In Singled Out, I debunked myths about single people. Many of my chapter titles make fun of specific myths and scare stories, such as this one: “Attention, Single Parents: Your Kids are Doomed.” When it comes to single parenting, a lot of the singlist bashing is wrapped in a faux concern for the children. Poor things. They are being raised by single parents. They don’t have that magical marriage in their lives.
The latest research is targeting single mothers. We are now told that they are doomed, too – to poorer health than those far superior mothers who are married. The basis of the claim seems, on the face of it, rather impressive – a study of more than 25,000 women from 15 different nations. The researchers documented who among the women had been a single mother before the age of 50 and then looked at their current health and functional abilities later, when they were over the age of 50. The first sentence of their conclusions, on the first page of their article, was used as the basis of headlines in stories that blanketed the media: “Single motherhood during early adulthood or mid-adulthood is associated with poorer health in later life.”
The Today Show picked up on it, and if you read to the end of the article they posted on their website, you will find out just what they tell single mothers to do. Can you guess what it is? Oh, yeah – get married!
I’m here to tell you what you did not read in any (well, hardly any) other article or media spot about this study: (1) The sweeping conclusion – single moms have worse health later in life! – is not so sweeping at all. There are entire regions in which it is not true at all. (2) There are many factors, other than single parenting, that could account for the results. (3) The study did not – and could not – demonstrate that single parenting caused poorer health. Even when there does seem to be a statistical relationship between single parenting and worse health later on, single parenting may not actually be the key driving factor in the poorer health.
One happy aside before I make my case: Amidst all the matrimaniacal and credulous coverage of this research, there were a few notes of skepticism. The story on Yahoo raised some of the same concerns I’m expressing here (okay, true confessions – I talked to the reporter) and on The Conversation, Susan Harkness’s second sentence, after describing the typical summary of the findings, is this: “But the situation isn’t as clear as this might suggest.”
Some of the Key Details about the Study
There were three measures of health and functional abilities after the age of 50:
- Participants were asked if they had any difficulties with the activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating, and bathing. (I’ll call this “trouble with easy stuff.”)
- Participants were asked if they had any difficulties with activities such as cooking, shopping, or managing medications or money. (I’ll call this “trouble with harder stuff.”)
- Participants were asked to rate their own health. The researchers compared those who said their health was fair or poor to those who said their health was good or very good or excellent. (This procedure, by the way, loses a lot of the information in the data.)
The 15 countries were categorized into 6 nations or regions:
- Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden)
- Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland)
- Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain)
- Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic, Poland)
Overall rates of single motherhood, among those who are mothers (as of the mid-2000s):
- 38.2%, Scandinavia
- 32.8%, US
- 22.8%, Western Europe
- 22.0%, England
- 20.4%, Eastern Europe
- 10.2%, Southern Europe
What the Study Really Did and Did Not Show
The authors (with some qualifications) and the media want to pin the poorer health of the single mothers on their single motherhood.
Here are just a few of the possible reasons why the women who raised kids as single mothers had worse health later on, other than the fact that they were single mothers:
- We don’t need a reason – they DON’T have worse health! For two of the six regions, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, encompassing 5 of the 15 nations, the women with experience as single mothers had health and functional abilities that were just as good as the married mothers. (In Scandinavia, there were differences in only 2 of the 3 measures, and in Western Europe, there were differences in only 1 of the 3. In the US, the authors said, there were differences on all three measures. But later in the article, they mention in passing, as if it were of nothing but passing significance, that in the US, Hispanic single mothers had health and functional abilities that were just as good as the Hispanic married mothers.)
- Income and wealth. The authors acknowledge that in every region, the women with experience as single mothers had less income and wealth than the married mothers. So they did a set of analyses in which they statistically controlled for the differences in income and wealth between the single and the married mothers. Now look what happens:
- In the U.S, there are no longer any differences at all between the single and married mothers in the easy stuff or the harder stuff of daily living, and the difference in their overall health is now a lot smaller. What this suggests is: If single mothers in the US had the same income and wealth as married mothers, they would have no more trouble than the married mothers with the tasks of everyday life, and their health would be more similar too.
- In Scandinavia, the single and married mothers no longer differ in their overall health. They don’t differ in their difficulties with the hard stuff either (but that was true even before income and wealth were taken into account).
