LEWISTON, Maine — Teri Clavet was going to marry her boyfriend, the father of her twins, until he pawned her engagement ring.
She was better off single.
Catherine Audet got pregnant by someone she’d dated casually. He wanted an abortion. She said forget it.
“There was definitely no marriage talk,” she said.
Stephanie Mills found out she was expecting after she and her boyfriend of a year-and-a-half had broken up. Tying the knot came up, fleetingly.
The past 10 years have seen Maine join the rest of the country in a trio of trends: Fewer marriages. Fewer births to married couples. More births to single mothers.
The number of marriages in Maine is down 10 percent over a decade, married births down 21 percent and births to unwed mothers up 21 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Data, Research and Vital Statistics office.
Experts point to factors such as the economy — fewer good jobs, fewer people feeling like they’re on stable ground to make a commitment — and cultural shifts. There’s less stigma, more tossing convention and a more pronounced split between the choices made by people with more education and those with less.
The result is that 40 percent of all children born in Maine last year were born to unwed mothers, up significantly from 10 years ago. What it will mean to the state if the trend continues is not clear; there are few hard numbers on the phenomenon and few people studying the impact.
But at least one scholar says the shift from two-parent to single-parent households means tough decisions ahead.
Two competing theories on handling the future are offered by Brian Duff, a Coastal Studies Scholar at Bowdoin College:
— Either Maine ratchets up public support — health care, financial help — and sees whether more security in day-to-day lives means less stress on relationships. Maybe more people will then stay together. Maybe more will then marry.
— Or, Maine yanks the help. Maybe more people do for themselves. Maybe more couples stay together the old-fashioned way.
“For women under 30, more women are having kids out of wedlock than in,” Duff said. “(The state) should get ready. There’s no doubt this trend is going to make it very, very hard for a lot of Maine families to get by without some social support. We can offer that social support to toddlers who need good pre-K or we can offer the social support to teenagers who get in trouble with the law; it is probably cheaper if you give it to the toddlers.”
From ‘I do’ to ‘we’ll see’
In 2001, 10,453 couples married in Maine. This decade, that figure peaked at 11,228 couples in 2004, and dropped to 9,474 last year.
The numbers track with the long, slow slide in the popularity of marriage, said Charles Colgan, former state economist and a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The increased speed of the decline, especially since 2006, tracks with the recent recession.
“Marriage has always been about money,” he said. “For all of our thinking about marriage being about romance — and it is, my wife would kill me if I said anything else — marriage as a social institution has always been about income and living arrangements.”
Economists watch the figures because more couples mean more new households, more home sales, more furnishings.
“It’s actually a driver of the consumer-side of the economy,” Colgan said.
But over the past few years, job prospects have been shaky for those getting out of high school and college; fewer men are going to college and more 20-somethings are living with parents.
“Sex is still going on, but people are so worried about the economy that marriage is being postponed,” Colgan said.
Forty years ago, unplanned pregnancies were more likely to result in unplanned marriages, said Emily Kane, professor of sociology at Bates College. Not so, now. In addition, Generation Y (people born from about 1980 to 1999) may be more cautious after so many watched their parents get divorced.
“A lot of family demographers have argued in the last few decades that young people have come to think of marriage as something you work toward; you get your life in order, then get married,” Kane said. “(It’s) not a loss of interest in marriage, but a shift in what it’s for.”
Love and marriage
Over the same 10-year stretch in Maine, births to women who were married fell by 2,000 a year, to 7,388 in 2011. It at least in part represents some women aging out of prime child-bearing years and being replaced by fewer young women, Colgan said.
Trends in income, delaying motherhood for career and women having fewer children are also at play.
“What’s become increasingly common for people with less education and usually, as a result, less economic stability, is to separate marriage and child-bearing,” Kane said.
In a list of wants — college, career, marriage, children — the last can look most attainable.
“Here’s the truth: There’s real, genuine rewards to being a parent,” Duff said. “There are genuine rewards to marriage and also to a career, but if you’re living in a world where marriage doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen because, for example, the men you meet just seem incredibly unreliable, and your career doesn’t seem like it’s going to come together . . . This is one you can do. The benefits are real, although the struggles are also profound.”
Last year, 5,283 children were born to unwed mothers, nearly 1,000 more than in 2001. That’s 40 percent of all children born in Maine, compared to 30 percent in 2001.
It’s not from a boom in teen pregnancy; that’s down over the decade.
“These are not contraception mistakes, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Luisa Deprez, a professor of sociology and Women & Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine. “I see it as a much more conscious, secure, more determined woman making a conscious decision to bring another person into their life.”
She added, “You have generational values placed on whether or not this is a positive or negative move.”
The great unknown: How many of those single moms were living with their partners.
Robert Milardo’s best guess is 50 percent.
A professor of family relations at the University of Maine, he said statistics show that cohabiting couples are less stable than married ones; some number will end up as single parents.
In 2000, 72 percent of Maine households with children were headed by married couples, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. That left Maine with more marrieds than most states. In 2010, the figure was 66 percent, same as the national average.
“The big question is what are the effects of all these changes on children?” Milardo said.
Poverty may be the biggest potential negative, something to which one-parent households with one income can be more susceptible.
“It means less books for your child, less opportunities for your child to do things that cost money, like join organizations; less money for transportation, all kinds of things spill over and affect children,” Milardo said.
Studies show that in single and cohabitating households, measures of physical and mental health, future incarceration rates and the likelihood of graduating from college are poorer than in married households, Bowdoin’s Duff said.
“A lot of that effect has to do with income,” he said. “But it also has to do with the amount of time you get to spend interacting with your parents when you’re young, as opposed to your parent having two jobs (and) when they’re home, scrambling to get the house clean, put food on the table, pay the bills.”
Duff, who will return to the University of New England next year as an associate professor of political science, expects states to try different attempts to counter or reverse marriage and birth trends.
“(Down South) they’re creating marriage-promotion efforts, and a lot of them have slightly religious overtones, but there’s an interesting variety of them,” Duff said.
Kentucky makes divorce more difficult. A Texas program encourages some pregnant women and their boyfriends to talk out issues such as finances.
He noted states such as Massachusetts that have higher marriage rates also have more social safety nets.
Kane said the notion of family has always changed with time. This, she said, is more change, not a crisis.
“The traditional family some of us in our minds have as some kind of golden era of the 1950s really never existed,” Kane said.