The past decades have ushered in many big demographic changes in the U.S. One of the most striking is the rise of single parenting. Recent estimates indicate that more than 40 percent of the women who give birth are not married.

As single parenting is becoming more commonplace, is it also becoming less stigmatized? Do single mothers feel judged? Don’t married mothers feel judged, too?

The results of an important new survey address those questions (and others, too, about our increasingly diverse family forms and ways of living). The nationally-representative online survey was conducted by Family Story, “a nonprofit that does research, communications and storytelling about today’s families,” together with the Lake Research Partners.

Participants in the Family Story survey were 1,058 women, including married and unmarried women, and women with and without children. Results were reported separately for three groups: (1) married women, with and without children; (2) unmarried mothers; and (3) unmarried women with no children. They answered questions about their perceptions of single and married mothers, as well as their own experiences of feeling judged.

The Cruelest Judgments of Single Mothers: Most Refrain from Them

Only a minority of participants agreed with the meanest judgments of single parents:

Asked about the statement that “single mothers who are poor have made bad choices and are responsible for the hardships they face,” between 20 percent and 34 percent agreed.

Reacting to the statement, “It is not OK to be a single mother, even if she can afford to care for her child,” between 14 percent and 22 percent agreed.”

Although the percentage of women agreeing with these statements was low for all three groups, for both questions, the highest rate of agreement was for the married women – they were the most judgmental.

In the public discourse about marriage and parenting, there are some who insist that people should only become parents if they get married first. The Family Story survey approached that issue with this question:

“There are people who believe that if a woman wants to have and raise children, she should be married first. What do these people not understand? Be specific.”

The most common answer offered by the single mothers was that life doesn’t always work out that way. Thirty percent said that. Among the single women with no children, the most common answer, offered by 23 percent of them, was that you don’t need marriage to have kids. The answer given by the largest number of married women, 24 percent, was that they agreed with the statement – women should be married first if they want to have kids.

Getting Judged: The Hierarchy

All three groups described a similar hierarchy of harsh judgments. The way they see it, married mothers are judged least harshly, and single mothers are judged most harshly, with single fathers in between.

Asked about their own experiences of feeling judged, the results were similar (though no men were included in the survey). More single mothers (45 percent) than married mothers (37 percent) felt judged. I will take it as somewhat encouraging that there were more single mothers who did not feel judged for being a single mother (49 percent) than who did feel judged (45 percent). (The others said they didn’t know.)

Single Mothers and Married Mothers Feel Judged for Different Things

Single mothers were given a list of ways that other single mothers said they were judged, and asked which ones they had experienced. Similarly, married mothers were shown a list of ways that other married mothers said they were judged, and asked which ones they had experienced.

Here are the kinds of judgments experienced by at least 40 percent of the women in each group.

Single mothers said they were most often judged for:

  1. Not having enough money (50 percent, compared to 39% for married mothers)
  2. Not picking a better father for my children (46 percent, compared to 18% for married mothers)
  3. The choices I made that led me to become a single mother (45 percent)
  4. Not being in a romantic relationship with or married to my children’s father (44 percent)
  5. Making parenting mistakes sometimes (42 percent, compared to 47% for married mothers)
  6. Getting pregnant with my children (40 percent, compared to 16% for married mothers)

Married mothers said they were most often judged for:

  1. The decisions I make for my children (47 percent, compared to 33% for single mothers)
  2. Making parenting mistakes sometimes (47 percent, compared to 42% for single mothers)

The first thing to notice is that there are more ways in which the single mothers feel judged than the married mothers (using a minimum of 40 percent as the cutoff). This is consistent with the other findings from the survey – that overall, people think single mothers are judged more than married mothers and that more single mothers than married mothers feel judged.

Second, judgments about married mothers go right to their parenting decisions. The fact that they became parents is not in question the way it is for single mothers. The latter perceive a whole symphony of judgments: Why didn’t you pick a better father? Why didn’t you make different choices? Why aren’t you married to your children’s father? Why aren’t you at least in a romantic relationship with him? And why did you get pregnant?

It is telling that married mothers don’t need to worry about getting judged for getting married the way single mothers worry about being judged for not getting married. It is as if the decision to marry is beyond reproach. But there are some fathers who are cold, negligent, cruel, and abusive. Why is it right for the married mothers to have married those men (and stayed with them), but wrong for the single mothers not to have married them?

Finally, the matter of money. Single mothers are more often judged for not having enough money. Often single mothers, without a second person’s income to draw from, and financially disadvantaged in systematic ways because they are single, do have less money than married mothers. But to judge someone for not having enough money is to blame them. A judgment is a way of saying: it’s your fault. You should have made different choices.

When we attribute responsibility for not having enough money only to the person, we are ignoring a whole other panoply of possibilities. For example, some people don’t have much money because their parents did not have much money and could not send them to college or support them while they took unpaid internships or training programs that might have been a ticket to better jobs.

When we blame individuals for not making the right choices in their personal lives, we are overlooking other choices that could have been made by our policy makers and institutions. For example, political leaders could do more to prioritize better-paying jobs with better benefits. They could choose to implement policies that assure that no one is bankrupted by their own or their children’s illnesses or injuries. The choices made at the level of the entire society are more consequential than the personal choices made by individuals; they can impact the lives of an entire nation in one fell swoop.

Photo by Still Vision