For Better or For Worse: The Fight over Single Parenting

Written by

Mariah Craven
Mariah Craven Mariah Craven is the director of communications and marketing at Washington Area Women’s Foundation, the only donor-supported, public foundation solely focused on improving the lives of women and girls in the Washington metro area. Prior to working in the nonprofit field, Mariah was a broadcast journalist. She writes and makes short films about a variety of topics ranging from entertainment to poverty and civil rights to social media. You can find her on Twitter at: @Mariah_Craven.

“It’s better to be raised by a single mom.”

“It’s worse to be raised by a single mother.”

The first argument cited above was written by a single mother who believes that her choice to raise her children on her own gave them “grit.” The second argument was made by a man raised by a single mother. He sees himself and his success as more the exception than the rule.

As well-intentioned as these arguments may be, they’re doing more harm than good. Touting the benefits or drawbacks of single parenthood doesn’t do a whole lot for the millions of children who are currently being raised by a single caretaker. It would be far more productive to ask what it takes to be the best parent(s) possible who are doing what most parents strive to do: raise happy, healthy children who are on their way toward fulfilling their dreams and being productive members of society.

An increasing number of families are headed by single parents – especially women. According to The Casey Foundation’s Kids Count, 35% of children in the US live in single parent homes. The majority of them are being raised by women, and that number has been on the rise for the past four decades. Just over half of births to women under 30 occur outside of marriage in the U.S.

In spite of the long-term, steady rise in single parenthood, the United States is failing this growing family type. According to a recent report on single parent families in 16 high income countries, the U.S. was identified as having the “worst off” single parent families. U.S. families led by a lone caretaker were more likely to live in poverty, lack health care coverage, and had “stingier” income supports than families in other countries identified in the report. The well-documented challenges that come with living in a single parent home are being compounded by an inadequate support system.

It is no longer useful or realistic to debate whether or not single parent families should exist. They’re here and the trends indicate that they are not going anywhere. Instead, our focus should be on making sure children have everything they need to succeed and giving parents (future and current) the resources they need to make informed choices.

The following inclusive policies and resources will benefit all of us but would be particularly helpful to single parent households:

  • More flex time and better benefits in all workplaces. Employers need to understand that they’ll likely be seeing an increasing number of single parents in the coming years and that their employees might be more productive and satisfied without being in the office from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
  • More access to affordable early care and education. A good preschool education can help narrow achievement gaps typically seen between low-income and middle/high-income students. It also takes the pressure off of single parents to cobble together unreliable or expensive daytime childcare. We need publicly-funded preschool in the U.S. that can accommodate all young children.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage. Women make up two-thirds of minimum wage earners, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Working full-time on minimum wage ($7.25/hour) means a single-parent household brings in $14,500 a year, well under the federal poverty line for a family of three.
  • More information about family and financial planning. Let’s make this part of the curriculum in schools, afterschool programs, churches and something that doctors bring up during exams. Young people should be thinking early on about what their options are for creating a family and how much it costs to support a family in the lifestyle of their choosing.
  • Expanding our understanding of family. Families come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and that’s OK – a child’s path in life isn’t determined by studies, trends or data; it is profoundly affected by the caring, supportive adults in her life and by the community and country in which she lives. We need to be a country that makes it a priority to give every child the best possible start in life.

The number of married parents in a child’s life is neither an indicator of how a child is going to turn out nor a prediction of the failure of a parent who has lots of love but limited resources. The back-and-forth has to end and our energies need to be put toward outcomes that benefit us all: the opportunity for every child to succeed, no matter how many parents she has.

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