The Economy of Single Parenthood

Family Matters on 07.22.12
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More than half of all kids in America will live with a single parent at some point in their lives. Yet there is still a stigma about single parenting that assigns blame to the mother when the family struggles to make ends meet.

Recently, The New York Times ran the story,  "Two Classes in America, Divided by 'I-Do,'" that followed two women, friends who are raising children in a Michigan suburb. One of the women is married, living in a dual earner household, while her friend is a single mother. The story highlights the economic stress of living in a home supported by a single, low-wage job. 

The single mom in the story receives no child support from the father of her children and struggles to get by, while her friend's kids participate in a boatload of extracurricular activities, go on family vacations, and attend Boy Scout sleepovers with their dad. 

Every Story is Different  

The tale of single motherhood in the article did not resemble my own. My ex-husband and I were both over-educated. Although he was not supportive of my pregnancy, he now pays child support, attends dance recitals, and spends every other weekend with our daughter who is over-enrolled in extracurricular activities. Clearly, being able to afford baby yoga, elementary violin lessons or even premiere soccer is not neccessary (or maybe even advisable) for good parenting. 

But there is a danger in conflating single motherhood and lack of opportunities for children. Yes, children of single mothers are roughly six times more likely to live in poverty than those in two-parent families. But only 22% of children living with low-income single moms receive any child support payments from biological fathers. We have no system in place to financially compensate single mothers who do not receive child support from biological fathers, and child support enforcement varies widely from state to state. 

While the task of mothering and working falls to the single mothers, often fathers seem to disappear in a poof.  Children can be supported financially by both parents without both parents living under the same roof. Still, we tend to focus on the mothers themselves, many of whom are already trying to go back to school and work multiple jobs while caring for their kids.

One thing is clear: What a family looks like in this country is changing rapidly.  We need to stop looking down our noses at single-parent-headed families and any family that doesn't fit the perfect, nuclear mold because, come on, whose family is really perfect? Only then can we begin to figure out new ways to support single parent-headed families.   

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