Categories of lone mothers – fact or fiction?

Andrea’s husband had been having affairs for years but promised to reform once they had a baby (Rowlingson and Mackay 1998:79) . After seven years of trying Andrea finally got pregnant but her husband continued with his many affairs so she told him to leave six weeks before the baby was due, thus becoming a single mother. Even though Andrea was a married(albeit separated) mother when she had her baby, her situation is much the same as an unmarried lone mother’s; her baby was born into a lone parent family and it is only official marital status which separates the unmarried mother from Andrea. It is also likely that as her child grows up, s/he will see themselves and their family in the same way that the child of an unmarried or teenage mother might. It would also be interesting to contrast Andrea’s situation with a cohabiting nineteen year old who is employed and has her own flat – officially, this nineteen year old is what Americans call an unwed teenage mother, but which family fits the lone parent stereotype? This case illustrates the difficulty in categorising lone parent families and undermines Halsey’s and Murray’s concepts of “illegitimacy” and “the underclass”. This case also highlights the fact that categories of lone mothers or divisions between them may be more manufactured than realistic.

The media portrayal of lone mothers as beset with problems and unable to cope is challenged completely by the interviews in this study. The statements made by these unmarried lone mothers reveal that they were not brainwashed by the moral panics and media portrayals of lone motherhood, and as a consequence they did not try to avoid lone motherhood – some even chose to become lone mothers.

Lynn split up with her boyfriend before finding out she was pregnant:

He said, ‘we’d better get married’ which I thought was pathetic [laughs]. I mean, we’d been apart and we’d rowed like crazy…And I had by that time decided I was going to do it [have the baby]…I’d do it alone and I was quite prepared to do that. (Rowlingson and Mackay 1998:79)

Carol ended a seven-year relationship with her boyfriend, who was married, before finding out she was pregnant:

I just decided that I’d had enough of the relationship…I told him, ‘that’s it, finished’…and I found out I was pregnant and no way did I want anything to do with him. So I decided to have [my baby] on my own.    (Rowlingson and Mackay 1998:79)

Della’s boyfriend also asked her to marry him and her mother encouraged her to marry him. Della commented “My mum’s got quite strong sort of Christian views…but I explained to her that having a baby was one thing, but getting married…”. She declined her boyfriend’s offer because “he was just really young and immature and…not the marrying sort of material…completely irresponsible.”(Ibid:80)

Similarly, Lisa commented “there was no question of ‘oh, I’m pregnant, is he going to stay with me?’ because I didn’t want him to stay with me.” (Ibid:81)

Rowlingson and Mackay concluded that “lone motherhood is not a problem which these women sought to avoid but, in some way, a solution or welcome avenue down which they are prepared to venture.” (Rowlingson and Mackay 1998:82)

The findings of this UK study are a perfect match with a later study in Philadelphia. This Philadelphia study is important because it only includes some of the poorest, youngest, least educated lone mothers in the entire United States. These families live in the inner city where most of the inhabitants are high school dropouts and drug abuse, murder and gang violence are a way of life. These mothers are the worst of the worst. It is to them that politicians refer when talking about single mums leeching money off the welfare state. Many of them fit the stereotype: they are teenage mothers, they are uneducated, and they are receiving ‘welfare’ (the US equivalent of income support). So it is surprising that the study concluded that these women were far from irresponsible, neglectful, lazy or promiscuous.

The study involved a team of sociologists, one of whom moved to Philadelphia’s inner city for two and a half years for the purposes of the study. The study concluded that these women had become lone mothers because marriage was very highly valued among the poorest Americans and marriage holds a much greater significance for the inner city population than for the middle class. Women had such a high standard for potential marriage-partners that most never married at all, as the available men were not ‘marriage material’. Women would only marry responsible, mature, caring men who had steady full-time employment and were financially secure. Unfortunately for them, the inner city has more than its fair share of druggies, drug dealers, criminals and men who are employed in criminal activities – hardly father or husband material by anyone’s standards. As Wilson (1987) noted, unemployment rates are high for many inner-city men, and this may dramatically hinder their marriage prospects. Being a financial provider is the traditional role for men in families (Nock, 1998; Townsend, 2002), and many women view an ideal husband from thisperspective (Raley & Bratter, 2003). Providing financial security for a family can be exceptionally difficult formen in low-income communities because of poor economic structural opportunities. Empirical studies have suggested that low income mothers desire to get married (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Lichter, Batson, & Brown, 2004; Waller, 2002), however, there are many barriers preventing them from doing so (Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005; Lopoo & Carlson, 2008; Raley & Bratter, 2003; Smock, Manning, & Porter, 2005).

 

However, some lone mothers in other studies do not want to marry/cohabit. Edin and Kefalas (2005) reported in a sample of low-income single mothers that 30% did not plan to marry in their lifetime or did not have an opinion about marrying in the future. This is similar to findings by Lichter et al. (2004) who reported that 31% of single mothers in their sample did not expect to marry. A strategy employed by some single mothers is to avoid potentially unstable relationships and marriage by focusing on their children, thus providing stable healthy family environments (Edin & Kefalas). Edin and Kefalas found that some women want to be financially independent before moving into a marriage in the event that their relationships end in divorce and leave them financially vulnerable.

 

“A major theme that emerged in this data about why women are not interested in marriage was the influence of children. Introducing new men into the home and exposing children to men so that they may become attached were concerns that forestalled mothers from dating—regardless of the age of their children.”

 

Indeed, some mothers were waiting until their children had moved out or were married/cohabiting before they would even consider entering a relationship. They wanted to make sure their children were independent, established in a career or finished with their higher education. Other mothers were more education-focussed and wanted to complete their own education and establish themselves in employment before finding men.

 

Ramona, a 25-year-old single mother of one, stated: “I think it’s just that I’m not out there really looking for anybody right now. I’m more self-centered on myself right now. I want to get through school, and I want to get into employment . . . And I want to get things going for myself before I do anything. . . It’s just for me and my son. I got a son to raise. I think that’s why I haven’t looked into, you know, having a relationship.”

 

The lone mothers in the Philadelphia study became pregnant at ages ranging from 14 to 22, and though some dropped out of high school, they later returned to education and are now employed; some did not drop out. Even the mothers on welfare were not deliberately unemployed; they were seeking employment and hopeful that their children would go to college and ‘get out’ of the poverty cycle or at least graduate from high school.

 

The only finding which differs from the UK study was that the Philadelphia teenagers shocked the researchers by their knowledge of child raising. This chance discovery was made when one of the sociologists’ three year old daughter toddled around the room while she talked to a group of young teenagers. They automatically watched the girl, keeping one eye on her while they listened to the sociologist. This prompted the sociologist to ask them what they knew about children and it transpired that the teenagers knew how to make up a baby bottle, change diapers and so on; they were amazed that the sociologist hadn’t learned to do these things until she had her first baby aged 30.

Further research with other groups in the inner city revealed that teenagers are used to babysitting their nieces, nephews and young cousins and are far more competent at supervising young children than their more privileged counterparts. This may be a contributing factor towards teenage pregnancy in inner city areas – parenthood may simply be far easier to cope with for an inner city teenager than a middle-class one because the inner city mother has little to learn about the basics of childcare.

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