Say this for Dan Quayle: Linking the riots that devastated Los Angeles with the sitcom character Murphy Brown's decision to have a child out of wedlock required a certain daring—not to mention imagination. As Quayle explained it, the riots were the result of a "poverty of values," which he saw exemplified by Murphy's decision "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child [alone] and calling it just another lifestyle choice."

Amid the ensuing brouhaha, it was easy to lose sight of the reality. Certainly few experts, conservative or liberal, dispute the proposition that children raised in a stable household with both parents stand the best chance of maturing into healthy, achieving adults. No wonder then that there is such widespread concern over the increasing number of unwed mothers, especially those who are poor. According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of households headed by never-married mothers has jumped from 6.5 percent in 1970 to 30.7 percent last year. And 45 percent of those female-headed families live in poverty.

Yet the reasons why women choose to become single mothers, and the resulting impact on their children, are a good deal more complicated than Quayle seemed to suggest. What follows are the stories of women—well-known and little-known—who made the difficult decision, under varying circumstances, to have kids and raise them on their own. The stories underscore something that Jane Mattes, a psychotherapist and single mom in New York City, has learned since founding a support group for women like herself in 1981. "I feel almost stupid saying it because it's so simple, but there are good parents who are married and there are bad parents who are married, and it's not a matter of whether you are married, "she says. "It's a matter of parenting skills."

One mom loves the job—despite her son's troubling questions

Dan Quayle doesn't know Catherine Hughes, 37, but he probably wouldn't approve of the life she has chosen. She calls herself "a single mother by choice." Several years ago the National Geographic World researcher made a calculated decision to have a baby on her own. She was single and had no realistic prospects for marriage. "It just seemed the right time," she says at her condominium in Alexandria, Va. "I was very happy. My life was complete. I had a nice career, a nice home, and I wanted to start my own family."

The decision was anything but rash. She began by earning a master's degree in early child development at the University of Maryland. Then she set aside money for formula and baby clothes. Hughes also conceived a plan to get a baby. She ruled out adoption, believing she would never find a healthy infant. And she decided against asking a male friend to impregnate her, fearing possible "legal and emotional hassles" if the father were known. That left artificial insemination. She became impregnated twice with donor sperm at Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Va. Her first pregnancy failed; the second resulted in Christopher, now 2½.

So far, Hughes says, things are working out well. Her family and friends have been supportive—as has National Geographic. She found a daycare center near her office, where she can visit Christopher on her lunch hour. And she has developed a wide circle of married friends, many of them parents who use Christopher's daycare center.

But there are problems. Christopher, for example, is beginning to ask questions about his father. (All Hughes knows is that he was a medical student with brown hair and blue eyes.) "For now I say that we don't have a daddy who lives with us," Hughes says. "Someday I'll make the distinction between a daddy and a biological father. I'll say that we love Christopher's biological father because he made him possible." Christopher has also asked her, "When are you going to get married?" To that, she has no ready answer. There are times, she concedes, that she very much wishes she had a man to lean on. "I'd love to get married," she says. "But I'm not desperate."

An unwed teenager fights the odds—and seems to be winning

Alice Freeman Longino, 22, is two courses away from a college degree, but getting that far has been something of a miracle. She grew up in what she describes as a troubled home inside the notoriously gang-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago's North Side. So it was not surprising that at 14 she started looking for love in all the wrong places. She found it with Eugene Longino, then an 18-year-old unemployed high school dropout. Three years later she got pregnant but decided not to have an abortion. "I really didn't want the baby," she says now. "I wanted Eugene. I felt I had to have the baby to keep him."

After her daughter, Lakeisha, was born, she moved in with Eugene's relatives. But Eugene wouldn't marry her, and Alice and Lakeisha eventually found shelter with her pastor, Rev. Steve Pedigo. He put her in touch with Project Match, "a welfare-to-work program" that did everything from finding her an apartment to buying her a dress for her high school graduation. The agency also helped her get through the business administration program at Chicago's Truman College, prodding her along whenever she felt too lonely or beaten down to make it.

