The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 1 of 4)

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Tomorrow, I’m heading to Texas for a weekend vacation with my family to celebrate my niece’s second birthday. I consider myself fortunate that my parents not only are still married, but seem to have grown closer together the last ten years. They’ve begun to go away on weekend vacations, and it seems that every time I talk with them, they’re telling me about a movie they saw together. Their marriage has its ups and downs, like most marriages, but I knew that when I had an important event, such as a choir concert, I could count on my parents (and my sister) coming together as a family unit.

07divorceI know that many people of my generation have different experiences with their families. The millennial generation is by no means the first to experience higher rates of divorce; this statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that there was one divorce for every two marriages (the 50% statistic) in the late 70s. However, divorce transitioned from a trend to somewhat of a norm during our generation. (Trends are phenomena that happen to a specific generation, such as unbuttoned button-down dress shirts with t-shirts underneath them in the mid-90s. Norms happen when trends become multi-generational.) Nicholas Wolfner reminds us in his 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle that having parents who remarried following a divorce almost doubles ones risk of divorcing themselves. Most sociologists agree, as this statistic suggests, that divorces peaked in the early 90s, when our generation was between the ages of infancy and late elementary school.

Many in our generation experienced single parent families at one point during our childhood, even if their divorced parents ended up remarrying. Recent studies suggest that single parent families are transitioning from trend to norm as well. Singlemotherguide.com presents a list of statistics from recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys, including:

  • There are a reported 12 million single parent families in the United States, a number that is probably higher due to under-reporting. 80% of these families are headed by single mothers.
  • 41% of single mothers live in poverty. 9% of married couples live in poverty.
  • Around 50% of single parents have multiple children.
  • A new trend, as discussed in a previous blog post, shows that many single mothers (45% in this study) have never been married.

One of my goals on The Commitment Project is to use research to help reenvision the experiences of the millennial generation. Ulrike Zartler, sociology professor at the University of Vienna, evaluated the relationship between single-parent families and nuclear families (families with both parents present). He observed in the Austrian media (and American media, for that matter) few narratives that triumph single-parent families. Most research, he noticed, talks about the negative impact of divorce rather than positive implications, such as resilience in children and families. For that matter, many movies and television shows paint divorce and single-parenthood as its conflict and identify recoupling as its resolution.

Zartler interviewed 70 Austrian families–some with two-parent structures (either biological or stepparents) and others with single parents. In “How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single Parent Families), published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, Zartler compares and contrasts the processes by which these families construct and adapt their roles and relationships. Research participants described family activities, relationships between all family members, how the family organizes itself, and how the family adapts both throughout the life course and when key members enter and exit.

Zartler learns that single parent families develop three significant coping skills that provide meaning to the structure of their home. Single-parent families imitate nuclear families, compensate for the loss/absence of a missing party, and limit accessibility to the outside world. Over the next three blog posts, I want to flesh out some of these experiences on a narrative level (what these look like) and a practical level (the implications of each of these strategies).

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