The rise of the single mother

Be it the growing power of rights over duties, feminism over traditionalism, or simply a society that makes it economically feasible to parent as a never-married woman, there is hope that the trend is turning around

by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, Sunday May 11, 2008

It was a symposium on same-sex marriage that cold January day in Vermont, but on the subject of marriage generally, Patrick Fagan's power-point presentation went much further. There, on a large screen, a bar graph demonstrated how for psychological health, wealth and other optimal outcomes for children, a biological mom and a dad in an intact marriage did the best job.

At the opposite, bottom end of the graph, well past the married stepfamilies, the divorced single parents and the co-habiting couples, was the never-married single mother, whose grim prospects included grinding poverty, little hope of a future marriage and children with behavioural problems that too often led to a life of crime and yet more unwed pregnancy.

The debate among top American academics is over, the distinguished psychologist, one-time presidential appointee on the family and now a Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council in Washington, later told me in a telephone conversation. Though if any doubt remains about the importance of an intact family in a child's development, a study undertaken by Swedish social scientists and published by Acta Paediatrica in March buries it once and for all. Their systematic review of fathers' involvement with children from the time they are newborn to the time they are young adults spanned 24 papers from 16 different longitudinal studies from a variety of countries. It concludes that "father engagement reduces the frequency of behavioural problems in boys and psychological problems in young women; it also enhances cognitive development while decreasing criminality and economic disadvantage in low (socio-economic status) families."

If the United States more generally represents the traditional family and Sweden less-traditional families, the debate about the arrangement that best meets the needs of children would indeed appear to be over: kids need both mothers and fathers. But can the developments of the past half-century be reversed? In that time, the never-married single mother has been Canada's fastest-rising parenting demographic. And why did these developments occur in the first place?

There was a time when an unwed pregnancy meant a shotgun wedding. It wasn't the best start to a marriage, but it secured social and other obligations for the child from his parents. It also provided him with a sense of his genetic and social origins -- that is, a sense of his identity -- and clear role models upon which to build his future behaviour.

The existence of shotgun weddings didn't preclude what sociologists and Statistics Canada now call lone-parent or one-parent families. These have been an established feature of Canadian familyhood for some time and have included widows, the divorced or separated, as well as never-married mothers. In 1951, for instance, 13.9 per cent of families were lone parents, a figure not far removed from 2006 figures at 15.6 per cent, although, significantly, they fell to 8 per cent between 1951 and 1966.

The difference between then and now is the altered composition of the lone-parent cohort. In 1951, only 1.5 per cent of lone parents were never-married, whereas 30 per cent were divorced or separated and 66.5 per cent were widowed. By 2006, and despite the availability of birth control, abortion and adoption services, the proportion of never-married, at 29.5 per cent, and divorced or separated, at 49.5 per cent, had increased dramatically.


Conventional wisdom says poverty is the primary cause of never-married mothering, but increasingly evidence suggests both poverty and never-married mothering are symptoms of a deeper problem.

"Although there are many exceptions," writes Anne-Marie Ambert in a 2006 paper on one-parent families for The Vanier Institute of the Family, "over half of women who bear children alone not only create poverty ... but come from poverty."

The professor emeritus of sociology at York University adds that, in any case, "less than 50 years ago, the poor were not so likely to produce as many one-parent families as is now the case." And even today, the poor do not uniformly inhabit one-parent families, while the rich do produce one-parent families via divorce and occasionally through intentional single motherhood.

Values, beliefs and morality are also factors, she says, beginning with an ethos of individualism that emphasizes rights rather than duties. This, coupled with an ideology of gratification, particularly sexual and psychological, meant procreation became increasingly separated from marriage even as women, often conspicuously unprepared for motherhood, were encouraged to keep and to bond with their newborns as a "right."

Add impoverishment, and such adolescents may feel they have little to lose and even something to gain by engaging in unprotected sex.

