Single and knocked up

Self magazine sets out to dispel myths about accidental pregnancy but ends up reinforcing some very old stereotypes.

Published March 26, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

About half of American women will have an accidental pregnancy before age 45. So while we like to think of accidental pregnancy as a rare and catastrophic event that happens only to women who take extraordinary sexual risks, it's actually rather common. Nevertheless most stories about accidental pregnancy focus on teenage girls whom many people feel entitled to automatically dismiss as unfit mothers. Thus I was initially excited to see that this month's Self magazine leads with a feature that puts a face on those who constitute the vast majority of unplanned pregnancies, one with the subhead: "Forget Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol. The new face of accidental pregnancy looks like ... you." But while it starts out by allegedly showing that even "good girls" can get knocked up, it ends up reinforcing some very old stereotypes about what the choices women make say about them.

The article opens up with the story of 28-year-old Kortney Peagram, a woman one can't help  noticing is focus-group perfect for defying the stereotype of a young unwed mother. She is a portfolio manager for a consulting firm (whatever that means), who also leads "management training sessions," teaches at a university, trains for a marathon "in her spare time" (!), and dreams of European ski vacations. Translation: This woman is well-educated, hardworking and most likely pretty affluent.

Peagram meets up for dinner with a long-term friend who confesses to her over wine that his marriage isn't working out, and that she's the woman he should have been with all along. They have sex. Afterward, she is "mortified" that she slept with a married man. She stopped taking the pill after her last long-term relationship ended (which tells us that she's a certain kind of girl -- one who is responsible about birth control but doesn't plan for casual sex). She remembers to take the morning-after pill, but gets to the pharmacy a few days late. Eventually, she discovers she's pregnant. That same week, she loses her job. Suddenly, she's a statistic -- a young, unmarried, unemployed pregnant woman.

"This isn't supposed to happen to smart women," writes author Laura Bell. "We want to believe that unwed mothers are teenagers who have been careless or clueless." While not explicitly refuting the idea that teenagers are "careless and clueless," Bell points out that "the majority of unplanned pregnancies and abortions happen to women in their twenties." Educated, high-income women are not immune: "Four in 10 of the 1.1 million annual unplanned pregnancies happen to single women with some college."

The article suggests several reasons why this might be: Women are getting married later than their mothers did but still start having sex at around the same age. They are living with their partners before marriage. Women in abusive relationships may be bullied by their partners into having unprotected sex. And they point out that birthrates might be going up because more single women are choosing to raise their children -- 54 percent up from 41 percent in 1990.

But whatever the reasons, everyone interviewed agrees in principle that it's not nearly as easy to outright condemn adult women for their sexual choices:

"It's confusing to talk about it," says Shanti Kulkarni, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of social work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It's easier to coalesce around this idea that it's not good for teenagers to get pregnant. It's not as clear what pregnancy means for the life of a woman in her 20s." For some women, surprise motherhood ends up being the blessing of a lifetime. Others choose abortion with no regrets. But the high rate of unintended pregnancy remains distressing, Kulkarni says, because "it suggests that women are not as in control of their sexuality and childbearing as we would hope."

Yes, we all would prefer that women of all ages were in control of their sexuality and childbearing. But the rest of the article seesaws between genuinely useful insights, old clichés (just like their teenage counterparts, "Twentysomethings who have not yet found meaning in their life might wonder if having a baby would give them meaning"; others engage in "magical thinking that a pregnancy might lead to a marriage proposal") and the usual Hollywood bashing (Nicole Richie! Jessica Alba! "Knocked Up!") There's some good stuff there, and I highly recommend that anyone who is interested put in the time to read all seven pages.

But for all the outrage about the personal decisions of Hollywood actresses with enough income to fund the raising of entire villages of children, regardless of their marital status, my real problem with the article comes down to an issue of casting. Anyone who has ever written for or edited a mainstream women's magazine will tell you that their editors' real specialty is in identifying "real women" to put a personal face on a larger social trend. And the trajectory of Kortney Peagram's pregnancy will strike most readers as uncannily familiar.

The night before her scheduled abortion Peagram sits "consoling herself with California rolls and wine" (sushi and alcohol, by the way, are high up on the list of items not recommended for pregnant women). She takes a call from her sister, Kim, who at 42 has been trying for years to have a child and is now divorced. "I never expected to ask you this, but I want to make sure you know I would adopt this baby," Kim says. Later that night, Kortney texts Kim from her BlackBerry: "I just had my last glass of wine for the next six months and I made a decision. I'm in if you're in."

You recognize the (indie) Hollywood ending yet? The older sister adds an even juicier twist to the single mother adoption plot, but Kortney's last line -- "I'm in if you're in" -- is swiped verbatim from 16-year-old Juno's hastily scribbled note to the 30-something, soon-to-be divorced adoptive mother played by Jennifer Garner. 

I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the personal decisions made by Kortney and Kim Peagram or any of the other women quoted in the articles: I do not know them, and I hope they feel that their stories were fairly represented. But I can't fathom why the editors at Self magazine chose these particular women to represent to readers the typical experience of a pregnant 20-something single woman. About 50 percent of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, but the article does not contain a single quote from a woman who had one. Besides Kortney Peagram, there are two other women quoted in the article, both of whom kept their children. One was dumped by her boyfriend when he found out she was pregnant and she now lives with her aunt; the other dropped out of grad school and now lives with her parents. While this certainly represents some women's experience, many other women end up supporting themselves and their children on their own and/or with the help of their child's father, to whom about a third of women end up married. Why are they not represented?

I can't tell you how many women in their late 20s give birth to their children, then give them up for adoption, but I can tell you that it's a choice made by only about 1 percent of American women of any age. Given that the average age of a first-time American mother is 25, I don't imagine many 28-year-olds consider doing so. Add to that the number of women who decide to adopt out their child to a much-loved family member who would ensure they had lifelong (if potentially emotionally fraught) contact with their child, and you are in blue moon territory.

So why make those two statistical unicorns stand in for any number of experiences vastly more common among American women? I can't shake the feeling that the piece subtly reinforces a message that seems more and more prominent lately -- so long as there are loving, infertile people out there who wish for a child, abortion is immoral. Likewise, I fail to understand why an article that claims to be about the choices made by educated, relatively affluent adult women could not find a single case of a woman who chose to raise her child without qualifying the experience with statements of regret, hardship and dreams deferred. (Also: Aren't we simultaneously flooded with books and articles warning professional women of the dire consequences of not having kids in their late 20s?) I would never claim that women who choose adoption do not deserve to be represented at all, or dismiss the problems of infertility. But when quite literally 99 percent of pregnant women choose to raise their children themselves or have an abortion, it seems, at the very least, that these are the women whose stories should be heard first. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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