Single Parents (Trend Analysis)
 
Estimated Number of Printed Pages: 3
 
TOPICS COVERED: For information about the demographics of single parents, their financial circumstance, and other issues, take a look at our Single Parents page. In this page, we take apart some of the myths being heard about single parenting. It isn't that we're for or against single parenting. (Actually, it's more that we worry for them – because of the extreme challenges so many of them are facing.) But we are unequivocal in recognizing the growth of single parenting – and the many misconceptions that are out there about it. And since it doesn't seem like single parenting will be going away any time soon, it's important that these issues get addressed.
 
MEMOS ON RELATED INFORMATION: Single Parents (for demographics and other data), Unmarried Partners, Birth Rate/ Fertility /Family Size, Delaying Marriage, Family Dissolution, Divorce, Children (Demographics), Family Structures
 
Links to Sources for this material are available below. Please also see The Factbook Sources page for further information regarding Factbook sources and their availability.
 
 

PAGE INDEX:

 

THE MEDIA "TREND": THE RISE OF THE SINGLE PARENT

SINGLE PARENT HOUSEHOLDS DON'T ALWAYS MEAN SINGLE PARENTING

THE MYTH OF THE SINGLE MOTHER "BY CHOICE"

CULTURAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS OF SINGLE PARENTING GET OVERLOOKED

SINGLE PARENTING ISN'T ALWAYS PERMANENT

 
 
THE TREND AS IDENTIFIED IN MASS MEDIA:

Generally, the media seem to correctly identify the growth of the single parent family in American society, and particularly that single "parent" really means "single mother." Single dads are still few and far between. They also correctly explain the hardships of single parenting, particularly the – often extreme – financial circumstances of single mother/parent.
 
HOW THEY GET IT WRONG:
 
Point 1: Single parent-households don’t mean a child is being single-parented.
 
First, while there’s less involvement by non-custodial divorced parents when there’s a re-marriage or stepchildren involved, but some divorced parents do continue to be involved with their kids. After my parents divorced, technically, my brothers and I were raised in a single parent family. But that family changed. First, we lived with Mom – then we lived with Dad. And we stayed in contact with both of them the entire time. When my parents remarried, my stepparents didn't adopt us – because to do that, would be to force one of our parents to give up our relationship. Which neither of them wanted, nor did we. So am I still the child of a "single parent"? Two single parents?
 
But the role of the non-resident parent is usually dismissed altogether in these "single parent" articles – unless there’s an aspect on "deadbeat dads" and child support. And, as the number of single parent households continue to climb – and as single-parent custody continues to give way to joint-custody – involved parenting by both will probably increase, especially if the culture of fatherhood continues to espouse that it is involvement with children, not bread-winning, that makes a man a father.
 
Secondly, a lot of unmarried mothers – as supposed to divorced – are living with the fathers of their kids. And their numbers are probably underreported. So it isn’t as if there is no father in the picture at all. And our predication is that as long term cohabiting rates rise and marriage rates fall, it would be only logical that there will be an increase in unmarried mothers, but that they aren’t actually single. (That's already the case in a number of European countries.) And this may become even more significant given that it is the growth in white, educated unmarried mothers that's the one people talk about now – and it is increasingly the white, educated, professional young women who are living with someone but aren’t getting married.
 
Point 2: Where they really do seem to get it wrong is in continuing to promulgate the myth of ”Single Mothers By Choice“: but when the media's talking about this, the quintessential example is still Murphy Brown type, a professional, affluent woman, in their late 30s-40s.
 
 
One real problem is that these so-called "single mother by choice" articles is really it's really just the editor's headline or are a reporter's bait and switch that's about a "choice." The articles themselves usually are as much about aspects of all single parenting, as they are the single by choice mom. Therefore, the pieces frequently include statistics and quotes from divorced mothers, etc., so it is very difficult to distinguish anything about the true single mom by choice.
 
It is true that there is a huge rise in the number of unmarried women’s births. But the "choice" articles saying there's this big trend, then make some some huge leaps based upon that number which usually assume all of the following are true:

1. it’s a wanted/planned pregnancy from inception (not a decision to keep the baby) and
2. the woman is unmarried and
3. single and
4. being single is voluntary.

You lose us right there: that's just too many variables.
 
First, the "choice" articles usually do not include address how many of those are unwanted pregnancies. Instead, they go immediately to women who’ve adopted/inseminated, etc: they don’t profile the women who get pregnant by accident.
 