Still, it hasn't been easy. She and Eugene lived together on and off, and three years ago, after a doctor took her off birth-control pills, she got pregnant again. This time she wanted an abortion, but Eugene—by then armed with a high school diploma and a paying clerical job—agreed to marry her if she had the child. And so she gave birth again, this time to a boy, Eugene Jr. The two children proved a joy, she says, but even so her marriage ultimately fell apart.

Today prospects are brighter. Alice is still on welfare but hopes to begin working for a corporation as soon as she graduates this winter. "I've paid my dues and I'm making it," Alice says. "That's why Quayle's remark about Murphy Brown just made me laugh. I love Murphy Brown. Usually every time you turn on TV, you see this '50s view of life, with two parents and Mom stays home. That's not how it is."

A New York City single mother forms a national support group

Finding someone to impregnate her wasn't difficult for New York City psychotherapist Jane Mattes in 1980. Instead of opting for artificial insemination, where she wouldn't know the father, she simply asked a friend, who agreed he wouldn't get involved later. Being pregnant wasn't hard either. "I loved being pregnant," she says. "Whatever the hormones were, it was a fabulous experience." But those first few months alone with her infant son, Eric, were tough. "For me, the physical and emotional intensity of being the only person to care for the child was very stressful," she says. "I realized I had to find support."

So when Eric was just 8 months old, Mattes, now 48, formed Single Mothers by Choice, an organization with 1,600 members drawn from nearly every state in the union plus Canada. "This is not an advocacy group," she says. "Our purpose is to provide support and information to single women who have chosen or are considering single motherhood."

At least half the women who consult with the group, she says, decide not to have a child alone. But those who go ahead are usually happy with their decision. "The women I know who have had children on their own want these babies," she says. "We are thrilled when they are born. We send out birth announcements. We have showers. For many of us, these are last-chance babies."

A grandmother struggles to raise her late daughter's child

Mornings are the hardest. That's when Holly Hadfield's adopted 3-year-old daughter, Katie, usually kicks up a fuss about going to her day-care center. And tantrums can make Hadfield, 41, of Quincy, Mass., late for work. "I tell Katie if I am late, they'll take my work away," Hadfield says. "And then we won't have a house."

That is only a slight exaggeration. Ever since Hadfield adopted her own granddaughter, her financial situation has been difficult at best. The child was born out of wedlock to Hadfield's youngest daughter, Amy, then 18, and her boyfriend, Chris Garland, then 17. But, sadly, both parents were killed in separate auto accidents. Rather than putting Katie up for adoption or asking one of her other two daughters to raise her, Hadfield, a divorcée, decided to go it alone. "I wanted to do it," she says. "I knew how hard it would be and what it would mean. I knew I would sometimes be in a position where I didn't have enough money, enough food, enough heat for the house. But I knew I could give her love and caring."

Hadfield's never regretted that decision. " She's brought a lot of sunshine into my life," she says. But money problems persist. Hadfield earns about $30,000 a year as an operations administrator at Skyway Freight Systems in nearby Randolph, Mass. But day-care costs alone eat up nearly $7,000, and her second daughter, Sarah, 22, is still living at home while finishing college. The result is that some-times Katie misses a meal. "There have been times when I haven't even had $2" for dinner, Hadfield says. "It's very painful to know that sometimes you cannot provide the basic needs of life—food, medication, whatever. But it's always temporary, and I know we'll get past it."

If there were 24-hour day-care facilities in the area, Hadfield says, she might be able to earn more money. She has had to turn down promotions because it would have meant starting work at 4 A.M. or working 10-to 12-hour days. "Because of that, I will probably never be able to get into a managerial position," she says. "I don't have the freedom."

She is not impressed by criticisms of single mothers emanating from the Bush-Quayle Administration. "There are so many different reasons why women are out there bringing up children alone," she says. "Instead of looking down at them and thinking they are tramps, our leaders should be more concerned about helping the children. This is part of America today, and you can't turn your back on it."

JOE TREEN
ROCHELLE JONES in Alexandria, LYNN EMMERMAN in Chicago, MARY HUZINEC in New York City and S. AVERY BROWN in Quincy

  • Contributors:
  • Rochelle Jones,
  • Lynn Emmerman,
  • Mary Huzinec,
  • S. Avery Brown.