You might have seen in the news recently that a study has just been released about the long term effects of growing up with a single parent (read mum). It’s the usual kind of gumpf – single parents are useless, blah, blah, blah. Only this one claimed to have long term data to prove it, not just anecdotal evidence. The Daily Mail of course loved the study and ran a feature all about how we single mums are fucking up our kids for good. This time the evidence suggests that our children will earn significantly less as adults, have fewer friendships and be less likely to hold a relationship together. Initially I figured it was just another bigoted story from the Daily Mail so who cares. But a LOT of people DO care. After it was published there were parents, mainly mums, on single parent forums worrying about what this means for them. Worrying that no matter what they do, just by virtue of being a single parent, they are messing up their kids and nothing they can do will make that better and that made me sad. So I decided to have a closer look at this research to see what the findings really tell us.
First off was the claim that children from single parent families earn 27% less than those from other backgrounds. This statistic had me fuming, but not at single parents. If you were raised by a single parent, on average, you will have £273 less in your pocket every month than someone who wasn’t. Is that really an indictment of single parents, or just evidence of the growing inequality and poverty amongst single parent households and the impact this has on a person’s life chances? When I read a statistic like that, I don’t think how crappy the lone parent must be, I think how shitty our society must be for there to be any link between the number of parents a child grows up with and their earning ability as an adult. In fact, if you read the full study they almost say as much, “[A] large part of the variance in life satisfaction between different childhood family settings was explained by childhood SES [socio-economic status]” which is basically saying the amount of money a family has when a child is growing up accounts for a “large part” of the difference in life satisfaction. Does a “large part” mean the majority? If so wouldn’t it be more interesting for the academics and media to look into how poverty breeds poverty which is the main issue, rather than home in on single parents as a scapegoat.
Next up is the claim that children raised by single parents are more likely to be single as adults (9% more likely to be exact). The implication being that this is a bad thing. As a single mum who craves being in a relationship, it makes me sad to think that my son may suffer the same fate. Yet people are always telling me I should be happy being single, so why then is being single suddenly seen as such a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that (some) single parents raise their children with a ‘never settle for less’ attitude to life? There are a lot of unhappy coupled up people out there; I’d rather my son was happy and single that partnered and sad. I almost laughed out loud when I read this in the Daily Mail article, “Dr Lemola [the researcher] added: ‘The way our parents interacted in their relationship when we were children has an influence on how we interact with our partner when we are adult.” The ingrained assumption was that these must be good lessons. I learnt a mix of lessons from my (still married) parents and I’m sure there are plenty of married couples teaching their children negative ways to interact in relationships. This is not a slight to people in difficult relationships, I know it’s incredibly hard to know if and when to end a relationship. This is a slight to people who assume that just because you don’t have a partner you can’t teach your child how to be a positive partner. I model positive (and negative) relationships to my son with friends, family and – most of all – how I treat him.
The final claim is that children from single parent homes have fewer friends. 4.08 compared to 4.62 to be exact. To be honest I just think, so what? Single parents probably have fewer connections than coupled parents for two main reasons – there is only one adult in the home with external friendships, and there is less time available to socialise (all things being equal). This isn’t necessarily negative though. I’m much more interested in how kind my children’s friends are than how many there are. Life is much more nuanced that this study wants us to believe. Our happiness cannot be measured on a fraction of friends, it’s about the quality of those friendships and whether they are there for us in our time of need.
It’s not just the findings of the research I have an issue with either. Take for example their methodology, they discounted 2813 respondents because they were raised in ‘mixed’ environments. Yes you read that correctly, the researchers discounted data from almost 3000 respondents essentially because their research model couldn’t cope with the reality that many children of ‘single parents’ are actually raised in a mixed environment. This meant discounting people who were raised by the mother and a new partner; by a single father with or without a new partner; and those who were raised by other relatives. For what reason I’m not sure, presumably so they could continue to lay all the blame for worsening crime and the like firmly at the feet of single mums – the blight on every modern society.
The research was conducted comparing East and West Germany with an assumption that because East Germany had higher rates of divorce and greater childcare provisions at this time, children growing up in East Germany would face less stigma and inequalities than children of divorced families in West Germany. Another unfounded assumption. Attitudes towards divorce take decades to change, and the suggestion that childcare costs were the only financial challenge facing single parents raising children alone is naive at best. Having only one income to rely on, and that being a ‘female’ income, will inevitably result in a more strained financial situation for the family given women still face wage inequality. Whats more, high rates of a specific situation does not automatically equate with higher acceptance. Some of the highest rates of stigma for people living with HIV are faced by people in areas with the highest rates of HIV.
So what about the more positive findings in the research? Well there was one interesting point which was hidden in the depths of the report and overlooked by the media, namely that “we could not find evidence supporting the widely held notion from popular science that boys are more affected than girls by the absence of their fathers.” Now this was something which would have been interesting to look into and is something that single mums to boys – like myself – would benefit from hearing.
The study ends by highlighting the need to “identify macro-level protective factors that could be targeted to improve the prospects of single parents and their children.” In simple speech that means find what policies can be implemented to avoid these negative outcomes. The conclusion that the Daily Mail reaches is somewhat different, though not surprising given their political agenda. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge these absurd claims every time we hear them, lest they become widely accepted. The Daily Mail concludes that, “The idea that all family forms are to be equally celebrated flies in the face of the evidence. We need to take into account the long-term consequences of being deprived of a parent of either sex. Neither fathers nor mothers are optional extras. Both are needed because they complement each other and together provide a richness of care that can’t be replicated in any other living arrangement.” No Daily Mail, what flies in the face of the evidence is the suggestion that childhood poverty isn’t the biggest factor affecting a child’s life chances. If we really care about these children we will do something to address poverty. After all, it would be a lot easier than magicking up positive, happy and healthy relationships for every single parent across the land – trust me I’ve been trying to do just that and it’s near on impossible. The Daily Mail claim assumes that single parents have a choice between a loving positive partnership and single parenting. In reality single parenting just happens (for a variety of complex reasons) to both children and their parents alike. As a society we have a choice to remove the correlation between single parenting and poorer life chances, or to ignore it and continue blaming single mums. I know which one I choose.