LaKeisha Smith is 28, a temporary medical assistant in East Baltimore who is trying to provide a proper life and a home for her three kids. But she has never been married, and it is a struggle.
"When my daughter needs shoes, I take money off my gas and electric bills," she says. "I wash clothes, I make dinner, I do homework with them, I mop the floors ... when they're in bed. At night, I sometimes just want to sit and cry."
A "demographic profile" of Marylanders, released today by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that more than 34,000 households in Baltimore, or 13.3 percent, are headed by women raising their children without a husband present. That rate is the highest in Maryland, and well above the state average of 8 percent.
The census data for Maryland are part of the "Profile of General Demographic Characteristics," the latest release from the 2000 census.
It reveals a Maryland that looks a lot like the rest of America. There are more single moms and more married couples with kids moving to the fast-growing suburbs; more unmarried couples forming households together; and more elderly who are healthy and wealthy enough to live by themselves, and perhaps to retire to the seashore.
Women raising their children alone is not unique to Baltimore. The numbers of such families appear to be rising sharply in the suburbs, even as they stabilize in the city.
And while kids raised by single parents are twice as likely to be poor, and at higher risk of teen pregnancies and dropping out of school, most of these families do just fine, says Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin.
"The job is a little tougher, the finances are more difficult, but most single moms manage to raise their kids well," he says.
Earlene Hubbard, a home health care nurse who is raising her two daughters in the Barclay section of East Baltimore, says she misses having a partner in raising and disciplining the children. Still, "it's a wonderful experience," she says. "I'm extremely close to my children."
The number of households with women raising kids on their own grew in Maryland by more than 37,000 since 1990. That's a 30 percent increase, three times the state's overall population growth rate.
In Baltimore County, the number of such households jumped by 48 percent, to 21,690, or 7.2 percent of the county's total. That was more than five times the county's growth rate and the fastest increase in the state.
Cherlin suspects many of these are actually "phantom cohabiting couples." With out-of-wedlock births down in recent years, and the divorce rate stable since the 1980s, he says, the numbers of households headed by women raising their kids alone should not be going up the way they are.
"A lot of births to single mothers are actually to cohabiting mothers," Cherlin says. "I also wonder whether the affluence of the '90s has lured more single mothers to move out of grandmother's house. Most unmarried Americans want to live by themselves rather than with their parents."
Healthier, financially secure
Going it alone is a reality for many older Marylanders, too, as their nests empty, spouses divorce or die, and longevity increases.
The census data show there were 160,414 people aged 65 and older living alone in Maryland last year - 8 percent of the state's households. The number was up 18 percent from the total in 1990, almost twice the growth rate of the state's population.
Healthier and more financially secure than they were decades ago, older Americans like Shirley Huber are now less likely to move in with their adult children or to need institutional care.
Huber, 77, moved six years ago from the Rodgers Forge house where she raised her four children to a one-level Cape Cod in Parkville that's easier on her arthritic joints.
"As long as I can drive, and am in reasonably good health, I like living alone," she says.
"I would rather have my children say, 'Where have you been?'" she says, "than have them say, 'Oh, no. Here comes Mom.'"
Talbot and Worcester counties on the Eastern Shore have the state's largest percentage of people over age 65, each with 20 percent. The Talbot town of Oxford has the state's highest median age, 55.3. (The statewide median is 36.)
Worcester County's elderly population grew the fastest during the 1990s as the seashore continued to attract more retirees. (The median age in Ocean Pines is now 50.3)
But Allegany County, in rural western Maryland, has the highest percentage of households with elderly people living alone - 15 percent. (The median age in the town of Luke is 52.)
Moving in with her kids, says Marie Ruby, "was something I said I would never do." Grown kids "shouldn't have to worry about you."
Ruby is 83 and widowed since 1946. "I've been single so long, and you get very independent, which is good as a senior," she says after an aerobics class at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson.
When the time comes to leave her Towson apartment, she'd rather go to a retirement or nursing home than to her daughter's house. "I don't want her to be responsible for me," she says.
Most Maryland households are headed by married couples. But it is a slim and declining majority of 50.2 percent in the 2000 Census. (National average: 51.7 percent.)
Just more than a quarter (26.7 percent) of Baltimore City's households are headed by married couples. Next-lowest was Prince George's County at 44 percent.
Married to suburbs
Married couples, especially those with school-age children, apparently seek amenities in faster-growing suburbs.
Carroll County has the highest percentage of married-couple households in Maryland, (66.5 percent). Calvert - the state's fastest-growing county during the 1990s - has the highest percentage of married-couple households raising kids (33.4 percent).
The development of Columbia at a time when baby boomers were settling down might help explain why Howard County has the state's highest percentage of 35- to-54-year-old "baby boomers" (35 percent), and lowest percentage of elderly (7 percent).
But that balance will shift in the coming decades as those boomers pass age 65 and retire, says Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the county's Office on Aging.
Census data also reveal that Marylanders are more willing than ever to make a "family" without taking out a marriage license - or at least more willing to say so on the census form.
The number of Marylanders describing themselves as "unmarried partners" - meaning they're unrelated but share a "close personal relationship" as well as a home - shot up by nearly 47 percent, to 110,335.
It's a tiny minority, but most common in Baltimore City (2.8 percent of households), and least so in Montgomery County (1.5 percent).
Jessica Morgan, 29, of Arbutus, decided to move in with her boyfriend, Brian Perkins, 34, when the lease on her apartment ran out eight years ago. It made sense then - and still does, she says.
"We're together because we want to be together. ... There's no other consideration," says Morgan, who works at the Women's Law Center of Maryland and hears horror stories about bad marriages and difficult divorces.
"Hearing these anecdotal stories has made me think that what I'm doing is the right thing," she says. "It costs you $25 to get married ... and $25,000 to get out of it."
Her divorced mother also is cohabitating. "She says she'll never get married again," Morgan says.
Dorian Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston, expects the number of people living together to continue to grow.
Some people prefer cohabitation before marrying to "make sure this is the right person," Solot says. Others are unable to marry for financial or legal reasons.
Glen Burnie paralegal Pola Hemway would like to marry her "whatever-you-call-him; I hate to call him my boyfriend, because I'm 51." But she would lose the military pension she earned after 20 years of marriage to her husband.
"If we could, we would," she says, "but we can't."
Stephanie Coontz, national co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, believes the census figures suggest Americans are finding "a new set of arrangements" for their families in the wake of very rapid changes in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I think we can look at these changes as some good news - that people are learning to cope with family diversity and make it work for them," she says.
Sun staff writers Maria Blackburn, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Joan Jacobson and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.