Part of becoming proficient in sociology is developing the ability to recognise attitudes towards others. Here, I examine some of the sociological landscape in relation to people’s attitudes towards single-parents and lone-parents by providing an overview of some of the previous research that has been conducted.
Attitudes Towards Single-Mothers
Single-mothers have long been a central ‘concern’ for social commentators and media sources. They are often seen as being something that is ‘broken’ in society, or as something that perpetrates social ills, and sometimes as an erosion of family values (Wong et al., 2004: 54).
Rhiger (2019), who draws upon Cakir (2010), DeJean et al. (2012), Gustafson et al. (2016), and Kavas & Gündüz-Hoşgör (2013), shows that attitudes towards single-mothers are more negative than those towards fathers and that women were equally responsible in perpetuating those negative attitudes. Although this represents a generalised view, Haier and McGeorge’s (2012) study saw attitudes towards single-mothers as conveying the idea that single-mothers have worse internal qualities and as inadequate people.
This type of attitude also emanates from power including from the media as political mouthpieces. Jørgensen (2012: 5) describes the depiction of a single-mother held up to the public gaze in Denmark for dissection:
[Carina was] a single mother who was long-time unemployed and supported by social benefits. Carina turned out to have what was perceived as a substantial amount of money left to pay for food, clothes, dentist bills, cigarettes and a dog after all expenses were paid and the public who had been following this debate responded with stark indignation. Carina was not poor it was written in several letters to the national newspapers and on blogs etc. on the Internet. In other words Carina was not a deserving recipient of public benefits. Rather, her behaviour should be controlled and corrected. Carina was depicted not as deprived but as deviant.
UK readers may think this sounds familiar. This is because it was written at the same time as the ‘strivers vs. skivers’ narrative was occurring in Britain in order to manufacture consent for austerity measures, benefit cuts, and forcing the sick and disabled into work by framing them as fakers and scroungers. In Jørgensen’s extract, what we see is somebody who is struggling with unemployment issues. Yet, they have a reasonable standard of living which draws the ire of those in work.
Similarly, these mothers are framed as ‘welfare queens’ in the US where single-mothers are often seen to be part of the undeserving poor (Mack-Canty & Wright, 2012). This idea of the undeserving poor is characterised by the idea that single-mothers are lazy or immoral, particularly when we consider the extreme moralisation of work (Gilman, 2014; Duncan & Edwards, 1999; Monnat, 2010). This supports Quadlin et al.’s (2022) study which showed that attitudes towards single-parents were predominantly shaped by economic beliefs.
Cain (2016: no pagination) further notes that single-mothers are considered irresponsible for their ‘choice’ to reproduce in face of the problems that are associated with single-parenthood. Similarly, Thornton & Iacoella (2022: 6) argue that when lone-parents do not enter employment they are also wrongly categorised as irresponsible. In each case, these might also be viewed as undeserving. There is usually an element here of all single-mothers being lumped into one narrow category of ‘single-mother’ and what it means to be a member of this category. This usually involves the erasure of the many ways in which a mother can be single.
Attitudes Towards Single-Fathers
Although single-fathers are often ignored or invisible, perhaps due to the fact that single-father families are still relatively rare, there is still some conflicting research. DeJean (2012) found that single-fathers were more often viewed positively with Sidel (2006) arguing that single-fathers are often seen as to be going beyond their expected role and are interpreted as noble or heroic in doing so. Alternatively, Chima (1999) and Emmers-Sommer et al. (2003) found that single-fathers were viewed more negatively with Khunou (2006) arguing that they were perceived as being disinterested in their children.
Further, Quadlin et al. (2022) found that single-fathers were perceived to have potentially less emotional resources for children. Haier and McGeorge (2012) found attitudes which conveyed the idea that single-fathers have worse situational attributes than single-mothers as well as being viewed as people who were ‘just in a challenging situation’ as opposed to mothers who were seen as inadequate people.
