A study published this month in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health offers the first large cross-national comparison of the long-term health risks associated with single motherhood.
Analyzing survey data from 25,125 women aged 50 and older in 15 different Western countries, the researchers found that women who had ever acted as a single mother had an increased risk of physical disability and poor self-reported health when they were older. The association was strongest in the United States, England, and the Scandinavian countries, and less consistent in Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe.
The researchers found that women who had ever acted as a single mother had an increased risk of physical disability and poor self-reported health when they were older.
These results shouldn’t be too surprising in cultures organized around the assumption that most adults—particularly parents—are arranged into couples. As I wrote in response to another study suggesting benefits to marriage, these sorts of findings are a bit like a study “showing that the world’s a little bit easier to navigate if you’re right-handed.”
It may seem remarkable that the added hardship of solo parenting in a married world could affect women’s health so many decades later. But this finding is in line with a growing body of research showing that periods of chronic stress—whether they’re associated with growing up in poverty or becoming unemployed or caring for a sick family member—can influence mental and physical health for years to come.
And being a single mother is certainly stressful for many—particularly in the U.S. Indeed, the only unexpected finding, according to the researchers, was that the U.S. wasn’t the most dangerous place to be a single mom. “We had anticipated that single mothers in the United States would do poorly given that so many single moms are poor or low-wage workers and that the United States lacks most basic social protections for single mothers compared to other countries,” Lisa Berkman, the study’s co-author, told Healthline.
Surprisingly, single mothers in Sweden and Denmark face a similarly high relative health risk, even despite their generous maternity leave and a robust social safety net that keeps overall poverty rates lower and health far better compared to the U.S. One guess the researchers offer for this phenomenon: Perhaps since Scandinavia has high rates of employment, single mothers there—while materially considerably better off than their U.S. counterparts—still experience lots of stress balancing work and family.
Which is not to say, of course, that those Scandinavian policies aren’t important. Berkman thinks that the U.S.’s egregious lack of support for all working mothers may be one of the forces behind the fact that American women’s life expectancy has fallen behind that of our European counterparts in the last few decades. Another recent study she co-authored, for example, found an association between paid maternity leave and better mental health later in life among women in 13 European countries. “We suspect that the basic social protection was still very helpful to [Scandinavian single mothers] but not sufficient to protect these women,” Berkman explained.
Overall, the cross-country comparison suggests that one factor that may act as a protective buffer—at least health-wise—is a strong informal support network. Previous studies have found that both Scandinavia and the U.S. have relatively high levels of social isolation. But in Southern Europe, where there is a greater emphasis on the extended family, single motherhood wasn’t correlated with an increased risk of long-term health effects. Even within the U.S., cultural differences in family dynamics seem to matter: The researchers point out that Latina single mothers, who tend to have more family support, don’t face an increased threat to their health either.
This study is a particularly timely reminder of the disadvantages lone mothers still endure: The cultural conversation about being a single woman in the U.S. has taken a turn toward the celebratory recently, thanks to Kate Bolick’s much-discussed new memoir, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. To be sure, Bolick’s account of embracing the freedom to build a life and relationships outside the bounds of marriage is certainly an important corrective to decades of cultural messages insisting that being single—for a woman—is a mark of failure and an inherently pitiable state.
But as Samhita Mukhopadhyay recently explained at the Nation, embracing your “inner spinster” isn’t enough to change the social and economic pressures less privileged women—particularly single mothers—face in the U.S. “Even with declining rates of marriage and more proudly single people than ever before, the consequences of being single are still real—and harder for some women to bear than others,” she wrote. For every single-and-loving-it woman, there are others for whom “single may not be an empowering choice, but instead a cast upon reality full of judgments and unfair treatment.”
The demographics of single mothers in the U.S. have been shifting slightly in recent years. After climbing for decades, the overall birthrate for unmarried women has declined by 14 percent since 2008—particularly among teenagers, black and Latina women, and those without a college degree. However, it rose among one small subgroup during that time: women aged 35 and older. As Clair Cain Miller notes at the New York Times, “In many cases, they are having babies outside of marriage by choice”—either with a co-habitating partner or on their own—“with more sources and education than the typical single mother.”
This trend is likely to continue as the marriage rate reaches an all-time low next year. But as privileged women increasingly embrace single motherhood, we can’t forget about the women without the financial resources and social support to avoid the “cycles of disadvantage” that remain a reality for single mothers in this country. At minimum, we need a comprehensive policy shift—from better access to family planning to an increase in the minimum wage to, well, a whole new welfare system. At best, we need to reject our individualist culture’s myth that any of us can and should do it all by ourselves—either as partnered duos or super-empowered singles. Our long-term health is telling a very different story.
The Gender Gap explores the persisting gender inequalities of the modern age and society's unwillingness to grapple with them.