Is Single Motherhood Bad for Society, or is Society Bad for Single Motherhood?

Why is it that most forms of family diversity are accepted, yet single motherhood is still stigmatized?

Last week, Pew Social & Demographic Trends released a report that summarized public opinions regarding changes in family structure. A national survey asked people whether seven trends in family structure were a good thing for society, a bad thing for society, or don’t make much of a difference. These trends included:

  •  more unmarried couples raising children
  •  more gay and lesbian couples raising children
  •  more people living together without getting married
  •  more mothers of young children working outside the home
  •  more people of different races marrying each other
  •  more women not ever having children
  •  more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.


Of these seven different family arrangements, single motherhood was rated as the worst situation. Nearly three-quarters (69%) of all respondents said this trend was bad for society. Overall, it seems as though the public views any type of couplehood (unmarried, gay and lesbian, unmarried, interracial) as more favorable than single women. Why is it that most forms of family diversity are accepted, yet single motherhood is still stigmatized?


Unfortunately, as this is public opinion data, we don’t know exactly why so many people feel that single motherhood is bad for society. The most likely explanations are a prevailing belief that women should not have sex outside of marriage (yes, some people still believe that!) or that children of single mothers will not benefit from the resources available to children of two parents. By not considering contextual factors that lead to single motherhood, this view lets men off the hook too easily and doesn’t acknowledge the many hardworking, loving single mothers who are doing the best they can to raise healthy children given their circumstances. As approximately 50% of pregnancies in the US are unintended, I would venture to guess that, with the exception of women like Minnie Driver and Padma Lakshmi, most women who get pregnant don’t intend to have a child without a male partner to help raise them.


Believing that single motherhood is “bad for society” likely has policy implications that directly impact single mothers or would-be single mothers. What can we, as maternal and child health professionals, do to change this negative perception and provide more resources for single mothers? Well, it may be helpful to learn about those persons who believe single motherhood is bad for society so we can tailor messages in support of our programs and views for their consumption.


In order to identify the characteristics of groups who hold similar views regarding changes in family structure, Pew researchers conducted a cluster analysis. This analysis revealed that respondents could be categorized into one of three groups: Accepters, Rejecters, and Skeptics. Whereas 50% to 66% of the Accepters believed that all of the trends make no difference to society, nearly all (87% of more) of the Rejecters believed that more children raised by single mothers, unmarried couples, gay and lesbian couples as well as more people living together without getting married was bad for society. The Skeptics were very similar to the Accepters, except for their unilateral disapproval of single motherhood. More than 99% of this group believed that single motherhood was bad for society, but 50% or more believed other diverse family structures either didn’t make a difference or were good for society.



Recently, there have been calls to eliminate Title X funding and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Without these family planning resources, we will likely see an increase in single mothers. Thus, we can use these public opinion findings to frame our arguments for the importance of funding for Title X clinics and Planned Parenthood in a way that will be agreeable to Skeptics and Rejecters. Republicans account for 30% and 54% of these two groups, respectively. Given their opposition to single motherhood, we can argue that access to contraception is a means of preventing an increase in the number of single mothers and thus funding should not be eliminated. Also, if motherhood is indeed bad for society, single mothers could surely benefit from social programs designed to mitigate the impact of these (supposed) negative family conditions. We can use similar arguments to oppose proposed cuts in WIC funding and community-oriented policing services (COPS) programs.


If we are to be successful, we must learn how to use the opinions of those who don’t agree with us to achieve our own aims. By arguing that federal funding for clinics and organizations that provide contraceptive services can decrease the incidence of single motherhood, we may convince Skeptics and Rejecters of its value. By defending WIC and COPS funding, we can support single mothers in their efforts to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Both steps will contribute to making society a better place for single mothers and their children, one in which they are given the same respect as traditional families and the chance to flourish without any preconconceived notions regarding their impact on society.


By: Felisa Gonzales