This perception of inadequacy of the mother can translate into actual reality whereby children are more likely to live with a single-father if the mother has problem behaviours (Goldscheider et al., 2015). Similarly, Sepek & Jevtic (2019: 582) argue that single-fathers are often only single-fathers because of personal failures in the mother and not because fathers are equally as capable at raising children. In turn, single-fathers have also been shown to spend more time with children compared to married fathers (Hook & Chalasani, 2008).
Attitudes also vary depending on how a single-parent becomes a single-parent. These ways can include:
- Widowed: through death of a spouse
- Never-married / unmarried: A child was born through a brief relationship
- Relationship breakdown / divorce: the parent was once in a stable relationship or married but the relationship came to an end
- Adopting a child as a single person
- Rape: having being raped and as a result a child was born
- Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART)
From that list, most of these are likely to have a more positive attitude towards them in comparison to the never-married / unmarried category. Never-married / unmarried is often used to describe the stereotypical single-parent; the one who ‘got pregnant by accident’, the ‘irresponsible’, the ‘immoral’. However, the category is problematic in its meaning. Just because an individual is unmarried or has never married does not equate specifically to being a single-parent. Many people now shun marriage due to the problems that it brings. Yet, the category is still used to describe the stereotype.
Where divorce was once seen as morally problematic though its ‘broken home’ trope, Usdansky (2009) found that across time attitudes towards single-parents who became single on divorcing a partner became less negative whilst the same did not occur for those classed as never married. Perhaps this is reflective of societal moves towards secularisation.
Lavie et al. (2019: no pagination) found that religiosity is the best predictor of negative attitudes towards single-parents. Kahindi (2018) and Kamundia (2012) argued within the context of Nairobi, that the church tolerated single-parenthood as opposed to outright acceptance. In the following quote taken from a recent doctoral thesis (yes, you read that correctly), we can see that in the context of research conducted from a religious standpoint, single-mothers are still perceived as something to be ‘fixed’ due to their ‘inherent’ instability:
Understanding the role of transformational leadership in Christian leaders then becomes necessary to guide single mothers towards spiritual formation and family stability(Robertson, 2020: 3)
There is some consensus that motherhood and fatherhood are perceived differently (Valiquette-Tessier et al. 2016). DeJean et al. (2012) found that never-married single-mothers were perceived more negatively than never-married custodial fathers. Maier and McGeorge (2014) discovered that people held attitudes which conveyed higher expectations for single-mothers compared to the lower expectations of single-fathers. Of course, together these can all have various effects on single-parents.
Effects of Attitudes and Perceptions
The attitudes that are held towards single-parents can translate into negative personal experiences. For example, Lauster and Easterbrook (2011) and Murchie and Pang (2018) outlined how single-parents are discriminated against in the housing market. Negative attitudes towards single-parents can also manifest as psychological stress and poor well-being as noted by Kimani and Kombo (2010), and Kotwal and Prabhakar (2009). As part of a process of internalisation of negative attitudes, feelings of shame and hopelessness can also arise which in turn can compound the effects on well-being (Ganong & Coleman, 1995; Steele and Aronson, 1995).
Cain, R. (2016). Responsibilising recovery: Lone and low-paid parents, Universal Credit and the gendered contradictions of UK welfare reform. British Politics, 11(4), 488–507. Springer.
Chima, F. O. (1999). Fathers with single parenting roles: Perspectives on strengths, concerns and recommendations. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 27(2), 3-13.
DeJean, S. L., McGeorge, C. R., & Stone Carlson, T. (2012). Attitudes toward never-married single mothers and fathers: Does gender matter?. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24(2), 121-138.
Duncan, S. and Edwards, R. (1999) Lone Mothers, Paid Work: and Gendered Moral Rationalities, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Emmers-Sommer, T. M., Rhea, D., Triplett, L., & Triplett, L. (2003). Accounts of single fatherhood: A qualitative study. Marriage & family review, 35(1-2), 99-115.
