The Problem With Single Mothers…..

I am about to spend some time reading and responding to comments but before I do that I thought I’d put up a short post about a long story from yesterday’s NYT.   It’s a story–like many others about single mothers–that I found particularly frustrating.

The story is built around a contrast between two women who have much in common.    Here’s the second paragraph which is written to emphasize the commonality:

They are both friendly white women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career. They both have children in elementary school. They pass their days in similar ways: juggling toddlers, coaching teachers and swapping small secrets that mark them as friends. They even got tattoos together. Though Ms. Faulkner, as the boss, earns more money, the difference is a gap, not a chasm.

The story then pivots to a signal difference between the women:  

But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Ms. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Ms. Schairer is raising her children by herself. That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.

On one level there’s something that seems fairly obvious here:   If you have two incomes that are pooled and two people sharing the labor (emotional and physical) for child care life is going to be easier.  You’ll have both more money and more time and energy to devote to raising the kids (as well as to the rest of your life) and this will, in the long run, be a good thing for everyone involved.   The support the two parents can offer each other will also be beneficial.

Trying to do the same things with less (time, energy, money and general support) will be harder.   It no doubt takes a toll.

Of course, any individual single mother  and her children can do fine–we are not, as individuals, bound by the statistical categories we fall into.   There are individual women who are taller than the vast majority of men even if the average woman is shorter than the average man.   The article acknowledges this even as it notes the generalized disadvantages these families face:

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Of course, as has frequently been noted, single motherhood (or at least, motherhood outside of marriage) is on the rise.  Perhaps, as the article suggests, this relates to the widening income gap in our country.   In any event, it would seem that we have a problem and that it has something to do with the prevelance of single motherhood.

But this is where I get frustrated.    If we really do have a problem and if we really do want to solve it, then we really do need to understand it.  That requires some care.   And articles like this one don’t quite take enough care.    We don’t, in the end,  know enough about cause and effect.

For instance, Andrew Cherlin suggests that privileged Americans are marrying and then marrying helps them stay privileged.   Women who do not finish college are less likely to marry when they have children, and not finishing college is (in and of itself) rarely a ticket to financial success.

Perhaps this is consistent with the study I wrote about a while back?     Maybe the root cause problem is poverty and lack of opportunity which leads women to see having children as about the best thing they can do with their time–even if the circumstances under which they will have them aren’t ideal?   Maybe what we need to do is encourage women to stay in college–which could be done in a host of ways.

The further I read into the article the more confusing it seems the picture becomes.  What, after all, do the different people mean by single mothers?  Remember that more than one-half non-martial births occur within cohabitig relationships?   Are those women single mothers in the view of the different experts speaking here?  Is the problem lack of marriage or lack of male involvment in child rearing or something else entirely?

In the end I’m not at all sure what the article is a call for.   We have tried, as a culture, to promote marriage–this was a policy priority for the Bush administration as I recall.   I don’t recall that it was a particularly resounding success.   Encouraging unstable and unhappy couples to marry doesn’t make them into stable and happy couples–it just means that more married couples are unstable and unhappy.

To be fair, the article does note the cyclical relationships of many of the factors discussed:  economic woes contribute to marital instability and marital instability then contributes to economic woes so on.   But in the end I am left with no clear picture of the root causes here and only a vague sense that somehow getting mothers to marry will make it all better.    Maybe it’s not fair to look to the press for painstaking analysis of complicated social problems but there’s something so frustrating to me about the fuzzy generalizations that this article ends up offering.

Then again, maybe the heat and lack of rain are making me cranky?


4 responses to “The Problem With Single Mothers…..

  1. With a 50% divorce rate the child of married parents will also suffer a trauma at that time which is also known to cause issues in school, teenage pregnancy etc, etc…

    And with a two-income home providing more advantages it also requires the child to spend a significant portion of their days being parented by day care staff so sure they have more advantages because of the two incomes, but they also live the same reality of day care of the child who lives in a one parent home…who doesn’t have any spouse to argue with over finances, child-rearing, to name some of the lesser issues in front of the child at home.

    Which is better is never absolute – some people make great parents regardless and others make mediocre or poor parents…figure out what made them great and how to replicate that.

    You can’t determine which is better by simply looking at statistics – you need to do this on a case by case or incredibly segmented studies over the course of the lifetime of the child.

  2. Do they control for socio-economic status and race in these studies? I believe not. If poor people and racial minorities are more likely to be single parents, then the children of single parents will have lesser outcomes. So, is poverty/racial inequality causing this difference or single parenthood? So much easier to blame single mothers and guilt-trip them into unhappy marriages rather than solve the poverty and inequality problems.

  3. I find these types of articles infuriating! They post this kind of stuff on Family Scholars all the time and I repeatedly find my self saying “What is your point?” And I really want to align myself with them because they’ve been so good to me personally and I’ve made some real life long friends but I just can’t back down from fighting back on this bizarre obsession with marriage that I’ve never before been exposed to. I was raised by my married parents. I was the only person I knew with married parents growing up I was a freak show with their strict rules and Ethan Allen Furniture. But it was San Francisco and they had all kinds of friends that were gay and married or single raising kids. It really pisses me off that this article goes around using the word inequality to describe this situation as if we need to somehow liberate people from their state of unmarriedness or something.

    That woman is not struggling because she is unmarried, she is struggling because her children’s father is a looser dead beat (or so it seems). She would be struggling no differently if he were married to her and not working and not paying the bills and not helping with the kids. In fact in many cases the only way to get some parents to do their fair share is to have them do it somewhere else. Sometimes one parent is more controling more of a perfectionist and the other just figures “well then you do it if your way is so right”, that imbalance can just happen and sometimes the labor of parenthood is best equally shared but not in one another’s faces.

    People generally want to conceive children with people who they are in love with and want to spend the rest of their life with. They’d prefer to have found a great partner to have kids with but life does not always deal that hand and some people wind up with kids unplanned and some people wind up without kids unplanned. They do the best they can to do right by their kids hopefully. Lack of marriage is not her problem with regard to her economic problems with her children. The children have a right to their father’s financial support even when he is not giving it, so if his parent’s die and leave him property – guess what? They get the money. If he dies guess what they get the money. They have equal rights with those other kids of the married people, its just their parents are not as affluent. Like you said Julie work on ways to make individuals wealthier. I’d say work on ways to drive home parental accountability regardless of marital status.

    And what is this statement of horror?

    “Their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends.”

    Uh the odds are not particularly good for married parents living together at a child’s birth either nearly half of them split up within 5 years as well. Seems like we’ve got twice as many people getting married as should already.

  4. I hope no one still have doubts that single mothered families are the most vulnerable social class of people. It should be pretty obvious that by cultural assumption, mothers no matter if married or single, no matter if working or stay-at-home, are presumed to be the main caregivers for all family management aspects.

    Non-custodial fathers come in all shapes and types. Some will provide and cooperate in the after-split responsibilities and some many others will not if at all. Here, I must shed the spotlight for a second on the fact that many, many fathers, though complaining a lot about child support and related visitation time are deafeningly silent about the given for granted freedom of reverting to virtually conducting the bachelor lifestyle. This, is big.

    Nonetheless, I agree that fathers are not to be made sole financial dispensers of cash for the broken families. What is missing in support that fathers cannot provide should, in the best of all worlds, come from institutional agencies and organizations funded by taxpayers money.

    Ops! Have I said a blasphemy? Using taxpayers money for what? For providing a safety net and support to the most vulnerable part of our families? How dare we even think of that! Huh!?

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