is that low-income women in their twenties feel far more equipped and motivated to have children than to get married. The feminist Libbys among us should realize that poor, single women may forgo abortion not because of religious or access reasons, but because they believe a child will measurably improve their lives. They’re often correct.
So the next time you see headlines about childless, career-driven millennial women, remember the many, many single moms like Lindzey, who still see motherhood as one of the worthiest goals of all in an uncertain, unstable America.