Single Mothers: Psychological Problems for Kids?

Long-held stigmas about single mothers are wrong.

Posted Aug 08, 2016

Dindo Jimenez/FreeImages.com
Source: Dindo Jimenez/FreeImages.com

My friend “Andrea” was at the head of the trend toward a new kind of family. In an earlier post, “On NOT Waiting for Mr. Right,” she shared her perspective as a single woman who was five months pregnant.

"This isn't what I dreamed of," Andrea told me. She became pregnant via sperm donor insemination, joined Single Mothers by Choice and also took childbirth and parenting classes. But she had to explain her choice to most people—even to those teaching the courses. "There is an expectation that you have a partner or spouse who will show up at some point. I have to ask if I can bring a friend," said Andrea, who was 40 years old when her daughter was born.

During previous generations, single mothers were viewed askance. Much of the skepticism and distrust were fueled by views of teenage pregnancies and poor outcomes for the children of young, usually single teen mothers. Similarly, older, unmarried women who had babies faced criticism that was fed, in part, by those who believed how and what a family should be—you know, a mom, dad, and two children. Whatever their age or socio-economic status, single mothers struggled for legitimacy.

The 21st century has changed some, but not all tired—possibly unrealistic—attitudes about single women in general and single mothers in particular. As recently as 2010, the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of people feel having and raising a child without a man to help raise that child is "a bad thing for society." 

Fewer Waiting for “Mr. Right”

Yet, among women today, we have what amounts to “the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry,” as Rebecca Traister described the shift in a New York Magazine article about single women’s political power.

Many of these women are parents. Single parent households in both the US and England have jumped from less than 10 percent in the 1970s to roughly 30 percent today. Some women are single parents through divorce or separation or unplanned pregnancies, but a growing number choose to have and a raise babies on their own. In other words, fewer and fewer women are waiting for Mr. Right.

Women who decide to be solo parents are in large part educated, responsible, emotionally mature, and fiscally able to support their offspring. Many of them are in their 30s and 40s and embrace advances such as sperm donation and in-vitro fertilization to become mothers.

As enlightened as we are about single women, the belief lingers that two parents are better—significantly better—than one. The concern that children raised by single mothers will have difficulties remains.

Single Mothers: Problems for Children?

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Researchers studied solo mothers and two-parent families when the babies were infants. They revisited the question two years later and published their findings in the study, “Solo mothers and their donor insemination infants: follow-up at age 2 years.” Again they compared solo mothers and married women who became pregnant via donor insemination (DI).

They reported: “This route to parenthood (via DI for solo mothers) does not necessarily seem to have an adverse effect on mothers’ parenting ability or the psychological adjustment of the child.” In fact, “The solo DI mothers showed greater pleasure in their child and lower levels of anger accompanied by a perception of their child as less ‘clingy’. Fewer emotional and behavioural difficulties were shown by children of solo than married DI mothers.” The results during those typically more trying “terrible twos” were similar when studies examined the quality of parenting and children’s psychological adjustment at ages 3, 7, and 10, again with DI solo mothers and DI married parents.

In a 2016 study published in Journal of Family Psychology, “Single mothers by choice: Mother–child relationships and children’s psychological adjustment,” children of single mothers were compared with children in two-parent households.The children ranged in age from four to nine and were all conceived by donor insemination—50 solo mothers and 51 two-parent families.

Susan Golombok and her colleagues at University of Cambridge used a series of interviews with parents, researcher observation, teacher reports and measurements for psychological problems such as ADHD, and autism. The findings for both family types were the same on an array of measures: warmth, conflict, stress, adjustment problems, mother’s well-being, among others. No significant differences were discovered.

Golombok noted that, “The low level of psychological problems among the children of single mothers by choice in the present study suggests that lack of knowledge of the identity of their biological father does not have a negative impact on their psychological wellbeing.”

Some of the positive results might be attributed to the connection to the mother’s carrying the baby herself. One study, “Children born through reproductive donation: a longitudinal study of psychological adjustment,” looked a different means of having a baby through reproductive donation—sperm, egg or embryo donation, surrogacy. The conclusion: “The absence of a gestational connection to the mother may be more problematic for children than the absence of a genetic link.”

When thinking about the positive results of solo motherhood, especially using donor insemination, the desire to have a baby, psychological screenings, the expense and difficulties in becoming pregnant should be considered. Single women who choose motherhood often wait until they are older to start their families. Many also go to great lengths to become mothers, making children of single mothers very wanted children—all of which may help explain the optimistic outcomes. Solo mothers by choice are certainly, as Rebecca Traister wrote, not “economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men…”

Note: The number of unmarried women deciding to become mothers is growing, however, to date, research on single women who choose motherhood is limited and hence the children studied are young. Although donor insemination for single motherhood is in its “infancy,” future studies are bound to follow.

Related:

References:

Bock, Jane D. "Doing the Right Thing? Single Mothers by Choice and the Struggle for Legitimacy." Gender and Society 14.1 (2000): 62-86.

De Wert, G., Dondorp, W., Shenfield, F., Barri, P., Devroey, P., Diedrich,K., and Pennings, G. (2014). “ESHRE Task Force on Ethics and Law 23: "Medically assisted reproduction in singles, lesbian and gay couples, and transsexual people.” Human Reproduction, 29.9. (2014) 1859–1865. NCBI. 1  

Golombok, Susan, Lucy Blake, Polly Casey, Gabriela Roman and Vasanti Jadva. “Children born through reproductive donation: a longitudinal study of psychological adjustment.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 54.6 (2013): 653–660. NCBI http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23176601

Golombok, Susan, Sophie Zadeh, Susan Imrie; Venessa Smith and Tabitha Freeman. “Single Mothers by Choice: Mother–Child Relationships and Children’s Psychological Adjustment.” Journal of Family Psychology. 30.4 (2016): 409–418. NCBI. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26866836

Murray, C. and Golombok, S. “Solo mothers and their donor insemination infants: follow-up at age 2 years.” Human Reproduction. 20.6 (2005): 1655-1660. NCBI. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15734751

Pew Research Center. “The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families.” Pew Research Center, 18 November 2010.  

Traister, Rebecca. “The Single American Woman.” New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC, 22 February 2016. 

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman