Confronting the Myths of Single
by Loanda Cullen, M.A.
The stigma attached to being
a single parent is rising anew. Many media commentators blame America's
up-trend in violence and other social problems on family breakdown:
on single parents. This stigma is based on myths and stereotypes
that have been promoted by half-truths and often prejudiced viewpoints.
These myths can be confronted
successfully and new strength can be found in the truth. As with
so many aspects of single parenting, we rise to the challenge and
become better people because of it. The myths are sometimes subtle
and subconscious, but the more we examine them, the more clearly
we take responsibility for our lives and the lives of our children.
Myth : Predominance of the
traditional nuclear family.
Our cultural mythology has it that single
parents are an aberration, not the norm. Single parents often
feel isolated, alone, and different.
In the past twenty-five years, the number
of single parent families has more than doubled. According to
U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 59% of United States children will
live in a single parent home at least once during their minor
years. That is a majority.
Over 16 million children currently live
in single parent homes. More and more of these families can be
defined as "binuclear" families, with both parents actively involved
in parenting and creating two separate homes for their children.
Divorce and remarriage, rather than the exception or aberration,
are more and more common in families today.
Myth : Children in single-parent
families always have deficits, do poorly in school, and suffer emotionally
Limited data fueled Dan
Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown, mainly sourced from sociologist
Barbara Whitehead. Her negative conclusions about the outcomes
of children from single-parent families selectively ignored
all the data that contradicted her position, according to several
other researchers. (Richards and Smiege, 1993.)
The oft-quoted ten-year
study of Judith S. Wallerstein used tainted search subjects
"... drawn largely from children in treatment for psychological
disorders or from the wards of the criminal justice system."
(Olsen and Haynes, 1993.) No wonder the outcomes were dismal
ten years later.
Of course, statistical studies
are never appropriate to predict outcomes: single parent
children are not doomed or reprieved from doom. Somehow we have
this mythology, of their inherent disadvantage. This disadvantage
does not exist.
Myth : Single parent families
are "broken homes."
In the television series,
"Grace Under Fire," a recent episode showed Grace, a single mom,
protesting hotly, "My home is not a broken home. When I got a
divorce, I fixed it!"
Many single parents who divorced or didn't
marry made the healthiest choice in creating a peaceful and stable
home for their family. Many well-researched studies document positive
outcomes in single parent families. "Single parenting develops
the parent's independence and ability to handle a variety of situations."
(Shaw, 1991.) "Children benefit from increased levels of responsibility."
(Amata, 1987) "Parental and child health outcomes were related
to larger networks of social support and good communication within
the single parent family." (Hanson, 1986.) A study by University
of Michigan of over 6,000 adults had surprisingly positive conclusions
for children of divorce.
Statistically it turned out that adult
children of divorce were just as likely (43%) to be happily married
as someone who grew up in a two-parent home. Perhaps confronting
the reality of the fragility of marriage the adult children of
divorce were more than twice as likely to be worried about the
health of their marriage.
Myth: Children from single
parent families have lower self-esteem.
A carefully controlled study (Nelson,
1993) found income level to be the deciding factor related to
children's self -esteem. Because single parent families aree
often also a low income household, children's self-esteem is
likely to lower, just as in low income two-parent homes.
Parents need to be especially careful
to emphasize to their children that who you are is not based
on what you have. Modeling this unconditional self-esteem through
self-respect and self-nurturance is the best way our children
can absorb the self-esteem skills necessary to be resilient
and successful citizens of the 21st century.
Myth : We should strive
to be entirely self-sufficient.
The western myth of self-sufficiency
has perpetuated much needless shame and guilt among the emotionally
and financially challenged, single parents among them. Being
able to give and receive are both necessary skills to bring
the wider resources of the world to our families.
We live in an interdependent
world. Being responsible for ourselves means getting healthy support
and even professional help when we need it. We cannot depend on
our children for social and psychological support; it is their
place to receive our support.
A support group of other single parents
can serve your needs for emotional support, a social outlet, childcare,
and fun. Volunteering as a family within the community can also
create deep satisfaction.
Being aware of the balance
between nurturing and being nurtured, independence and support creates
for ourselves the middle ground where family takes place. Through
this each family member is nurtured towards increasing maturity
By confronting the truth of
our situation, assessing the true risks and opportunities, single
parents can go beyond the cultural mythologies and reap great
rewards. Being proactive with the truth wherever we find the myths
surfacing will help transform the negativity out there to optimism
about the future.
Loanda Cullen is a psychotherapist
in Colorado. She leads workshops for single parents; teaches parenting
classes; and single parents her fifteen year old son, Sean.
This article was reprinted
with permission from Single Parenting in the Nineties. Copyright
1995 by Pilot Publishing. All rights reserved.
" If we were to identify
the most critical element in the raising of healthy and well-adjusted
children, we could do no better than to take the words of the
noted American child psychologist, Uri Bronfenbrenner. Bronfenbrenner
makes the statement to the effect that, 'Every child requires
someone is his or her life who is absolutely crazy about them.'
.... " It is for this reason, perhaps, which the majority
of children raised in poverty, single parent families, or experiencing
some other disadvantage, turn out to be happy, productive, and
reasonably well adjusted teens. However, it is critical to note
that poor, single parent and struggling lower middle income families
have to cope with additional challenges and stress, well beyond
the norm. That so many children should prosper under extremely
difficult circumstances is testimony to the love and resilience
of families." - Bob Couchman, National Childrens
Alliance National Symposium March 22/24 2002