Why you should care
Because the number of women who choose to raise kids alone is growing.
The staff of the nursery school where Jane Mattes wanted to enroll her son assured her that he was a “great kid,” bright and well-behaved — yet they rejected him, citing concerns that he came from a “broken family.” Sure, Mattes was a single mother, but not because of divorce or widowhood: She had chosen single motherhood. At age 36, she had become pregnant by someone she was casually dating. With her fertility declining and no serious romantic prospects, the New York City psychotherapist had kept the pregnancy. The way Mattes puts it: “Nothing was broken.”
While there’s no national survey data specifically on women like Mattes — so-called single mothers by choice — evidence suggests their numbers are on the rise. According to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Although birth rates for unmarried women younger than 35 have declined since 2007, they rose for those 35 and older.
Their growing ranks have raised the question: How do their children turn out? Mattes admits that question lingered in her own mind for years. Her son, now 37, has an MBA, a successful career and a happy marriage — and new research suggests other children of single mothers by choice also do just fine. A study presented in July at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology found that children born to single mothers by choice fared just as well as those born into heterosexual two-parent families.
It’s not single parenthood in and of itself. It’s more about how people parent.
Sophie Zadeh, University of Cambridge
Earlier studies had revealed that children of single mothers are more likely to suffer from developmental problems, but that research had focused on children of divorced mothers. Mathilde Brewaeys, a research assistant at VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, wanted to show that the outcome would differ for children of single mothers who hadn’t undergone this trauma.
To find out, she recruited 69 single mothers by choice and 59 mothers in heterosexual two-parent families who had children ranging in age from 18 months to 6 years. The mothers completed questionnaires designed to assess their children’s well-being — for instance, whether their child had internalizing (acting sad or withdrawn) or externalizing (getting mad or yelling) problems. They also responded to questions meant to evaluate parental factors that can influence a child’s well-being, such as stress, emotional involvement and social support networks.
Brewaeys saw no significant differences in children’s well-being or in parental stress or emotional involvement between family types. But single mothers by choice did score significantly higher on the amount of social support they received and the amount of support they wanted.
Sure enough, sans spouse, “we often make conscious efforts to connect with community in stronger ways,” says Mikki Morrissette, a single mother by choice of two in Minnesota (although she prefers the term “choice mom”) and author of Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide. Both she and Mattes signed their sons up for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, recruited friends and family to serve as male role models and started organizations for single mothers by choice and those considering single motherhood.
To be sure, the study examined a small group of highly educated women, which may not represent all single mothers by choice, notes Sakari Lemola of the University of Warwick. He adds that since it involved a Dutch sample, the findings may not extend to other countries. And it looked only at children up to age 6. “You don’t know what will happen later on,” Brewaeys says. She hopes to conduct a long-term study that would also include LGBT couples.
“It’s not single parenthood in and of itself,” says Sophie Zadeh of the University of Cambridge, who has also researched single mothers by choice. “It’s more about how people parent.” She notes that developmental psychologists have found that the emotional and financial instability that can result from divorce — not single parenthood itself — seem to damage children’s well-being. Zadeh adds that the children of the single mothers by choice who have participated in her research are “extremely wanted and very much planned,” which may also nurture their well-being.
But single mothers by choice still face challenges, such as raising a family on a single income as well as stigma, although Morrissette notes the stigma has softened into more of a judgment of the choice to have children alone as “selfish and too hard.” Mattes has received blog comments calling single mothers of choice “monsters.” Many countries ban single women from receiving fertility treatments. But Brewaeys’ research “could change the conversation,” says Pamela Smock, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “There are a number of family contexts in which children can do really well.”