The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fathers Matter—in Los Angeles or London

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Sociologists in the United States have invested considerable effort in tracking the life course of single mothers and their offspring. Their professional counterparts in Europe have spent much less time tracking the lives of this demographic group. Uncertain as to the relevance of the findings of the American studies for Europeans, a team of British researchers recently conducted an extensive study of “lone mothers” (the British term for single mothers). Largely in line with the results from the earlier American studies, this new British study once again provides powerful evidence that children do better when they live with their father.  

Researchers at the London School of Economics and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the authors explain that they were motivated to conduct their new study by their realization that “most of what we know about children born to lone mothers and the association between their subsequent family transitions and well-being comes from a handful of studies which rely on data sets from the USA.” The researchers complain that “few empirical studies focus on children born to lone mothers using representative data sets in Europe and none explicitly focuses on the question of how various family trajectories of children are related to their well-being.” The researchers consider this deficiency in the professional literature particularly “unfortunate” given that “the number of children born to lone mothers has been growing substantially in Europe, and in the UK in particular,” the percentage of children born to such mothers in the UK rising to 16% in 2014.  

To fill in this blank space on Europe’s sociological map, the London researchers scrutinize data collected for 7,330 children born in 2000-2002, 1,169 of them born to lone mothers, all tracked to age seven. The researchers compare the well-being of children who experience five distinct domestic life histories: 1) born and lived with both biological parents (married or stably cohabiting); 2) born to lone mother who subsequently lives without a partner; 3) born to a lone mother subsequently joined by the biological father of her child, who forms a stable union with the mother; 4) born to a lone mother subsequently joined temporarily by the biological father of her child, who moves in but then leaves; 5) born to a lone mother subsequently joined by a male partner, who forms a stable union with the mother as the stepfather of her child.  

Not surprisingly, the children born into a stable parental union enjoy better outcomes (in physical health, cognitive skills, and socio-emotional well-being) than the children born into any of the other four domestic patterns. “For all outcomes,” write the researchers, “children [continuously living with both biological parents] are better off than children of lone mothers.” 

Detailing the advantage children enjoy if they continuously live with both biological parents, the researchers smash a myth long dear to the heart of feminists, including the scriptwriters for Murphy Brown. Parsing the data on maternal education, the researchers detect “no evidence that children of lone high-educated mothers have better outcomes than children of lone low- and medium-educated mothers.” In other words, “it does not appear that variation in socio-economic resources among [lone] mothers is associated with variation in children’s outcomes.”

But as they trace the “variation within the trajectories of children born to a lone mother,” the researchers uncover indications that not all children born to lone mothers suffer the same degree of relative disadvantage. Predictably, children whose lone mothers form a union with a male partner enjoy some advantages over children whose lone mothers remain alone. Still, the researchers stress that “the entry of a father figure to the household was not associated with improvement on all outcomes.”  Indeed, the researchers measure only “small differences” between the socio-emotional well-being of children whose lone mother remains alone and that of children whose lone mother brings a stepfather into the household. The researchers plausibly reason that “the benefits of improved resources and parenting input [in such cases] could be offset by the difficulties in adjusting to a new situation in the child’s home environment when a stepfather joins the family.”   

The researchers also find mixed outcomes when a biological father temporarily moves in with a lone mother, only to later exit the household.  Compared to children whose lone mother always lives alone, those whose biological father is in the household and then out again enjoy better physical health but suffer from cognitive deficits.   

Overall, the researchers conclude that “the benefits of a father’s entry for children’s outcomes in different areas are clearest in our results if the father is biological and the union is stable.” The researchers discover that “compared to the children of continuously lone mothers, children whose biological father stably joined the household fared better in terms of cognitive outcomes and socio-emotional outcomes.” What is more, the researchers adduce evidence that when a biological father forms a stable union with the lone mother, their child also enjoys better health.  The researchers explain the linkage between the favorable cognitive and health outcomes associated with a lone mother’s permanent union with her child’s biological father as the consequence of the “stability and resources” he brings to the household. 

Underscoring one of the most important of the findings of their study, the researchers stress the generally favorable outcomes for children of a lone mother who forms a stable union with the biological father.  With one notable exception, the researchers remark, “children whose biological fathers moved in with their lone mothers did almost as well as children who have lived continuously in a two-biological parent household since birth.” The one notable exception is that of “externalising” problems (symptomized by disruptive, defiant, and antisocial behaviors), which remain stubbornly elevated in all groups of children born to lone mothers.

Contemplating the ubiquity of externalizing problems among children born to lone mothers, the researchers acknowledge the “positive association between behavioural problems and living with a lone mother . . . regardless of whether a father figure subsequently enters or exits the household.” Even the generally advantageous change in stability and resources a biological father brings to a household when he forms a post-natal stable union with the mother of his child does not create a “valid mechanism for [reducing] behavioural problems.” 

As they compare their findings with those of the earlier American studies they felt compelled to complement with a European inquiry, the London researchers note a few differences that may reflect the fact that in “the UK unmarried cohabitations have been consistently found to be more stable and marriage-like than cohabitations in the USA.” But the London scholars consider their findings to be “in line with” the earlier US studies showing that children suffer “behavioural, cognitive, and health problems” when their mother’s domestic relationships are “characterized by instability.” 

Perhaps most important, this British study also corroborates earlier American research indicating that “children who grow up in a household with two married biological parents do better overall than those growing up with a single mother,” and it reinforces earlier American studies establishing “that there is a negative association between the father’s absence and child well-being.”

Europeans no longer need to take the word of American scholars on the matter: On both sides of the Atlantic, children do best when living with two stably married biological parents.

(Elena Mariani, Berkay Ozcan, and Alice Goisis, “Family Trajectories and Well-being of Children Born to Lone Mothers in the UK,” European Journal of Population 33.2 [2017]: 185-215.)