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The boundaries of single parenthood are blurred. A new book helps to take stock

The 8th volume of the Life Course Research and Social Policies series, edited by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES at Springer Publishing, is dedicated to a central issue in the study of life courses: the growing complexity of family structures, which affects an increasing number of people who experience single parenthood at some point in their life. Typically associated with a greater risk of vulnerability, single parenthood is a dynamic process that challenges social policies and that should not be confined to stereotypes

Created in the wake of a workshop organised by the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES in 2014, the publication that has just been released in open access, entitled Lone Parenthood in the Life Course, brings together 15 chapters giving a range of perspectives on single parenthood and offering a comparative and interdisciplinary view of this phenomenon, which has become so common at the beginning of the 21st century.

Edited by Laura Bernardi, professor at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lausanne and deputy director of the NCCR LIVES, and Dimitri Mortelmans, professor of sociology at the University of Antwerp, the book depicts the multiplicity of single-parent situations in various countries and looks at the complexity of these families from several angles: access to work and social benefits, health, well-being, representations, social capital, etc.

"The growing heterogeneity of lone-parent households has not yet been sufficiently emphasised in the scientific literature," says Prof. Bernardi. In three decades, their profiles have indeed diversified. In the past, single parenthood used to concern mainly widows and, more rarely, ostracised "unwed mothers". Today, it affects a much wider group, mainly divorced or separated women. However, the average duration of lone parenthood has fallen drastically, due to a very high rate of single parents finding a new partner after a few years alone. Added to this are the increasingly common situations of shared custody.

Understanding the complexity of family structures

"These changes make it difficult to define lone parenthood within specific boundaries. Socio-demographic and administrative criteria do not always overlap, and sometimes correspond very little to the residential dynamics of children or the real experience of parents," explains Laura Bernardi.

For example, a single mother with children who moves in with a new partner may not always be considered a lone-parent household, according to institutions. However, most of the time, lone parenthood does not end with the formation of a new couple, even if the parent no longer lives alone with their children: "The legal obligations remain with the custodial parent, while from an economic and emotional point of view, it all depends on the new partner's involvement with the child," emphasises Laura Bernardi.

According to the researcher, administrative data and data collected by scientific surveys should provide more details on the concrete living conditions of children and help to better understand who cares for them, for how long, and how the various costs are covered.

In Switzerland and elsewhere

The book's introduction reviews the latest research on lone parenthood in relation to various aspects of the life course, and brings together several datasets to present an overview of the developments since the 1960s in some twenty countries, including Switzerland, Russia, the United States and several European states.

The subsequent chapters develop several themes in different national contexts. The chapter on Switzerland, written by Laura Bernardi and Ornella Larenza, reports on a qualitative study of 40 single parents in the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. It shows that the transition to lone parenthood is often a non-linear and progressive process, the beginning and sometimes even the end of which are difficult to date precisely by the people concerned, who express strong ambivalence in their relationships with their (ex-)partner(s) and in relation to their family situation.

In an increasingly common landscape of non-traditional families, is there any point in delineating the boundaries of lone parenthood? Yes, says Laura Bernardi: "Because while the need for a precise definition of lone parenthood may be questioned in this context of transient arrangements, it is still necessary to know who is legally and practically responsible for the children." On the other hand, she believes that policies should "rethink the rights and duties of parents within a broader framework of complex family configurations, rather than classifying single parents as a homogeneous population of people in need."

Single parenthood and precariousness

However, the extent of the phenomenon should not obscure the fact that lone-parent families remain a category more likely to experience precariousness. More specifically, risks arise especially when several factors accumulate: the young age of the mother, lack of education, unemployment, health problems. Lone parenthood therefore finds itself at the intersection of gender and class inequalities, made even more sensitive by social structures.

One chapter shows that the least developed countries in terms of gender equality are also those with the highest poverty rates for single mothers. The poor integration of women into the labour market and the difficulty in reconciling work and family life significantly increase the risk of having to rely on social welfare.

Yet research indicates that working single mothers have a higher level of well-being, are happier, less stressed and healthier than those who care for their children full-time, as demonstrated by Emanuela Struffolino, one of the authors of the book, in another article published in 2016 with Laura Bernardi and Marieke Voorpostel on the Swiss Household Panel database1.

For universalist policies

One of the book's findings is that social policies that specifically target single parents as a homogeneous group work less well than universal measures. Simplistically targeted measures can even be counterproductive and may discourage lone parents from working or getting back into a relationship, warns Laura Bernardi.

In her view, "implementing policies that guarantee the work-family balance for all parents would have better results in reducing poverty and health risks than targeted and stigmatising measures."

And since lone parenthood is ultimately a risk for very young women without qualifications, Laura Bernardi believes that an important area for improvement lies in promoting education opportunities for everyone, regardless of age or parental status. "The transition from school to work should be flexible and allow young mothers to develop vocational skills so as to prevent the downward spiral of disadvantage."

>> Laura Bernardi & Dimitri Mortelmans (eds.) (2017). Lone Parenthood in the Life Course. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, Life Course Research and Social Policies, Vol. 8.

  • 1. Struffolino E., Bernardi L., Voorpostel M. (2016) Self-reported Health among Lone Mothers in Switzerland:Do Employment and Education Matter? Population-E, 71 (2) pp. 187-214. DOI: 10.3917/pope.1602.0187. Winner of the Population Young Author Prize 2016.