Second, the "choice" articles usually profile women who haven’t found the right guy and are alone when they have a baby/adopt. But the census numbers they’re using to show how significant a trend this is, include women who've found the right guy but can’t afford to get married, the woman who plans to get married but hasn’t yet, etc. The census doesn’t ask how many women were in a committed nonmarital relationship either at the time of conception, or birth. (In the eyes of the Census, an engaged pregnant woman whose fiance dies in Iraq is just as single as a woman and a syringe.)
 
Also, the "choice" articles often make it seem like the women who are having children on their own want to be alone. That they have decided not to get married. But it isn't necessarily that they don't want a relationship. It may be that they didn't want to wait – or couldn't wait – to have a child until they had that relationship. Even an advocacy / support group for "Single Mothers By Choice," found that almost all the members it surveyed wanted to get married.
 
Since the "choice" articles usually leave out the unmarried, (accidentally) pregnant woman living with her boyfriend, etc, who is in the articles? Who are they really talking about?
 
Most of the women they’re profiling in these "choice" articles are in their mid to late 30s-40s, so taking action such as adoption or artificial insemination to have kids isn’t as much of a choice as it would be, say for a 22- or 25-year old. They are white, and usually educated professionals, often affluent to wealthy.
 
Also, the articles don't discuss religion: are we supposed to believe that members of conservative religions – be they Christian, Muslim, or Orthodox Jew – are doing this.
 
Similarly, the only major ethnic groups in these articles are blacks and whites. We can't recall seeing any discussion of Hispanics or Asians mothers.
 
Yes, more women are having children without being married. But the idea that it is a choice, we're not convinced. First, even the articles saying that this is going on, seem to also say that most women don't want the choice they've made: they would rather be married. (And the earlier articles say the big difference is that women are keeping, instead of giving up for adoption, illegitimate children.) For the older women who are choosing to have a child alone, it’s a biological clock now or never issue, so it’s a "choice" between having a kid now without a father or risking permanent childlessness, which may not be much of a choice for some. The alternative "choice," I guess, is that a woman just marry anyone just so that she can have a child. Which again, I’m not sure if that’s a "choice" in the real world. This is just as much a victim of circumstance issue as the young married couple who want are infertile and want to adopt or have fertility treatments, but they can’t because they can’t afford that. If there was a "choice" for these women, I think it’s arguably if there was a choice to delay that happened years earlier, when they "chose" the delay that put them in those position is really more of an issue (leaving that for another discussion section), not that they have caved to the biological clock.
 
We’ll agree with these articles that there may be less stigma for an unmarried woman in her 30s-40s to raise a child. (But we're not even sure that’s true. They put it in the tabloids if the celebrity birth moms don’t identify the fathers. Even straight news may say "decline to identify the father," when they could just say "she had a baby." And in our anecdotal experience, it seems like the few women I know who’ve done this felt they had to make a point of saying, "I’m doing this on my own!" or else they had a lot of whispers and finger-pointing behind their back. The pure "wake up one morning decide to have a kid" movement that these articles seem to suggest is happening? We don’t see it. Not now.
 
Actually, though, this could really be a growing trend down the road – as more and more women delay marriage for college and careers. Another five or ten years down the road, then, the trend might go beyond a small professional class of white women who can afford $25,000 adoptions.

Point 3: most media completely overlook historical / social / cultural elements of single parenting.
 
Yes, there’s been a dramatic increase in single parent-households. But many articles make it seem like this is a new invention, which, of course, it wasn’t. Historically, permanent single parenting was because of parental death: women died in childbirth, men died in war. Millions of mothers were raising kids on their own while the fathers were serving in WWII. Migration, search for work, also cause single parenting. The media does like to talk about the predominate number of poor Black single mothers. But rarely do they include the fact that Hispanic mothers and some in other ethnic groups tend to separate from husbands without getting divorced. That means that they actually may be raising their children as single mothers, but it wouldn’t be reported that way.
 
At the same time, the media also usually overlook the number of unmarried mothers who end up living with their parents – especially significant in ethnic groups – so while the mothers aren't married, they aren’t really raising their children alone, either.
 
Point 4: the articles don't distinguish between temporary and permanent single parenting.
 
In most articles about single parents, once a single parent, always a single parent. But that isn't necessarily true. Instead, it can be a much more transitory state. As we already mentioned, many of the women who were "single" at the time of a child's birth were actually involved in a committed relationship. Many women who divorce end up remarrying, or living with another partner. And the likelihood of that happening depends on social, economic, racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.