Family life is complex these days. From separated couples who successfully co-parent to warring exes who fight over the kids, parenting isn’t always about happy homes and perfect family unity. But is a child always better off with two parents?
Research from Direct Line, for example, suggests that 7.6 million parents in the UK have stayed in a relationship longer than they would have wanted to, simply because they believed it was the right thing to do for their kids. So, is sacrificing your own personal happiness for the wellbeing of your kids the right thing to do?
There’s a pervasive belief that single parents are not “the norm” and that most kids have two loving parents living with them at least part of the time. Clearly, that’s not the case. A 2018 report from Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support showed that at, in 2015, there were at least 13.7 million single parents raising kids in the United States. Are all of these single moms and dads struggling?
Well, according to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study conducted at Princeton University, kids raised by single parents could be facing greater challenges than those with two parents on hand. Kids whose parents had divorced tended to do worse in school, presumably due to the stress and uncertainty caused by the breakup. The study concluded that children who remained in a fragile family setting were twice as likely to fail to graduate from high school.
The point of this research wasn’t to shame or judge single parents, though. Chief researcher and professor of sociology Sara McLanahan was a single parent herself for 10 years, so she has first-hand experience of the difficulties involved. She is quoted as saying: “The big finding from the first year [of research] was high hopes and low capabilities.” When babies were born into couples who didn’t remain together, often the mothers expected the fathers to be far more involved than they ended up being. In some communities, this was exacerbated by the fathers being involved in crime and spending time in prison.
The key finding of the study is that much more support needs to be given to single parents, many of whom find themselves on their journey of solo parenting quite by accident. Not every single parent gets there by choice. Tragedy occurs when a partner or spouse dies, or becomes hospitalized. And, as previously mentioned, some partners can end up being away from their children unwillingly due to incarceration. In the very poorest communities, this can be devastating, as the remaining parent often doesn’t have enough resources to dip into in terms of time, money, and energy, to make everything work for their child the way they want it to.
Babies are the Least Affected
The good news from this study is that babies tend to be the least affected by parents splitting up. If a child’s parents separate before they are seven years old, they are far more likely to experience good outcomes or similar outcomes to a child in the same community in a two-parent family. Babies obviously have very little memory of an absent mother or father, which protects them from some of the mental trauma – although perhaps not from the socio-economic issues such as the remaining parent having to work additional hours.
Single parents might have to work harder and fight for the support they need, but a child in a single-parent family is certainly no less loved and adored than any other child.