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Adult Children of Single Parents—“Can’t Get No Satisfaction”

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Though generally aware that their social theories have helped multiply the number of single-parent families, progressives deign to discuss the well-being of children growing up in such families only when justifying more government programs for the poor. But a new German study reveals that even in a socialist regime with expansive programs to support single parents, the children of such parents remain significantly less satisfied with their lives as adults than do adults reared by both parents.  

Written by an international team of researchers from the German Institute for Economic Research and the University of Warwick, this new study focuses on adult children from single-parent households because, as they note, “single parenthood is increasingly common in Western societies but only little is known about its long-term effects.”  

Underscoring just how common single-parent households have become in recent years, the researchers note that “27.5% of children in the US [are] currently being raised in single-parent households—more than 80% of them in households headed by single mothers.” To assess how growing up in a single-mother household affects life satisfaction during adulthood, the authors of the new study assess data collected since 2000 from a nationally representative sample of 24,123 German adults born after 1946. About 80% of these adults grew up in the democratic-capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany); the remaining 20% grew up in the communist-socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

When the researchers assess the data in a statistical model that controls for differences in socioeconomic status during childhood, they conclude that growing up with a single mother is related to “a stable although modest reduction in general life satisfaction across the adult life-span until old age” (p < 0.001).  

Through further analysis, the researchers discerned “a dose-response relationship” in the linkage between growing up with a single mother and suffering from depressed life satisfaction as an adult: “Individuals who spent their entire first 15 years of life living with a single mother showed on average approximately twice the reduction in life satisfaction compared to individuals who spent only part of their first 15 years with a single mother.”

In other words, the longer children spend in such a household, the lower their subsequent life satisfaction. In limning this kind of dose-response relationship, the researchers effectively put paid to the notion—popular among progressives—that children in single-mother families suffer not because of any inherent deficiency in that family structure but only because of the conflict and trauma consequent to parental separation. The authors of the new study see in their evidence that “growing up with a single mother throughout all of childhood and early adolescence and the related lack of resources from the father more than outweighs the well-described negative effects related to parental separation.”  

The researchers found no significant difference between the reduction in life satisfaction measured among men reared in single-mother households and that measured among women reared in such households.

Scrutinizing the significant reduction in life satisfaction found among those who had grown up with a single mother, the researchers “could not find waning of the effect of single parenthood with increasing distance to childhood.” The German scholars stress that this finding is “in contrast to evidence on negative life events during adulthood including divorce, bereavement, and unemployment, for which the general principle of adaptation holds positing that the impact of an negative event decreases with increasing time since the event has happened.”

By establishing that the negative effect of having grown up in a single-mother household never fades, the researchers explode yet another myth cherished by progressives—namely, that children are so resilient that any negative effects of family disintegration soon disappear from their lives.

To explain the long-lasting depression of life satisfaction among adults who lived with single mothers as children, the authors of the new study focus on a number of negative outcomes associated with single-mother child-rearing. When the researchers compare adults who have experienced such child-rearing with peers reared in intact families, they find that those from single-mother households typically experience “worse adulthood living conditions related to socio-economic and educational success, physical health, social integration, and romantic relationship outcomes.” These less favorable adult living conditions partially account for the depressed life satisfaction of those experiencing them.

As the researchers tease out the degree to which socioeconomics accounts for life satisfaction, they uncover evidence that even in a statistical model that controls for differences in childhood socioeconomic well-being, adults who grew up in single-mother households suffer from relative disadvantages in “employment status, occupational prestige, and net income,” compared to peers reared in intact families. In analyzing these relative disadvantages, the researchers once again detect “evidence of a dose-response relationship: individuals who spent their first 15 years living with a single mother reported lower SES [socio-economic status] in adulthood than individuals who spent between 1 and 14 years living with a single mother, who again were lower than their counterparts who lived with both parents throughout childhood, controlling for their childhood SES (all linear trends p < 0.05).”

In interpreting this linkage between childhood years in mother-only households and unfavorable socio-economic status in adulthood, the researchers cite earlier research documenting “the generally lower socio-economic status and increased risk of economic deprivation among children in single-mother households.” Earlier studies cited by the researchers have established that “children from poor households are at increased risk to live in a low-quality home environment and poor neighborhood conditions. They are more often exposed to harsh parental rearing practices and poor parental mental health, and they more often receive suboptimal nutrition and suffer from poor physical health.” Shedding further light on the disadvantageous adult circumstances of those reared in single-mother families are studies concluding that “economic deprivation also increases the likelihood of these children . . . enter[ing] careers with poor socio-economic prospects.”

But unfavorable adult socio-economic circumstances only partly account for the depressed life satisfaction reported by those reared in single-mother households. Statistical analysis reveals that this decreased satisfaction can be attributed in part to “poor social integration.” When analyzed in a model that controlled for difference in childhood socio-economic status, the data show that men and women who spent their first 15 years in a single-mother household manifested “a lower degree of social integration during adulthood” than did peers reared in intact families, the relative impairment in social integration evident in “a smaller number of friends and fewer visits to/from family as well as less success in romantic relationships, including a lower probability of living with a partner and a higher probability of having been divorced, controlling for childhood SES (linear trends p < 0.05).”

That children reared in single-mother households lived less socially integrated lives as adults hardly surprised the researchers, familiar as they were with earlier studies reporting that “children in single-mother households are more likely to suffer from less effective guardianship and a higher likelihood of family distress and conflicts” and that “two-parent families generally provide more emotional resources to children than single-parent families.” The authors of the new study also find relevant earlier research indicating that the experience of parental divorce may “complicate the development of social skills and make it more difficult to engage in satisfying intimate relationships which may eventually also hamper life-satisfaction during adulthood.”

Of course, when progressives confront any social problem—particularly any social problem they have helped cause—they find their panacea in more and larger government programs. But the authors of the new study raise doubts about the efficacy of such programs in eliminating—or even reducing—the deficit in life satisfaction experienced by adults reared in single-mother households. For when the authors of the new study compare adults reared in single-mother households raised in the democratic-capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) with those reared in single-mother households in the communist-socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR), they see no significant difference in the relative deficit in life satisfaction. The researchers puzzle over their failure to detect a difference. After all, they reason, the much higher rates of female participation in the labor force in the GDR than in the FRG and the much higher percentage of children in government-funded day care would suggest that “single motherhood was possibly related with relatively less economic burden in the GDR compared to the FRG.”

Still the researchers acknowledge that when Norwegian scholars compared children reared in their country, with its very generous welfare supports for single mothers, with children reared in the United States, with far fewer welfare supports, the authors of that 2006 study likewise failed to detect any difference between the relative disadvantages. After examining other possible reasons that children of single mothers suffer even in generous welfare states, the authors of the new study conclude by pointing out that regardless of how much largesse the GDR may have given single mothers, children in the single-mother homes there still fared worse because “the socio-emotional resources provided by the father were . . . lacking in single-parent households” in that country. In puzzlingly tentative terms, the researchers point toward an obvious truth: “The deprivation from the father’s socio-emotional resources may have outbalanced the effects of some possibly more favorable societal circumstances for single-parents in the GDR.”

No doubt, progressives will continue to indulge in their fantasies about government programs that wipe tears off of all faces. That is what they do. But this new study brings into view yet again the home truth such fantasies hide: When fathers disappear, long-term satisfaction becomes terribly elusive for many children of single mothers.

(David Richter and Sakari Lemola, “Growing Up with a Single Mother and Life Satisfaction in Adulthood: A Test of Mediating and Moderating Factors,” PLOS ONE 12.6 [2017]: e0179639, Web.)