No husband? No problem.

Single motherhood is not just a luxury pursuit for such bored celebrities as Madonna and Rosie. It has become a widespread phenomenon among twenty- and thirty-something women impatient with the dwindling marriage market.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported this week that births to unwed mothers are at an all-time high. The mothers of almost a third of the 3.94 million babies born in 1998 were single women. Many weren’t the prototypical unwed teenage moms — teens’ birth rates were down — but women in their 20s and 30s.

Donna E. Shalala, secretary of the federal Health and Human Services Department, calls this trend toward single motherhood “troubling.” As she should.

Study after study shows that children who have no relationship with their fathers are at a distinct developmental disadvantage in both cognitive and behavioral skills. Given the wealth of data on the dangers of father absence, the decision of some women to create families deliberately without fathers borders on recklessness.

Children raised in single-parent households are more likely to drop out of school, get lower grades, get in trouble with the law and become unwed parents themselves. This is true among children of both well-to-do and struggling, single-mother households. The Progressive Policy Institute reports that “the relationship between family structure and crime is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime.”

Family expert Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project observes that “a white teenage girl from an advantaged background is five times more likely to become a teen mother if she grows up in a single-mother household than if she grows up in a household with both biological parents.” A fleet of nannies and bodyguards can’t replace a father.

In my mid-20s myself, with no husband in sight, I can understand the desperation of many of America’s women of child-bearing age. A friend jokes of her “ovary pangs” whenever we pass mommies and strollers. Women are getting married later, with less success, from an ever-shrinking pool of men. The outlook for many young women seems grim.

But children need and deserve to have their well-being put ahead of our ovary pangs. And Madonna’s concession to allow her daughter’s father once-a-week visits doesn’t count.

The great majority of Americans believe fatherlessness is among the most significant social problems we face. Indeed, the absence of fathers from so many of our children’s homes is far more of a threat to our national health than secondhand smoke or violent video games.

Not long ago, Madonna occupied the fringes of social trends. Now, she seems almost normal — and that should trouble us all.

This article appeared in the March 31, 2000, edition of USA Today.