On Your Own?

The number of single mothers is growing. If you're among them, here's what you need to know.

Three years ago, Janelle Hartley, an unmarried college student in Los Angeles, discovered she was pregnant. "The father warned me he would have nothing to do with the baby," she recalls. Hartley, who was 25 at the time, thought about other single mothers who had successfully raised children, and she reasoned that if they could manage, she could too. She arranged to have her mother accompany her to childbirth classes and stay with her during the delivery. After her daughter, Jade, was born, Hartley lived with her mother for several months before moving into her own apartment with money she earned from paid internships. She finished school and landed a job at a public relations agency.

Hartley has plenty of company. In 2004 a record 1.5 million babies were born to unmarried women in the United States. Either by choice or by circumstance, these women take on the roles of both mother and father. Like Hartley, they find that single parenthood brings joys as well as challenges. The latter can sometimes seem overwhelming, but most single mothers find that with the right combination of love, determination, creativity and support, they and their children do just fine.

If you're single and expecting a baby, here are some tips on being prepared and surviving solo parenting.

Be smart about money It can cost up to $184,000 to raise a child from birth to age 17, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Be aware that there are ways to pare down these costs. Housing accounts for the largest portion of child-rearing expenses, so you can save a lot by moving in with family or sharing an apartment with a friend or another single mother. Save on child care by joining a babysitting cooperative or swapping sitting time with friends.

If money is in short supply, government programs can help. A federal program called WIC (Women, Infants and Children) provides food, breastfeeding support and some health services for low-income women and their children up to age 5. In addition, most states have assistance programs that supply food, diapers and child care for eligible mothers and children. Check with your state's department of child protection office to find out what's available in your area.

Even if your child's father is not involved in her life, he is legally required to pay child support. State laws vary. "In California a woman has a legal right to receive child support even when she's pregnant," says Goldie Schon, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in family law.

Research birth certificate options After you deliver, you will be asked to submit information for your baby's birth certificate, including the father's name and your baby's.

You can opt to list the father's name or leave it off. If you conceived your baby via an anonymous donor, or if your baby's father is absent, you have the right to list the father's name as "unknown" or "confidential," Schon says. Keep in mind that a birth certificate is not a private document--your child may have to present a copy when she starts school, gets a passport or applies for a driver's license, a marriage license or retirement benefits. So, if you want to keep the father's identity private, consider leaving it off the birth certificate.

In some states, listing the father's name on the birth certificate can make it easier to claim child support. But it also gives the father some legal rights. If you and the father are not married, he may be asked to sign a parental acknowledgment form before he can be listed as the baby's father.

Will your child share your last name (surname) or her father's? If you choose to give the child her father's surname and he isn't a part of her life, she may feel uncomfortable using his name. On the other hand, giving your child her father's last name may help her feel connected to him. In some states, if you and the father are not married, the father must give permission for his surname to be used.

If you're not sure what to list on the birth certificate, consult an attorney. "Once you put a name on a birth certificate, it does bind you, as a presumption is established regarding paternity," says Schon. Although the hospital may pressure you to fill out the birth certificate before you leave, you actually have a few months--check with your state's registry of vital records for the regulations. If you want to alter information on a birth certificate later on, you'll need to go to court.

Insure your financial future "As a single parent, you're the caregiver, breadwinner, cook, chauffeur and so much more," says David F. Woods, president of the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education in Washington, D.C. "With so much responsibility resting on your shoulders, you need to make doubly sure that you have enough life and disability insurance to safeguard your child's financial future." The price of insurance depends on your age, health status and other factors. A healthy, 35-year-old nonsmoking woman can purchase $250,000 of term life insurance for as little as $18 a month and individual disability coverage for $50 to $100 a month (based on a $40,000 annual salary).

Think the unthinkable Preferably before your child's birth, see an attorney about appointing a legal guardian who would be willing and able to raise your child if you couldn't. "One of the hardest things is worrying about what would happen to my daughter if something terrible happened to me," says single mom Rose A. Lewis, author of I Love You Like Crazy Cakes (Little, Brown, 2000). "I have family and friends who would certainly take care of my daughter, but that is quite different from having a spouse, the father, who would be there."

Think carefully before choosing a guardian. Consider the person's ability to be there for your child now and in the future. "Most people can love a child, but not everyone can love, support, guide, nurture and discipline a child," says Charles Sophy, M.D., medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

Adjust your dating expectations As if dating weren't hard enough, it gets harder when you have a child. "The first thing I do when I meet someone is tell him I have a child," Hartley says. "My child is part of the package." Hartley recommends dating men who also are single parents, because they are more likely to understand when you have to cancel at the last minute because your baby has an ear infection. When she's dated a single father, they'd sometimes bring along the kids and head for the park.

Going on dates to the jungle gym is just one of many compromises single parents must make--but they say it's worth it. "Single parenthood is not easy," says Hartley, "but the choice of parenthood is priceless."