In a recent Psychology Today article, “One Parent Can Do Just as Good a Job as Two, Women Say,” Bella DePaulo shared findings from Family Story’s national survey of about 1,000 women. As DePaulo reported, the online survey found that “more than 70% of participants believed that a single parent can do just as good a job as two parents.” This included 70% of married women (with and without kids), as well as 78% of unmarried moms. Additionally, more than 60% of the women “agreed that children do best with multiple adults invested and helping, but that two married parents are not necessary.”
Commenting on the results, Family Story’s co-founder and director, Nicole Rodgers said, “The family is always evolving, and what we are seeing in this survey, in part, reflects women’s liberation from one narrow path. That’s a good thing.”
But is it really a “good thing” that a majority of women believe “one parent can do just as good a job as two” or that married parents are unnecessary? These findings should disturb us, especially since it’s women and children who suffer the most from the absence of marriage.
I grew up with a loving single parent who raised two girls and a boy after a divorce, so I was curious to see if my mom would agree that “one parent can do just as good a job as two”? Her answer surprised me: “I would say no—today,” she said, adding, “but when I was raising you, I thought I was enough.”
My mom’s feelings have changed over the years, in part, because she is once again a “single parent”—this time raising her teenage grandson. Even though she knows it’s best for him to be with her full time, she often feels anxious about raising another child alone, especially a boy: How can she protect him from the suffering her own children experienced, and how can she ever fill the hole in his heart left by his absent parents? These worries keep her up at night. With years of single motherhood behind her, she realizes that her best was not enough to provide her kids with the other parent they needed and desired. In some ways, her grandson is now suffering from the repercussions of father loss in his own mother’s life.
Despite her fears, my mom is determined to provide her grandson with the one thing she knows she can give him: unconditional love and stability. Her hope is that with the support of family and the faith community, this will be enough to help him overcome an unstable childhood.
The father-hunger my mother observed in her children and now in her grandson is not unique to our family. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Essence magazine editor Regina R. Robertson about her new book, He Never Came Home, which includes 22 essays from women who lost their fathers to death, divorce, or abandonment. The common theme throughout the book is father-longing. Most of the women who shared their stories were raised by single mothers. Despite difficult childhoods, many enjoy successful careers and families today. Even though they may have overcome the loss of their fathers, each woman describes missing her father and suffering from his absence in a variety of ways. To me, the major takeaway from the book is what actress Regina King wrote in her essay: "A lot of people think that girls need their mothers and boys need their fathers, but kids need both of their parents" (emphasis is mine).
My point is not to disparage the brave and resourceful single moms and dads who are raising or have raised children. They deserve our respect and need our support. I also acknowledge that sometimes, one good parent (or grandparent) is better than the alternative. In my nephew’s case, it is better for him to be raised by his single grandmother in a loving home than to live in an unstable family.
Nevertheless, messages like “one parent is just as good as two,” or "married parents aren't necessary" are misleading and harmful. Not only does this view of family discount the experiences of men and women, like me, who grew up in loving but broken unmarried families, it also ignores the social science evidence on the best family structure for child well-being.
The research is clear on the overwhelming benefits of married parenthood for children.
That brings me to another troubling part of DePaulo’s article. Regarding the research, she pointed to the finding that “over 70% of participants believe that a single parent can do just as good a job as two parents” and stated, “Research suggests they might be right.”
In fact, the research is clear on the overwhelming benefits of married parenthood for children, as IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out on Twitter in response to DePaulo. He tweeted a quote by Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill from The Future of Children, which states, in part: “most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes...”
One reason married parenthood is best for children is the stability it provides. “On average, no other relationship delivers the kind of stability kids need like marriage does,” Wilcox explains. “Across the United States and much of Europe, parents who marry before having children are markedly more likely to stay together." By age 12, for example, children in cohabiting families are about twice as likely as those in married parent families to experience a parental breakup.
Marriage also protects children against poverty. While single-mother families are more than five times as likely to experience poverty as married-parent families, single fathers and cohabiting parents are also more likely to live in poverty.
We also know that children are safer in married-parent families. They have a lower risk of being exposed to domestic violence because married women are less likely to experience physical abuse than single or cohabiting women. Likewise, children are at the greatest risk for abuse and neglect when they live with their unmarried mother and her boyfriend.
Finally, marriage is still the best means of binding a father to his children, which is important, as we are continuing to learn more about the significance of the father-child connection. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explained in a 2016 report:
Fathers do not parent like mothers, nor are they a replacement for mothers when they are not at home; they provide a unique, dynamic, and important contribution to their families and children.
Furthermore, new research has identified a biological consequence of father loss: shortened telomere length, which is linked to adverse health outcomes in adulthood. As study co-author, Daniel Notterman, recently told IFS, the findings show that “a central role for the father is optimal for his child’s well-being.”
Can single parents do a great job raising kids? Of course, but we should acknowledge that children raised outside of marriage face more obstacles, including a higher risk of family instability. We have a responsibility to continue to promote married parenthood as the premier family form for child well-being. Younger generations deserve to hear that, on average, children do best when they are raised by their own mother and father in a stable family—and this stability is more likely to occur in marriage. In my case, I am grateful that the single parent who raised me had the courage to teach me that lesson.
Alysse ElHage is editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.