Before Murphy Brown's foray into single motherhood became a campaign issue, before Vice President Dan Quayle questioned her morals, before all of America found itself repeating It's only a TV show . . . before all of this, there was Shelley Halbig.
A single woman, who, after her birth control failed and her restless boyfriend said goodbye, decided to meet motherhood alone.
As politicians last week made judgments about Murphy's decision -- including Mr. Quayle's now-infamous line that the sitcom star was "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone," -- Ms. Halbig watched with her 10-year-old son, Damian, from her Arnold home and wondered: Where has everyone been for the last 20 years?
During that time, more and more real-life Murphy Browns have skipped the shotgun wedding or escaped the scarlet letter, opting to raise youngsters alone. Sometimes by accident, other times by elaborate plan, these women have determined that being unwed doesn't have to mean being childless.
The number of babies born to unmarried women has increased from 133,200 in 1949 to 1.09 million in 1989, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
And only 27 percent of the women, aged 15 to 34, who conceived out of wedlock married the father before the child was born in the late '80s, the U.S. Census Bureau found. This marks a steady decline from 20 years ago when 52 percent of women in similar circumstances married before giving birth.
"It's simply not true to assume that the happiest people are two parents raising children. . . . I did crisis counseling for 17 years. A lot of the unhappiest people I saw were married couples with children," says Ann Kaiser Stearns, a psychology professor and single mother of two adopted daughters.
What is true, however, is that being a single parent brings special problems. These women talk of still occasionally confronting the stigma of unwed motherhood; of feeling alienated from other parents; and of bearing the sole burden of financial and emotional support for a child.
While Jessica Lange, Glenn Close and other Hollywood stars have made it look easy -- and Murphy Brown made it seem funny -- none of it compares to the joy-filled, struggle-ridden reality of raising a child without a husband, they say.
The world as Ms. Halbig knows it is filled with writing "not currently involved" on school forms requesting information about Damian's father. It's a world in which she alone must play disciplinarian on the playground and cheerleader on the little league field.
And it's a world in which at any given moment her fair-haired son may look her in the eye and wistfully ask: Why didn't you and my dad get married?
"I just try to explain," says the 37-year-old, "that his father was at a stage in his life where he wasn't able to make a commitment.
"Twenty years ago, I don't think I would have had the confidence to buck the trend. But the mom, dad and three-kid family we saw on TV in the '50s doesn't exist anymore."
To shore each other up, these single mothers are forming national support groups like the New York-based Single Mothers By Choice and national newsletters like SingleMOTHER.
"A mother is a mother regardless of her marital status," says Andrea Engber, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Charlotte, N.C.-based publication. She says Mr. Quayle's comments demonstrate how narrowly society often views single mothers. "He's categorizing single moms into two stereotypes -- the welfare mom or the man-hating bitch."
Ms. Engber, a single mother of 6-year-old Spencer, decided to begin her journal after reading another help-for-super mom article in the pediatrician's office. It ended with the familiar refrain: Get your husband to help more.
"I decided that's it," recalls the 43-year-old. "There's got to me more women like me out there. And I've found out that there are."
But there is debate over whether baby should make two or three. Since forming her newsletter a year ago, Ms. Engber has received hate mail. A letter arrived the other day from a woman who called her an "amoral woman with an illegitimate child."
Such comments raise the ire of single mothers everywhere.
Catherine Hughes, a single mother from Alexandria, Va., calls such language "archaic and ignorant. I'd love to see 'illegitimate' struck from the English language. . . . Talk about immoral. It's immoral to label any child illegitimate in this day and age."
Ms. Halbig admits she had to face similar comments in her own family initially.
"I was raised as a Catholic and my mom had minor heart failure in the beginning," says the assistant director of a residential program for the disabled. "But after she got over the idea of its not being proper, we got to the next level, which was more her concern of how it would affect my life."
Women often explain their decision to have a child alone as being part freedom of choice, part biological imperative.
"I always knew I wanted to have a kid even if Mr. Right or Mr. Adequate didn't come along," says Ms. Engber.
And many women spend years preparing for it. By age 30, Ms. Hughes, a researcher for a Washington children's magazine, began setting up Plan B in case she didn't marry in five years. She saved money, bought a condominium and took her dream trip to Tanzania.
By age 34, she was pursuing donor insemination. The following year her son, Christopher, was born.
"He's done nothing but bring joy to my life. I've never had one single second of regret," she says.
Similarly, Dr. Stearns decided to adopt her first child in her late 30s after discovering she was depressed about not being a mother.
"I bought a new house, I was a full professor as I'd always wanted to be before the end of my 30s, I had good friends, a guy I was dating I liked, but I was depressed," recalls the Towson author and psychology professor at Essex Community College. "Instead of getting to be an old woman who'd say, 'Oh, damn, why didn't I have children?' I let those inner yearnings emerge."
The results have been two daughters, Amanda Asha, 8 1/2 , and Ashley Anjali, 5 1/2 , whom she adopted as infants from India. Although each adoption took more than a year, she has no regrets.
"I've had some happy days -- three national book tours, lecturing in 26 states, being on 'Donahue' -- but being at JFK [Airport] on a 100-degree September day and having Amanda put in my arms was the happiest day of my life," says Dr. Stearns, who is in her late 40s.
Difficult days have followed, especially since she has to shoulder the responsibility of child-rearing and finances alone.
"It would be a lot easier if there were someone else to share the blame and I'd be glad to share the glory," says Dr. Stearns. When there are problems at school, she says, "I have to live with a child crying herself to sleep before and after my decision."
As a single parent with relatives in distant states, she feels an even greater burden to maintain her health. She had a scare two years ago when she was hospitalized with a strain of pneumonia that didn't respond to antibiotics. "I love them so much I want to be here to see that they grow up right," she says.
Many single mothers also make it a point to have male role models -- whether it's a boyfriend, relative or colleague -- in their children's lives.
Damian Halbig, who likes to "go camping and fishing and play with bugs" often spends time with his best friend's dad. But even that, he admits, is second best.
His father has only seen him once -- and that was when he was an infant. As he and his mother prepare to move out of state, Damian wonders what it would be like to meet his father before he leaves Maryland. He already knows what he'd say.
"I'd say, 'I love you. . . . Can you do stuff with me?' "