I have been writing about single parents and their children for quite some time (here are some links), but every time I do, I feel a bit guilty. That’s because, really, I’m mostly writing only about single mothers. In my defense, I like to base my writings on research, and there has not been nearly as much research on single fathers as single mothers. There’s a good reason for that, too: There are far more single mothers than single fathers.
Now that is starting to change. The number of single fathers is increasing dramatically, and social scientists are catching up with them and learning about their lives. Be prepared to set aside your stereotypes and caricatures of “deadbeat dads.”
The Numbers: The Rise of Single Fathers
First, the numbers. A new Pew Research Center report shows that in 1960, there were fewer than 300,000 single-father households. By 2011, that number had jumped to 2.6 million. That’s huge – a ninefold increase.
There are still many more single-mother households than single-father ones. The latter comprise 24 percent of all single-parent households. Still, that’s a big increase from 1960, when single-father households were 14 percent of all single-parent households.
One common perception of single fathers actually is true – many (though not all) are struggling financially. In analyses that adjust for the fact that single-father households include fewer people than married-father households, the median annual income for the single-dad household is just $40,000. Compare that to $70,000 for the married-dad households.
The first thing that jumps to mind when I see figures like that is singlism – the single fathers are targets of discrimination, getting paid less than the married fathers simply because they are single. However, the single fathers differ from the married fathers in too many other ways to know whether their marital status is what is making the difference. For example, the single fathers are, on the average, younger, less educated, and less likely to be White. To know whether marital status matters above and beyond those other factors, the appropriate statistical analyses would need to be conducted, and in the Pew report, I don’t think they were.
Single fathers, though, are doing well financially compared to single mothers. Their “median adjusted annual income for a three-person household” is just $26,000. So that’s 26K for single mothers, 40K for single fathers, and 70K for married fathers.
More single-mother than single-father households are living at or below the poverty level, 43 percent vs. 24 percent. But don’t single mothers and single fathers differ in other ways that could be relevant? Yes, but one of them should have resulted in better outcomes for the single mothers – they are somewhat better educated than the single fathers.
The Psychology: What Are Single Fathers Really Like?
Now, on to the psychology. What are these single men like as fathers? Kathryn Edin, who did some wonderful work on single mothers, has a new book out (with Timothy Nelson) about single fathers in the inner city, Doing the best I can. These fathers are just one segment of all single fathers, but they are particularly relevant to the pervasive beliefs about deadbeat dads. I don’t have the book yet, so for now, I’ll just share what Hanna Rosin had to say in her review of the book at Slate:
“What they found is that for these so called ‘deadbeat dads,’ the relationship between the man and the mother of his child is usually pretty shaky, but the father-child bond is utterly central to the man’s life, so central that these dads often sound like the most sentimental of mothers. They hate the idea that they are just a paycheck, especially since they usually aren’t providing much of a steady one. (That’s what the moms are doing.) So instead ‘they insist that their role is to ‘be there,’’ the authors observe, ‘to show love and spend quality time.’”
The Word Choice: About the Term ‘Single Fathers’
Finally, a word about the term “single fathers.” As I have discussed previously, I don’t like terms like “single father” or “single mother.” For one thing, parenting is the key criterion, so why specify marital status at all? If we have a good reason for wanting to do so, then married parents should get the same qualifier. If we are going to call some people ‘single parents,’ then we should call others ‘married parents,’ and not just parents.
Another reason is that single can, to some people, imply isolation. It can suggest that single parents are raising their children single-handedly. We know that’s not true for many single mothers. What I will be looking to learn when I do read Edin’s book and any other relevant research is whether single fathers have other people in their social networks who are helpful to them in raising their kids.
[Notes. (1) Thanks to my older brother for the tip about the new report. (2) To learn about my new book project, click here.]
Father and son image available from Shutterstock.