The lives and experiences of single-parent or lone-parent families can be complex ones. The intersecting determinants of what constitutes a single-parent, as well as the intersecting problems, negative perceptions, and significant difficulties faced by them makes for an equally complex landscape. Here, I try to unravel the question: what are single-parent and lone-parent families?
Specific definitions of single-parents are quite hard to come by. This is perhaps due to the terms ‘single-mother’, ‘single-father’, ‘single-parent’, lone-mother’, ‘lone-father’, and ‘lone-parent’ being considered self-evident. This is not always the case, especially if you are coming from a social policy standpoint where there may be variations in what is considered a single-parent at policy or legal level.
A parent can be single in one of the following ways:
- Widowed: through death of a spouse
- Never married: 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 (including still being married but separated)
- Adopting a child as a single person
- Rape: having been raped and as a result a child was born
- Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART)
Further, a single-parent can be any sex or gender, any ethnicity, and any sexuality. They do not have to be blood-related parents either to be classed as a parent.
Zagel & Hübgen (2018: 175) define a single-mother as:
a woman who lives with her dependent child(ren) but without a partner in the household.
…and Kasuma et al. (2022: 1343) understand a single-mother to be:
A single mother can be understood as (1) a divorced woman with a dependent child, (2) a mother who is the breadwinner for the family with dependent children and supports husbands who are disabled, bedridden, or even deceased, or (3) divorced women with adopted children or children born out of wedlock.
…whilst Harkness & Salgado (2018: 107) on single-parents simply claim:
we define single parents as those who do not co-reside with a partner
Much harder to come by, a definition of single-father was provided by Smith & Smith (1981: 413)
a male who had sole custody and was rearing, alone, one or more minor children
For more on definitions, there is also an entire chapter dedicated to the issues surrounding defining lone-parents in Rowlingson & McKay (2002: 65-71) but this omits anything regarding LGBT lone-parents. Another chapter can be found in Procidano & Fisher (1992: 35-56). Although this one is quite dated now, there does not seem to be a lot that has changed overall since it was written. It seems to describe the same or similar issues in defining single-parent families which still exist to this day.
Perceptions of Lone-Parent and Single-Parent Families
Perceptions of single-parent families can vary but they are often negative and stigmatising, particularly around single-parents and welfare or their socioeconomic situations. Park & Park (2014) outline the concept of ‘family stigma’. They consider the possibility of three attributes which constitute family stigma:
(a) others’ negative perceptions, attitudes, emotions, and avoidant behaviors toward a family, because of the unusualness of the family, including the negative situations, events, behaviors, problems or diseases associated with that family, or because of the unordinary characteristics or structures of that family;
(b) others’ belief that the unusualness of the family is somehow harmful, dangerous, unhealthy, capable of affecting them negatively, or different from general social norms; and
(c) others’ belief that the family members are directly or indirectly contaminated by the problematic family member, so that every family member is also considered as harmful, dangerous, unhealthy, capable of having a negative effect on others, or different from general social norms.
Note that the term ‘unusualness’ is how Park & Park (2014: 167) categorise single-parent families. However, in terms of stigmatisation, ‘unusualness’ can be used as synonymic to ‘abnormal’ and it is in this categorisation of abnormality, argues Rusyda et al. (2011: 158), that stigmatisation can originate. One example is that of the sexuality of the single-mother. Often perceived as promiscuous and therefore irresponsible, this can be seen as problematic or harmful behaviour (Haire & McGeorge, 2012: 43).
Perceptions of single-fathers do not seem to fare much better, and sometimes even worse. Troile & Coleman (2008) found that out of seven different types of fathers, the never-married single-father was perceived as the worst. Further, when held up against never-married single mothers, never-married single-fathers were still perceived to be the worst (Bennett & Jamieson, 1999). These types of negative attitudes towards single parents can invoke significant psychological stress (e.g., Kimani and Kombo, 2010; Kotwal and Prabhakar, 2009).
Despite abundant negativity, Hakovirta et al.’s (2021) study shows that attitudes vary across the world. They found that in terms of overall attitudes at country level, the more positive attitudes were found in Denmark, Iceland, Spain, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Norway, and Ireland and the most negative attitudes in Canada, France, Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, and Bulgaria. Further, they found younger people, women, the politically left-wing, and those of a more secular position had the more positive attitudes. The prevalence of single-parenthood was also shown to play a role insofar as the greater number of single-parents there are, the more acceptable single-parenthood is seen to be.
Effects of Single-Parenthood
Both single-mother and single-father families share similar challenges but are more pronounced in single-mother families with regard to socioeconomic issues (Raboteg-Šarić, 2015). Poverty in particular is an issue for single-mother families (Brady et al., 2017; Brady & Burroway, 2012; Edin & Kissane, 2010; McLanahan, 2004; Musick & Mare, 2004). Similarly, Baxter & Renda (2011) and Perales et al. (2016) argue that single-mother families experience greater lack of social and economic resources including social support and lower wages whilst being exposed to greater stress and anxiety.
