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Lone parenthood: an increasingly common situation, but a concept that needs to be redefined

The National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES is organizing an interdisciplinary, comparative workshop at the University of Lausanne to explore the various forms of single parenthood and their consequences on the life course. The symposium will be held on June 6 and 7, 2014 and will include fifteen speakers from several countries.

Since the 1970s, the number of children not brought up within a traditional family - with their biological parents united in marriage - has been constantly growing. In the past, parents bringing up their children alone were either widowers or widows, or what were then referred to as "gymslip mothers", with all the weight of the moral judgement contained in that label at the time.

This situation has changed with the rising rate and acceptance of divorces, increased life expectancy, more widely available contraception and the legalization of abortion. Has "enforced" single parenthood now been replaced by "chosen", or at least accepted, single parenthood? And more importantly, what challenges do those single parents face nowadays? These are just some of the aspects that will be dealt with by the "Lone Parenthood in a Life Course Perspective" workshop, on June 6 and 7. It will be held at the University of Lausanne and is organized by the NCCR LIVES in partnership with the universities of Berne and Geneva.

A multi-facetted reality

"Research into lone parenthood is still too often limited to the aspects of poverty and marginalization. But the reality of solo parents is more multi-facetted", explains the main organizer, Prof. Laura Bernardi, deputy director of the NCCR LIVES. She hopes the symposium will be an opportunity for "fruitful discussions to improve theoretical knowledge on the diversity of family types and empirical knowledge of the experience of single parents in terms of needs and resources". She hopes to be able to arrive at "suggestions how social policies can respond to this problematic."

There will be around fifteen presentations, with sociologists, demographers, psychologists and political scientists from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Poland, Hungary, the United States and Australia. Quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods will be represented in this program, and several studies are using longitudinal data.

The two keynote speakers will be Dr. Marie-Thérèse Letablier-Zelter, from the Economics Centre at the Sorbonne, University Paris 1, and Dr. Anne-Laure Garcia, researcher at the Marc Bloch Centre and at the University of Potsdam.

Public actions and family identity

Dr. Anne-Laure Garcia will give a lecture called "The Construction of Single Mother identity in French and German State-Orders", from her book Mères seules. Action publique et identité familiale (Single mothers. Public Actions and Family Identity), published in 2013 by Presses universitaires de Rennes, following the completion of her doctoral thesis. The researcher shows how legal and institutional factors affect the norms and the perception of individuals, in this case, single mothers.

This research is based on a structural analysis of narrative interviews conducted between 2008 and 2010 with women who became single mothers between 1977 and 1987, i.e. after abortion became legal and prior to German reunification. Anne-Laure Garcia has demonstrated how the state sector impacts how these women relate to motherhood: in East Germany, for example, the fact that jobs, housing and childcare were guaranteed allowed a degree of emancipation of single mothers, who were much more numerous than in West Germany, where the traditional role of women in the home was predominant. Single motherhood was also more readily accepted in East Germany than in France, where the concept of single mothers "on benefits" promoted a more negative image.

The comparison has led the researcher to define three processes common to all these situations: "the internalization of the universe of possibilities", "the structuring of expectations" and "the self-understanding in matters of external ascriptions". Parental identity is constructed in a context of overlapping with social policies.

Breaks and discontinuity

The lecture by Dr. Marie-Thérèse Letablier-Zelter will be on "Breaks and Discontinuity in Family Life: the Case for Single-Parent Families". She will deal with the problem of defining single-parent families and the broadness of the definition, when most children who grow up in this situation in fact have both their parents.

By reviewing the different types of families referred to as single-parent families, the researcher will differentiate several socio-economic-demographic profiles and will be looking at the different paths - temporary or sustained – of single parenthood. Not surprisingly, long-term situations of lone parenthood are generally those of single mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finally, she will investigate the effects of single parenthood on parents and their children, on the management of co-parenting and on the status of the third parent in "non-traditional" families.

For Marie-Thèrèse Letablier-Zelter, the term "lone parenthood" is no longer suitable and can refer to different situations - either purely the physical aspect of where the children live, or the economic and social aspects of resources, or even the legal and educational aspects of parental authority.

The challenges of the new types of family

"In France, over half of children are born outside marriage. Therefore, marriage is no longer the basis for families. Although single mothers are no longer subject to moral stigmatization, we can still talk of social stigmatization, as the rate of poverty among this group is generally higher than among couples and it is more difficult for single mothers to access the labour market", states Marie-Thérèse Letablier-Zelter. She fears that "the trivialization of this type of parenthood leads to a lack of interest in the real socio-economic and legal challenges posed by the new family types".

Finally, the symposium will deal with other aspects of single parenthood, such as well-being, social networks, and the physical and mental health of the parents and also the social success of the children. These issues will no doubt flow into NCCR LIVES's thinking in its own current project on single parenthood.