In 1999, similar views were expressed by Maggie Gallagher, an American author and president of the Institute of Marriage and Public Policy. "What has changed most in recent decades is not who gets pregnant, but who gets married," she wrote in The Age of Unwed Mothers. If a good marriage is unlikely and if marriage isn't an essential support to motherhood anyway, she argues, it is hardly surprising adolescent girls decide to become pregnant. "If it is not marriage that confers special meaning to the sexual act, then perhaps it is her giving the gift of unprotected sex, or making a baby."

British journalist Melanie Phillips agrees that the collapse of marriage is behind today's changing family fortunes, but she blames "gender" feminism as its primary cause. By viewing marriage as the principle instrument of oppression by males of females, she says, gender feminism marginalized men from their roles as husbands and fathers while its radical agenda has become the stuff of public policy. Meanwhile, fear of appearing judgmental about its consequences has led to moral paralysis on the subject.

Her book, The Sex-Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, argues that any explanation based on economics -- for instance, that a lack of jobs makes young men unmarriageable or that too much welfare makes it too easy for young women to be single mothers -- is only a small part of the puzzle. The missing piece is the change in girls' sexual behaviour and the collapse of social stigma. "The legalizing of abortion and the availability of contraception, along with the changes in social attitudes, brought about the end of 'shot-gun' marriages by which unmarried sexual incontinence had previously been regulated," Phillips says.

Fewer men wanted to marry women who, they felt, brought their pregnancy on themselves, while women who did want to marry and have children "found their bargaining position had been undermined since men could go elsewhere for sex without responsibility." And while men seek sexual favours, it is women who -- unless they are being coerced -- have the power of selection.

To be sure, mistakes are a factor -- but abortion and adoption services exist to address these. Coercion is also a factor in very disadvantaged groups, as is a hyper-sexualized media and celebrity culture that feeds peer pressure and promotes sexual activity.

If women were engaging in more-adventurous sexual behaviours, does that mean men were feckless cads? Not entirely, says Phillips. "All societies struggle with the problem of attaching men to their children," she writes. "This is almost always solved through marriage and legitimacy, which is very important in establishing paternal certainty, the most important precondition for paternal investment." Moreover, she says, family life socializes young men, who must get jobs and settle down. It also contributes to the development of kinship, the primary structure that supports individuals.

But now, "marriage has been weakened, divorce has got easier and no stigma is any longer attached to children born outside of wedlock. The result has been a snapping of the bonds that have tied men into family life."

In Canada, as elsewhere, liberalized divorce laws were adopted by the end of the 1960s. In Britain, says Phillips, they turned marriage into an institution of contempt and "just a piece of paper." Divorce produced "damaged children (who) grew up into embittered adults incapable of lasting attachments and deeply mistrustful of the institution whose failure had let them down so badly." The non-existent or low-commitment requirements of lone parenting or co-habitation became a better option than a perceived "bad" marriage while "no-fault" divorce laws that also gave women custody of the children and most of the family assets bestowed "the seal of social approval upon families constructed around the absence of the father."

In a recent blog item on The Spectator's website, Phillips discusses the murder of a 15-year-old and the life of her mother and others with several children by several men. An affluent, complacent and materialistic Britain has created an underclass, she writes, "where successive generations of women have never known what it is to be loved and cherished by both their parents ... How can such women know how to parent their own children?"

Similarly, and in the U.S., where 37 per cent of pregnancies are those of unwed, mostly black and Hispanic mothers, commentators describe a de facto caste system based on the marriage gap. In Canada, the proportion of Aboriginal single mother families is twice as high as other Canadian families.

Yet reasons for hope persist. According to "Crime, Drugs, Welfare -- And Other Good News," published in last December's edition of Commentary magazine, American college graduates are marrying and staying married for the sake of the children, while the number of Canadian fathers who have joint custody of theirs now rivals the never-married mother as Canada's fastest rising parenting demographic. Abortion and fertility rates among the young are declining.

Many lessons, too, are emerging from the trials and triumphs of the sexual revolution, among them that if feminism's biggest mistake was the marginalization of men, so, too, has it given women greater control of their sexuality. And that means tremendous power to re-order their lives, the lives of their families and to turn the situation around.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century