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Single Women Gave Birth to Over Half the State's Babies in 2005

By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Elisabeth Sacco had no plans to become a mother at age 29 when she became pregnant with her first daughter.
    But "I knew that abortion was not a choice for me," said Sacco, now a 45-year-old single mother of three daughters.
    Nor did she consider marrying the child's father. "I knew I wanted children, and when the opportunity arose," she seized the chance. "I just knew that I was going to be a capable parent, and I think I am."
    Sacco's story is no longer unusual. In fact, single mothers gave birth to over half the state's babies in 2005.
    Of the 28,822 babies born, 14,644 babies— or 50.8 percent— were born to unmarried women, according to data published by the New Mexico Department of Health.
    New Mexico far exceeds the national average; 35.8 percent of births were to single mothers in 2004.
    The trend has increased steadily for decades. The percent of New Mexico births to single mothers has doubled in two decades, from 24.6 percent in 1984, according to the agency's most recent data.
    "The trend lines have been in place for 20 years," state Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil said. "As far as I know, there is nothing on the social horizon that will change this in the foreseeable future."
    The reasons for such a high number of single mothers in New Mexico are varied: the state's high teen birth rate, more older women choosing single motherhood, the loss of the stigma that used to be attached to unwed mothers, and New Mexico's large Hispanic and Native American populations, which have higher rates of single mothers.
    Meanwhile, single motherhood poses obstacles to education and good-paying jobs, contributing to the state's high overall poverty rates.
    The high rate of births to single women, combined with the state's high divorce rate, adds up to one conclusion: "Most kids are being raised in single-family households," Vigil said.
    Health care, education and other social services need to step up, Vigil said. "We're needing society to support families because families are more fragile than they were once upon a time."
Cultural factors
    The picture of the single mom in New Mexico is a complex one, with the state's ethnic diversity playing a major role.
    Thirty-one percent of New Mexico's Anglo babies were born to single mothers in 2005. In contrast, 57 percent of Hispanic infants were born to single moms and three-quarters of American Indian infants.
    Religious and cultural influences are a factor.
    For example, many of New Mexico's Hispanic women rule out abortion as an option. New Mexico had 210 abortions per 1,000 live births in 2003, a rate below the national average of 241, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data.
    Ingrid Mitchell, a 31-year-old single mom and Acoma Pueblo member, said she talks about safe sex with her nieces and nephews at every opportunity.
    "I don't want them to go through what I went through," said Mitchell, who gave birth to her son at age 19 in Shiprock. "It seems like they're getting pregnant younger and younger. I talk with my son all the time about it."
    But Mitchell says she is often chided by family members for her frank talk about sex and contraceptives. Many tribal members are uneasy discussing such issues, she said, which might contribute to the high birth rate among single mothers.
    "I wasn't raised on the reservation— I was raised in the city (of Farmington)," said Mitchell, who maintains close contact with Acoma Pueblo. "And going through my own trials made me more open."
    Today, Mitchell and her son live in Albuquerque, where she is working toward a bachelor's degree in Native American studies at the University of New Mexico.
    Teen pregnancy also remains a key component.
    Teen birth rates have declined here as they have nationally. But New Mexico's rates remain stubbornly high. And 86 percent of teen mothers are single.
    In 2005, teens bore 27 percent of New Mexico babies born to single moms.
    New Mexico girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth at a rate of 60.1 per 1,000 females in 2005. That compares with a national rate of 41.1 per 1,000 females in 2004, the most recent figures available.
    "Other states are making faster headway at bringing down teen pregnancy than New Mexico," said Kathi Brown, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women.
    And older women like Sacco make up a growing segment of single mothers. Women 25 and older accounted for 36 percent of births to single mothers in 2005, up from 30 percent in 1985.
    "A percentage of professional women in their 30s and 40s have chosen single motherhood," said Brown.
Barriers to opportunity
    Many of the women who become single mothers are already at the low end of the economic and education scale.
    Only 10 percent of single mothers nationally had completed bachelor's degrees, according to a 2005 report published by Women Work!, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit created to help women make economic gains. Thirty-one percent had not attained a high school diploma. The rest fell somewhere in between.
    Lack of education is a key reason single moms face limited career opportunities, the report concludes. Fifty-three percent of working single mothers were employed in service or clerical jobs, and 31 percent had poverty-level incomes.
    And a career may not be enough to prevent a single-income family from falling into poverty.
    "I realize the biggest reason a woman goes into poverty is by having a child," Sacco said. "I know that now."
    A former paramedic, firefighter and community health worker, Sacco returned to school at Central New Mexico Community College last year to pursue a degree in social work with the help of Pell grants and private financial aid. She called her decision to return to school "the most difficult financial decision I have made in my lifetime."
    Single motherhood poses "an additional barrier to success" in college, said Ann Lyn Hall, a CNM achievement coach who helps struggling students complete degrees.
    CNM offers on-campus day care at its main and South Valley campuses and day care scholarships up to $500 a term. But problems as simple as the flu can keep a child out of day care and force a parent to miss class for weeks, Hall said.
    Motherhood can also inspire a woman to pursue education with greater persistence. "It can be a barrier to success or it can be an additional push to success," Hall said.
Babies having babies
    As for the state's high teen pregnancy rate, the New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women released a report in August based on meetings with hundreds of teenage girls around the state. In a survey, 1,200 girls identified pregnancy as second only to drugs as the biggest threat they face.
    In the meetings, the girls requested more realistic sex education classes, school-based health centers in all high schools and access to low-cost or free contraceptives without parental insurance, according to the report.
    A great majority of teen pregnancies are unintentional, said Dr. Bruce Trigg, a state Department of Health physician in Albuquerque, who believes too many New Mexico women lack access to contraceptives.
    The state's 55 public health clinics dispense contraceptives at a cost that depends on the mother's income. Albuquerque Public Schools health clinics can prescribe contraceptives but can't dispense them.
    While many teen pregnancies are unintentional, that doesn't mean they are necessarily unwanted.
    Gabryelle Henry, 18, a senior at New Futures, said many of her classmates believe a baby will provide them with a child's love and encourage their boyfriends to commit to marriage.
    "I think it's all about expectations," Henry said recently as she fed her 8-month-old daughter, Emeerah Johnson.
    Too often, she said, the boyfriends flee the commitment of fatherhood.
    New Futures, a high school for pregnant and teen mothers operated by Albuquerque Public Schools, enrolls up to 300 teenage girls. It operates a day care that currently enrolls 144 children under age 3.
    "Most (students) still live with their parents and the families help raise the girls and their babies," said Kathy Roybal-Nuñez, child care director and a 1991 graduate of New Futures. In other cases, grandparents or the boyfriend's family help with parenting responsibilities.
    The school encourages fathers to play a role in the lives of their children, but success is mixed, Roybal-Nuñez said. Growing up without a father takes a toll on children, she said.
    Children of single mothers often don't learn how men and women form relationships. "Even the female babies need that male role model," Roybal-Nuñez said. "Because they don't know about men, they're more vulnerable to bad relationships."
    And the cycle continues.