- In Western Europe, that one measure that favored the married mothers now favors them a bit less, and in England, where all three measures favored the married mothers, the differences are all reduced, but they are still there.
- There are no differences whatsoever between the single and the married mothers on any of the three measures for women in Southern Europe or Eastern Europe. That was already true, even before taking income and wealth into account.
- In a study of health, what do you think the authors never asked about, and never even mentioned? Access to affordable health care! Who do you think has more access – the married mothers, who might have a spouse’s plan to cover them if they don’t have their own, and who have more money to afford health care anyway, or the single mothers? And who do you think had more access back in the days when they were raising their young kids?
- Policies that protect and benefit them. If you have followed the same-sex marriage debate, you know that in the US there are more than1,000 laws at the federal level alone that protect and benefit only those who are legally married. Many are directly relevant to economic well-being. Others are directly relevant to health. One example is the Family and Medical Leave Act. Anyone in an eligible workplace can take time off to care for a parent or child. If you are married, you can also take time off to care for your spouse – and your spouse can take time off to care for you. If you are single? Too bad! You lose. No one – not a close friend or sibling or any other relative (other than those already covered) can take time off to care for you when you are ill. So you’ll just have to go on caring for your kids, and showing up for work, while sick. Gee, I wonder whether that could result in worse health later on.
- Employment. The authors acknowledge this one. They don’t know whether the single and married mothers differed in their employment histories, either when they were raising their young kids, or when they were surveyed after the age of 50. If the single mothers were less likely to be employed, then they probably had less money, and they also had no access to health coverage through an employer. Plus, employment itself, even apart from the money it brings in, seems to be beneficial. For example, according to researcher Susan Harkness, “lone mothers who worked were no more likely to have poor mental health than those with partners, and had much better mental health than those not in work.”
- Stigma. Single parents are stigmatized, and married parents are celebrated. That can’t be good for single parents’ health. The authors did some analyses to see which single parents had particularly poor health, and they found that the single parents who were divorced had worse health than those who were widowed, and those who became single parents at younger ages had worse outcomes than those who were older when they became parents. Those differences map onto differences in stigma – we stigmatize divorced mothers more than widowed ones, and we stigmatize the youngest single mothers more than the older ones.
In Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and among Hispanic women in the US, women with experiences as single mothers have health and functional abilities that are just as good as those of married women. There no reason whatsoever to scare them with headlines proclaiming their doom, or gratuitously tell them to get married.
One way single and married mothers do differ is in their income and wealth. If single mothers had the same income and wealth as married mothers, they would do just as well as married women on most measures of health in most of the 15 countries.
So you know what single mothers should do instead of just looking to marriage as the magical road to good health? Advocate for policies that are fair to all single people and to all workers and to all care-givers. If politicians don’t work for decent policies, throw the bums out. And if they don’t support single parents in their policies, and they stigmatize those parents, too, then throw them out and make a stink about it. We should all do these things, not just single parents. And we should all – not just our political leaders – refrain from stigmatizing single parents.
Americans step in and out of marriage and in and out of romantic partnerships more often than people in any other Western nation. There is little evidence that this Marriage-Go-Round is a good thing, and some indications that it is risky. For single people who want to get married, and have found someone they believe in, then for them, marriage is a real option. But to tell other single mothers (or any single people), who may not want to marry at all, or who have not found someone they want to marry, that they should get married in order to have better health – well, in my opinion, that is irresponsible, bordering on unethical.
Research has not shown that getting married causes people to have better health or more happiness or longer lives. It can never show any such thing definitively, because we cannot do the most compelling research, in which people are randomly assigned to different marital (or parental) statuses. But even the research that is the best that scholars can do, within the available constraints, does not show that getting married makes people definitively or lastingly happier or healthier. Sometimes it is the people who stay single who do best. (I’ve made my strongest case for this, ever, in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong. That’s a collection of 41 articles. I have also made available the key chapter in that collection, plus an introduction, in a brief and even more affordable book, The Science of Marriage: What We Know That Just Isn’t So. Coming in the next month or so: A collection of articles on family in the lives of single people, including single parents and singles with no children.)
[Note: Typically, what I post here at this “Single at Heart” blog appears only here. Occasionally, however, a study gets so much attention, and is represented in such misleading ways, that I want to talk back in more than one place. This is one of those instances. This post does include a section I did not include elsewhere, on overall rates of single motherhood in the 6 regions.]
Single mom photo available from Shutterstock