Lower academic achievement in children and young people are common including in standardised testing or general educational outcomes (e.g., Nonoyama-Tarumi, 2017; Woessmann, 2015; Barajas, 2011). Further, Park (2008) found that children of divorced single-parents had lower educational aspirations. Lange et al.’s (2014) study showed that schools with a large number of single-parent families led to lower educational outcomes for all the children but with a greater effect on the children of those single-parents.
Fergusson et al. (2007) found significant association between single-parenthood and anxiety, educational outcomes, welfare dependence, and violence. However, these were argued to be related to the contextual factors and social factors relative to single-parenthood and not single-parenthood in and of itself.
Deviant behaviour can also be a problem for single-parent families (Charo & Maroko, 2023; Demuth & Brown, 2004). Inadequate supervision of children for example can lead to children being exposed to negative behaviours of peers (Rebellon, 2002). This exposure can be exacerbated by single-parents having to live in socially deprived areas (Beyers et al., 2003). Truancy was also shown to be correlated with single-parenthood with students from single-parent families having significantly higher rates of truancy (Rivers, 2010: 18).
Other factors associated with single-parenthood include:
- Diet (e.g., Parikka et al., 2018)
- Teen pregnancy (e.g., Tan & Quinlivan, 2006; Anifah et al., 2018)
- Smoking (e.g., Jun & Acevedo-Garcia, 2007)
- Chronic disease (e.g., Nishioka et al., 2021)
Knowledge on LGBT single-parents is much more difficult to unearth. LGBT single-parents are often the result of divorce (Calzo et al., 2019: 4). Socioeconomically, LGBT single-parents seem to be exposed to the same issues as heteronormative parents, with LGBT single-parents having higher rates of poverty compared to heterosexual single parents (Gates, 2013). Sometimes, LGBT individuals want to make a choice to be a single-parent. This often has to happen through ARTs (assisted reproductive technologies). As Biana (2021: 140) notes however, LGBT who wish to choose single-parenthood through ARTs may be prevented by law (Biana, 2021: 140). Elsewhere, an interesting first-person perspective told from the personal experience of a lesbian single-mother can be found in Lapidus (2008) who reflects on their life in relation to this particular status.
The Triple-Bind of Single-Parenthood
Nieuwenhuis & Maldonado (2018) consider the presence of a ‘triple-bind’ for single-parent families. They argue that competing challenges and demands arise for single parents in relation to ever-evolving issues of single-parenting, the labour market relative to single-parent needs, and the social policies which specifically (or fail to) address the complexities that single-parents are exposed to. The triple-bind then manifests as the following:
- Lack of a second parent
- Increased pressure on ability to care
- Time constraints
- Limited flexibility
- Only one income
- Gendered inequality
- Increased conditions of precarity
- Part-time employment rather than full-time
- Lower wages
- Employment gaps
- In-work poverty
- Fixed-term / zero-hour contracts
- Failure of policies predicated on activation (activation is a social policy concept whereby the policy is designed to get people to ‘move’ from their current position).
- Failures to account for pre-existing inequalities
- Eligibility rules
- Means testing
- Overly complex programmes which discourage take-up
- Policy-maker assumptions such as on gender stereotypes
If you are looking for research ideas in this area, then in considering these elements of the triple-bind, each bullet point above constitutes a possible area of research and a research question in itself relative to single-parenthood. For example, you could research the effects that eligibility rules have on single-parents, or perhaps how precarity comes to manifest in the daily experiences of single-parents.
When looking in-depth at research on single-parenthood, it is important to pay close attention to some of the wording. It is easy to come to false conclusions that what has been discussed in this article, such as the effects of single-parenthood, is attributable to being a single-parent in and of itself. In other words, that single-parenthood causes these problems. However, if you read carefully into the research, you find that many papers often find that these effects are explained by factors related to being a single-parent and not being a single-parent. In other words, they are structural and external issues caused by systemic and environmental factors.
This is what makes research such as Nieuwenhuis & Maldonado’s (2018) analysis of the triple-bind so important. Single-parents are a social reality and always will be and always have been. Therefore, many of the negative experiences of single-parenthood are created externally by the impossibility of the system within which single-parenthood functions. In a way, it is similar to the notion of the social model of disability. It is a failure of society in adapting to the needs of single-parents rather than being a single-parent in and of itself.
Further, as Coles (2015: 161) concludes, research on single-parent families has tended to fall into two main categories, especially on parenting: the mother-female-feminine side, and the father-male-masculine side. At this point then, it becomes a question of dividing up research on single-parenting based on gender or sexuality to uncover new paths in the research.
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