Families are constructed from primary social relationships, either by circumstance or choice. Scholars and legal experts have defined families as collections of individuals who are related by birth, adoption, or marriage. The sociologist Talcott Parsons set forth a conception of the family as a unit including a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife. The economist Gary Becker examined the social and economic exchanges that take place among partners, bringing both benefits and costs. Social science definitions of families have become more inclusive of people unrelated by legal marriage who are closely connected or intimately involved, have mutual responsibilities and common interests, and who care for each other. Popular understandings of family tend to focus on how people feel about each other (love) and what people do for each other (commitment). As definitions of families have changed, family configurations have shifted as well. Families are increasingly headed by women and in such cases are commonly referred to as female -headed, women -headed, or mother -headed families. The terms lone mother and single mother typically refer to the same family structure in different countries. Women raising children in any of these families may be divorced, separated, single, never married, or in a cohabiting relationship with a male or female partner or if married may be living apart from their partner.
The demographic shift away from the “nuclear” family model consisting of two married heterosexual parents living together with biological children represents a major change in social relationships. Most agree that families look quite different in the early twenty-first century than they did a generation ago. Yet some argue that there was never a single dominant family pattern in Western society. Marriage patterns in the United States have been largely based on the different cultural and economic conditions facing African American and white women (Cherlin 1992). Historical discrimination toward racial and ethnic groups and blocked economic opportunities have depressed marriage rates overall and have contributed to increases in female-headed families. Social historians find that the high marital stability of the mid-twentieth-century United States is best described as an anomaly when compared to earlier decades and to later periods (Coontz 1992, 1997; Stacey 1990). Unmarried cohabitation has become both more prevalent and socially acceptable in all social classes since the 1970s. In Scandinavian countries cohabitation has been a long-standing pattern. Couples live together before marriage, in place of marriage, and in between marriages. Demographers and sociologists point out that cohabitation is an increasingly common context for childbearing and child rearing (Wu and Wolfe 2001).
Separating out the causes and consequences of changes in family structure is a challenge. One of many possible explanations is that shifts in values and norms have affected gender roles and expectations for marriage. Women’s sexual independence and the decline in the number of “marriageable” men—those who are employed and stable—is yet another explanation for the decline of marriage. Increases in women’s full-time employment, wages, and sustained commitment to the labor force are other hypotheses. Women may be earning enough to be able to choose independence over marriages to men who either cannot contribute economically or are difficult spouses. In such situations, women and men’s lives may be less “complementary” (see Burns and Scott 1994). Some also argue that welfare supplanted wives’ reliance on husbands for financial support, although welfare policies vary widely by region, country, and historical period.
Poverty scholars see a strong cross-national connection between female-headed families and poverty. In North America and western Europe, there is an increasing trend toward single-parent families. Men and women are marrying later, are increasingly choosing to cohabit rather than marry, and are increasingly likely to divorce. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is also increasing and is especially high among young African Americans and lowest among Latina women (Cherlin 1992; Wong, Garfinkel, and McLanahan 1993). In Central and South America legal marriage is normative, but mothers may leave children in the care of relatives to find work elsewhere temporarily or permanently. Globally, impoverished mothers earn money through legal or illegal (and risky and dangerous) means to support themselves and their children. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (2002) point to the sexual and economic exploitation of women around the world.
Sociological research reflects serious concern about the growing numbers of female-headed families. Numerous studies conceptualize single motherhood as a social problem, either because of the social stigma attached to it or because of the feminization of poverty. Worldwide the majority of families headed by women are poor. In the United States female-headed families are three times more likely to be poor than are those in two-parent families. While quantitative research shows that many female-headed families are “at risk,” qualitative research focused on the meaning, arrangements, and flexibility of families headed by single women reveals that such arrangements can also bring greater stability compared to the existing alternatives.
In the 1970s the anthropologist Carol Stack studied the kinship strategies of single women with children living in an urban housing project in the midwestern United States. She described a complex network of sharing and support among households. Similarly Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein (1997) found that poor single mothers rely on assistance from friends, relatives, and neighbors—both information and money to get through the month— whether they are working or receiving welfare payments.
Research has also explored how middle-class, single-mother families discuss their family circumstances, manage finances, and handle work and family responsibilities. Rosanna Hertz and Faith I. Ferguson (1997) found that the women they studied formed families without men for a number of different reasons, often related to childbearing—unexpected pregnancies, opportunities to adopt, anxiety about “biological clocks.” Some single women— heterosexual and lesbian—choose to adopt or become pregnant through donor insemination. These women were not opposed to nuclear family arrangements; they were actively seeking out partners and commitment while not rejecting the possibility of bearing and raising children alone. Margaret K. Nelson (2005) has examined the “social economy” of single motherhood in rural communities. Her emphasis on the combined importance of social networks and financial resources is particularly instructive for understanding the complexity of single mothers’ lives.
The overall economic prognosis for single-mother families is bleak. Declining rates of marriage, increases in divorce, and the prevalence of out-of-wedlock childbearing means that a growing proportion of families with children are headed by a single parent for some period of time, and these households are much more likely to be poor. When fathers do not live with their children, they are much less likely to share in the financial costs of raising them. Single mothers bear most of the economic expenses and social responsibilities of child rearing. Low wages and high child-care costs contribute to the economic difficulties facing these households. Simply put, it costs more for single mothers to work, and many of the positions women hold do not pay enough to support their households or offer benefits that would help them or their children, like health care, vacations, or sick leave. Improving employment opportunities, strengthening the social welfare system, and increasing child support are all approaches that would contribute to the financial stability of female-headed families (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Edin and Lein 1997). The United Nations similarly points out that promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is essential if the position of female-headed families is to be improved.
Involving parents who do not live with their children in their children’s lives may also be a way to ease the burdens experienced by one-parent families. Studies find that the overall workload at home of single mothers is much greater than that of married mothers. Single mothers spend more time on household tasks like cleaning and cooking as well as on the hands-on care of children. The work overload experienced by single mothers produces a great deal of stress and may affect parenting practices. It is unclear whether children receive more attention and supervision in two-parent or one-parent households. Nelson’s 2005 study shows that rural single mothers sometimes have difficulty arranging for tasks typically performed by men, like landscaping and automobile repairs. Henny M. W. Bos, Frank van Balen, and C. Dymphna van den Boom (2004) find that lesbian-mother families are no more or less disadvantaged than are heterosexual families.
A number of studies have suggested that there is a “wage penalty” for motherhood that does not exist for fatherhood. Losing time from work to raise young children brings a decline in earnings in the United States and western Europe. In many cultures and countries caregiving is exclusively women’s domain. The depressed education levels and limited work opportunities that result from this focus have negative economic repercussions for women. Michelle J. Budig and Paula England (2001) analyzed the characteristics of many different jobs—including female-dominated occupations—and found that wage penalties exist for all mothers. Divorced and married mothers experience higher child-related economic penalties than do never-married mothers, as do women with more than one child. However, the penalty for African American and Latina women with more than two children appears to be smaller than for others (Budig and England 2001). Some of the penalty, Budig and England maintain, is explained by work interruptions, changes to part-time status, lack of seniority, and relatively limited work experience. The wage penalty for women is found across jobs that otherwise have different characteristics. It is for future researchers to determine whether employer discrimination is entirely responsible or whether reduced productivity at work accounts for some of the wage differences. Much research also remains to be done on the relationship between the female-headed family and women and children’s poverty levels and on the question of family stability
SEE ALSO Family; Family Structure; Family Values; Pathology, Social; Poverty; Resiliency
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