Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

In Defense of Single-Parent Families

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 222
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    In Defense of Single-Parent Families
    Book Description:

    Single-parent families succeed. Within these families children thrive, develop, and grow, just as they do in a variety of family structures. Tragically, they must do so in the face of powerful legal and social stigma that works to undermine them. As Nancy E. Dowd argues in this bold and original book, the justifications for stigmatizing single-parent families are founded largely on myths, myths used to rationalize harshly punitive social policies. Children, in increasing numbers, bear the brunt of those policies. In this generation, more than two-thirds of all children will spend some time in a single-parent family before reaching age 18. The damage done in the name of justified stigma, therefore, harms a great many children. Dowd details the primary justifications for stigmatizing single-parent families, marshalling an impressive array of resources about single parents that portray a very different picture of these families. She describes them in all their forms, with particular attention to the differential treatment given never-married and divorced single parents, and to the impact of gender, race, and class. Emphasizing that all families face significant conflicts between work and family responsibilities, Dowd argues many two-parent families, in fact, function as single-parent caregiving households. The success or failure of families, she contends, has little to do with form. Many of the problems faced by single-parent families mirror problems faced by all families. Illustrating the harmful impact of current laws concerning divorce, welfare, and employment, Dowd makes a powerful case for centering policy around the welfare and equality of all children. A thought-provoking examination of the stereotypes, realities and possibilities of single-parent families, In Defense of Single-Parent Families asks us to consider the true purpose or goal of a family.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2108-7
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    “I am a single parent.” The statement evokes admiration, sympathy, pity, disgust, uneasiness, skepticism. I never planned on being a single parent. Few do. I grew up with an ideal of parenting as something I would do with a husband, within a marriage. Choosing to parent alone was simply not an option. Unwed pregnancy was to be avoided at all costs. Divorce was rare and tragic. If it occurred, one remedied it as quickly as possible with remarriage, especially if one wanted to have children or raise existing children.

    In my late thirties, divorced, childless, and still not remarried, I...

  4. PART I Myths and Realities

    • CHAPTER 1 The Stories of Stigma: What We Say about Single-Parent Families
      (pp. 3-15)

      A remarkably consistent view of single-parent families dominates popular culture as well as public policy. “‘Single-parent family’ is a euphemism . . . for ‘problem family’ for some kind of social pathology” (Kamerman and Kahn 1988).¹ Single-parent families are characterized as part of the “underclass”; broken and deviant, as compared to the nuclear, traditional, patriarchal family. Some equate the rise in the numbers of single-parent families with social decline and the death of the “real” family.

      Recent Republican welfare reform legislation mirrors this image of single-parent families, especially never-married single parents. The Personal Responsibility Act proclaims its goals as “restor[ing]...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Realities: What We Know about Single-Parent Families
      (pp. 16-52)

      Every time I have a school conference I worry about whether my children will be labeled. If there is anything bad to report, or improvement needed, our family status can be used as a convenient explanation. “She’s from a single-parent family. Ah, that explains it.” When my son has difficulty with the discipline at his preschool, I worry that he will be categorized by his family form, rather than evaluated and understood for himself. I am heartened by signs that the diversity of family forms are recognized and valued, and with every new teacher or doctor or child-care worker I...

  5. PART II Law & Single Parents

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 53-54)

      How does law stigmatize single parents? First, the mere presence and repetition of the justifications for stigma within a legal context cloak these justifications with the legitimacy and presumed objectivity of the law. The law as ideology reinforces and validates stigma. The law does this most clearly when single parents or their children are stigmatized as a matter of status. Naming nonmarital children illegitimate—unlawful—as well as maintaining a paternity structure designed to protect fathers rather than to connect children to their parents are examples of explicit stigmatization.

      Second, the law incorporates the view of single-parent families as unworthy,...

    • CHAPTER 3 Divorced Single Parents
      (pp. 55-77)

      Law reflects and implements stigma by means of status and structure. By far, the more serious consequences for divorced single-parent families flow from structural stigma as opposed to status. Family law, employment law, and welfare law interact to impoverish single parents. In doing so, they incorporate existing social stigma and create new stigma. The law justifies stigma as necessary or simply consequential, based on rationalizations that echo the myths previously explored as justifications for stigma. Acting within a context of inequality framed by gender and race, law uses the language and model of equality and choice to rationalize and obscure...

    • CHAPTER 4 Nonmarital Single-Parent Families
      (pp. 78-102)

      Socially and legally there has been a sharp distinction between children of divorce and children born out of wedlock, and between parents whose marriage has failed and parents who have never married. The children and parents in nonmarital single-parent families are the most heavily stigmatized single-parent families. While illegitimate children may no longer be called bastards, the condemnation of their parents has not ended.

      The danger is that this distinction between types of single parents and their children will be used to separate and isolate nonmarital single-parent families from divorced single parents. Just as widows are honored and legally supported...

    • CHAPTER 5 Single Parents as Positive Role Models
      (pp. 103-116)

      One of my strongest, and most surprising, memories from the first year of my daughter’s life was the number of times that people would say, “Oh, how can you do it by yourself?” but then return to say, “Ah, how lucky you are to be doing it alone.” These utterly opposite responses used to stun me. But then it began to make sense. What made me so “lucky,” in their eyes, was that by parenting alone I could parent without negotiation, consultation, or conflict with a partner. I have help and support, but the parenting of my children is done...

  6. PART III Law Reform

    • CHAPTER 6 Policies for Single-Parent Families
      (pp. 119-145)

      When I have asked for recognition as a single parent, as a basis for understanding the demands on my time or my economic needs, I often fear that the response will be “well, you chose to do this.” My choice somehow disentitles me to support, whereas presumably one who became a single parent involuntarily through divorce or death would be more entitled to support for this unforeseen and unwanted status. Alternatively, I have sometimes been told, “Well, we don’t do that for married couples, so why should we do it for you?” I should not ask for special treatment, I...

    • CHAPTER 7 Legal Strategies
      (pp. 146-169)

      What single parents need is an end to stigma, and support for their children. This requires ideological change as well as concrete economic and social support. Existing structures do harm to single-parent families by stigmatizing and undermining these families. Existing structures do harm mostly by what theyfailto do; it is theabsenceof support, not its presence and negative consequences, that results in so much harm.

      Law has the potential to play a role in reorienting policy toward single-parent families, and in the process transform itself from an agent of oppression to a guarantor of empowerment and equality....

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 170-172)

    Analyzing the social and legal construction of single-parent families not only exposes the fallacies underlying their stigmatization; it also clarifies, once again, the interconnection between work and family in the continuing oppression of women and the increasing impoverishment of children. Work-family relationships as currently constructed also strongly inhibit reconstructing fatherhood as more than being an economic father. Analysis of single-parent families suggests that these families should be the model upon which work and family policy are measured. If the work-family relationship can be improved for these families, then it will be possible to improve the relationship for all families.


  8. Notes
    (pp. 173-180)
  9. References
    (pp. 181-198)
  10. Index
    (pp. 199-200)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)