The Challenge of Single Parenthood
David A. Peters, MFT
When the year 2000 census figures were published, we read about the latest picture of American society in our newspapers and magazines. One of the trends most written about is the continued rise in the number of "single parent families". The number of families headed by single mothers increased 25% since 1990 to 7.5 million. The number headed by single fathers rose by 62% to more than 2 million. Andrew J. Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University professor of sociology, says, "The central place of marriage in our family system is eroding."1 Some may find this trend very ominous. Robert Rector, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation warns that children living outside of marriage are seven times more likely to experience poverty, 17 times more likely to end up on welfare, and have a greater likelihood of emotional and discipline problems, as well as early pregnancy and abuse.2 Yet this isn't necessarily the case for all children of single parents. Should we be worried? And what can a single parent do to ensure the best upbringing for their children?
It may be helpful to differentiate between those that are single parents by choice, and those that are by accident or divorce. There is a small but growing trend among middle and upper income singles to adopt or conceive a child out of wedlock as they just have not found the partner that suits them and they don't want to miss out on parenthood. They are often well prepared for being a parent, both financially and emotionally, as they are more mature (age 35 to 45). These parents may do well raising children with love and stability. On the other hand, there are far more people that become single parents by divorce and by accidental pregnancy. Those by accidental pregnancy are more often younger adults and teens, with less preparation for parenthood. As their lives are severely disrupted by the new child, they are at great risk of social isolation, and stress, and have fewer parenting skills. Those who by divorce find that they are now single parents often have continued conflicts with their ex-spouse, and the child becomes an object of contention for years on. This can be very damaging to children.
A critical factor in the success of the single parent family may be the external support of extended family or friends. A 19 year old mother who has her own parents and siblings to offer advice, support, and financial assistance has a much greater chance of success. Relatives can be great babysitters, while a parent is at work. Time spent with the extended family gives both the child and the single parent a greater sense of belonging and purpose. One the other hand, if the parent is isolated, she may be at greater risk of depression, illness, and despair, and her children will be at risk of the same. Governmental programs can help in this regard, but are poor substitutes for real family support. Children benefit greatly from consistent family figures who show love, and give a sense of identity. It is this sense of family identity that is key to high self-esteem, and success in later life.
Another concern for the child of a single parent is the need for a same-gender role model. Boys do need men in their lives to give a positive example of masculinity. Adolescent boys in particular commonly push away their mother in an attempt to establish their masculine identity. With the negative masculine role models that dominate popular culture, teenage boys often imitate destructive behavior, and hurt both themselves and others. Likewise, girls do better with a positive role model of womanhood. By following a strong adult woman, a girl can learn to "own" herself and take responsibility for her future. Without such role modeling, she may merely attach herself to influential boys, in search of her identity, and be at risk of early pregnancy. The opposite gendered parent has a special challenge with their child. Yet a loving aunt, uncle, or grandparent can be very helpful in this regard. Sometimes a parent's good friends can fill in, but long term consistency of the relationship is best.
Many single parents are still looking for a long-term mate and they rotate through several lovers over the years, with each lover taking a turn at joining (and then leaving) the home. This can be very stressful for a child or teen. They experience loved ones as temporary and are at risk of having poorly developed ability to commit to their future partner. And so the single parent is then caught between their own desire to have a partner and their need to protect their child from repeated loss. Such a parent would be well advised to limit contact of their dating partner to their children at least until there is some possibility of permanence in the relationship. This is more easily recommended than accomplished.
What is most important is that every child be raised with love, stability, discipline, and safety. A child in a two parent family where one parent is a violent alcoholic, would be better off in a single parent household. Likewise, a single parent who is a loving disciplinarian may well provide a better home than two parents who fail to teach respect and self-control. Yet, two good parents who stay married for life will always be better for a child than one good single parent. This is undeniable. In my practice, I often work to help parents in conflict find a way to live together in relative peace for the sake of the children. Many conflicting parents succeed in accommodating one another out of their commitment to their children. And this provides an incredible gift to the children - the role modeling of respect, care, personal growth, and commitment. Our children deserve the best we have to offer.
1 - Living the Single Life - Alone, The Washington Post Weekly Edition, 5-21-01, D'Vera Cohn.
2 - Unmarried With Children, Newsweek, 5-28-01, Barbara Kantrowitz & Pat Wingert.
For more on this topic contact David Peters, MFT at 619 491-3492