Buried within a lengthy article last week in the NYT about the menace to society presented by a group of middle-aged, single women raising children without fathers, are some interesting tidbits about poverty and single mothers.
Since the mid-1990s, in England, Susan Golombok of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge has been conducting a longitudinal study of middle-class single mothers. She is comparing the children of 38 two-parent heterosexual couples with those of 25 lesbian couples and 38 single mothers. Most of the mothers have a university degree and a professional or managerial job.
When the children turned 12, Golombok measured their emotional and behavioral development, school adjustment, peer relationships and self-esteem and found no differences among the groups. That held true in the latest round of interviews with the kids, who are now 18.
That’s not what I’ve been hearing from social conservatives, demographic winter types, or the religious right! Perhaps no one has told them of this research.
Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton, has been studying the effects of divorce and single parenting on kids since the 1980s. Fundamentally, her work reveals the risks of instability. The biggest reason that children born to unmarried mothers tend to have problems — they’re more likely to drop out of school and commit crimes — is that they tend to grow up poor. Children of divorce may also experience a drop in income, and their mothers are at a heightened risk for depression, which in turn raises the risk of mental-health troubles for the kids.
No one has shown, however, that there are similar risks for the children of college-educated single mothers by choice. In research that’s not yet published, McLanahan has found that college-educated single mothers generally experience less instability and stress related to men than other single mothers. But at the same time, when college-educated mothers do have relationships with men that prove unstable, she says, their children experience a greater drop than the children of less-educated women in “literacy activities” — playing games and reading books with their mothers. “This is partly because the educated moms normally do a lot of these activities,” McLanahan says. “Now they’re doing a lot less. When they’re in the relationship, that’s a competing activity. Then if it breaks up, they are sad and distracted.”
In other words, breakups can function like mini-divorces.
1. This research indicates that it is poverty, not being raised by only one parent, that causes problems for children. Of course, single motherhood is often a major indicator for poverty for women.
Having a child can push women with high-school educations or less into poverty; having a second child increases that risk. But the same risks don’t apply to most college-educated unmarried mothers, according to Child Trends, a research center.
2. Single mothers with higher education and a middle class income have children who are as well-adjusted as children with two parents.
3. Dating men may actually be worse for single mothers than just postponing the hunt for a mate until children are grown.
Take that, out-dated prejudices against single mothers! It’s the poverty, stup,