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Children conceived by donor insemination do just as well in single-mother families as in two-parent families. So found a UK study of 51 single-mother families and 52 two-parent families with primary school aged children.
The study, carried out by Susan Golombok and colleagues at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, interviewed mothers at home, finding out about the children’s behaviour and the mothers’ response to it. The researchers looked at positives – the degree of mother-child warmth, enjoyment of play, time spent with the child – and negatives such as criticism and conflict. They also assessed the mother’s psychological well-being using a questionnaire.
The child’s behaviour was assessed through an interview with the mother and a questionnaire completed by the child’s teacher. The mother-child relationship was assessed by interview and by giving the two a task to do together – to copy a picture of a house with an Etch-A-Sketch toy, with two dials that allow one person to draw vertically and the other to draw horizontally.
The study found no difference in parenting quality across the two groups. There was a correlation between financial hardship and psychological difficulties for the child, but this applied equally to the single-mother and two-parent families.
How does this square with a large body of research that shows that children born to single and unmarried mothers generally have more psychological and behavioural problems?
The key difference is that the mothers in this sample made an active choice to parent alone. The children had not been exposed to parental conflict and were less likely to have experienced economic hardship. Single mothers by choice are generally well-educated women in professional occupations who become mothers in their late 30s or early 40s. These children are extremely wanted, born to mothers who have gone to great lengths to have them. It may be that this high degree of intention and planning to be a single mother contributes to making the positive outcomes similar to those in a two-parent family.
The study found that in one respect, the single-mother families in the study were more positive than the two-parent families: a lower frequency of conflict between mothers and children. Could that be because solo mothers do not have to cope with the potentially stressful experience of their male partner’s infertility and his lack of a genetic relationship with the child?
The researchers conclude that this research contributes to the growing body of evidence that what is important for children’s well-being is not family structure, but family processes.
Golombok S, Zadeh S, Imrie S, Smith V & Freeman T (2016), Single mothers by choice: Mother-child relationships and children’s psychological adjustment, Journal of Family Psychology, 30.4