Ganong, L. H., & Coleman, M. (1995). The content of mother stereotypes. Sex Roles, 32(7), 495- 512. doi: https://10.1007/BF01544185
Gilman, M. E. (2014). The return of the welfare queen. Am. UJ Gender Soc. Pol’y & L., 22, 247.
Goldscheider, F., Scott, M., Lilja, E., & Bronte-Tinkew, J. (2015). Becoming a Single Parent. Journal of Family Issues, 36, 1624 – 1650. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X13508405.
Haire, A. R., & McGeorge, C. R. (2012). Negative perceptions of never-married custodial single mothers and fathers: Applications of a gender analysis for family therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 24(1), 24-51.
Hook, J., & Chalasani, S. (2008). Gendered Expectations? Reconsidering Single Fathers’ Child-Care Time. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70, 978-990. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1741-3737.2008.00540.X.
Jørgensen, M. B. (2012). Dependent, Deprived or Deviant? The construction of deserving and undeserving groups: The case of single mothers in Denmark.
Kahindi, L. W. (2018). Christian response to the phenomenon of single-parenthood in Nairobi. (Unpublished Dissertation). Kenyatta University.
Kamundia, E. M. (2012). The role of Anglican Church of Kenya in ministering to contemporary African single mothers: A case study of Embakasi Archdeaconry in the Diocese of Nairobi (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nairobi, Kenya).
Khunou, G. (2006). Fathers don’t stand a chance: Experiences of custody, access, and maintenance. Baba: men and fatherhood in South Africa, 265-277.
Kimani, E., & Kombo, K. (2010). Challenges facing nuclear families with absent fathers in Gatundu North District, Central Kenya, The African Symposium, 10(2), 1,25.
Kotwal N., & Prabhakar, B. (2009). Problems Faced by Single Mothers. Journal of Social Science, 21(3): 197-204.
Lauster, N., & Easterbrook, A. (2011). No room for new families? A field experiment measuring rental discrimination against same-sex couples and single parents. Social Problems, 58(3), 389-409.
Lavie, N., Kaplan, A., & Tal, N. (2019). The Y Generation Myth: Perceptions of Young Israelis toward Gender and Family Life.
Mack-Canty, C., & Wright, S. M. (2012). The effects of social welfare development on poor single mothers in the United States: What is to be done?. Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.
Maier, C. A., & McGeorge, C. R. (2014). Positive attributes of never-married single mothers and fathers: Why gender matters and applications for family therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 26(3), 163-190.
Monnat, S. M. (2010). Toward a critical understanding of gendered color-blind racism within the US welfare institution. Journal of Black Studies, 40(4), 637-652.
Quadlin, N., Jeon, N., Doan, L., & Powell, B. (2022). Untangling perceptions of atypical parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 84(4), 1175-1195.
Rhiger, T. (2019). Why Do Some Single Mothers Struggle More Than Others?.
Robertson, B. D. (2020). Comparison of Perceptions of Single Mothers and Christian Leaders through Transformational Change.
Sepek, M. N., & Jevtic, A. V. (2019). Social Opinion On Single-Father Families And Their Influence On Child Education. In ICERI2019 Proceedings (pp. 577-584). IATED.
Sidel, R. (2006). Unsung Heroines: Single Others and the American Dream. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Steele, C., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journals of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811. doi: https://10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247
Thornton, I. & Iacoella, F. (2022). Conditionality and contentment: Universal Credit and UK welfare benefit recipients’ life satisfaction. Journal of Social Policy, 1–29. Cambridge University Press.
Usdansky, M. L. (2009). A weak embrace: Popular and scholarly depictions of single‐parent families, 1900–1998. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(2), 209-225.
Valiquette-Tessier, S. C., Vandette, M. P., & Gosselin, J. (2016). Is family structure a cue for stereotyping? A systematic review of stereotypes and parenthood. Journal of Family Studies, 22(2), 162-181.
Wong, T., Yeoh, B. S., Graham, E. F., & Teo, P. (2004). Spaces of silence: Single parenthood and the ‘normal family’ in Singapore. Population, Space and Place, 10(1), 43-58.