The norm of two parents taking care of children as the ideal family continues to persist throughout Western societies. Nevertheless, roughly one in ten women in North America and Europe live without a partner when they become a mother for the first time. Western societies are concerned about single motherhood because economic hardship is more prevalent among single mother families than among two-parent families and because it occurs disproportionally among women whose own parents have a lower socio-economic status (SES).
In their study, Judith Koops, Aart Liefbroer and Anne Gauthier (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI)-KNAW/University of Groningen) assess the relationship of parental SES on women’s likelihood of becoming a single mother in more detail. They study whether women with lower SES parents are more likely to become pregnant when they are single and if they are less likely to start living with a partner during this pregnancy. They also assess whether the societal context influences these relationships. The authors combined data of the Generations and Gender Survey with the Canadian General Social Survey and the Harmonized Histories based on the American National Survey of Family Growth and the British Household Panel Study. This way, they could study union status at first conception and first birth for 57,126 women living in 18 Western countries.
The study shows that, in general, women with lower SES parents are more likely to become pregnant while living single and less likely to start living together with a partner during pregnancy. Additionally, the effect of parental SES is stronger in countries with higher modern contraceptive use and higher adolescent abortion rates. It appears that in countries with wider access to family planning, women with higher parental SES make more use of these methods than women with lower parental SES.
American research has shown that differences in economic inequality across states influence the relationship between parental SES and single mothers among young women. However, in this study, no statistically significant interaction effect was found of the level of economic inequality in a country and the association between parental SES and single motherhood. The authors believe that the unique context of the USA when it comes to single motherhood may explain why the findings for the USA are not generalizable to other Western societies, although further research is required in this regard.
Even if many Western societies do have policies in place to combat the negative socio-economic consequences of single parenthood, the authors believe additional policies that aim to reduce the unequal use of family planning methods are necessary, as they may contribute to diminishing the inequality already present at the start of single motherhood.