A new focus of psychiatry and psychology should be dedicated to understanding the impact of single parenthood on children—and trying to minimize the damage. About 41 percent of births in the United States now occur outside the context of marriage. That’s up from 17 percent three decades ago.
I don’t think that trend is going to change. I believe it will accelerate. For lots of reasons, including the fact that we haven’t come up with a structure for marriage that pays heed to each spouse’s need for independence (never mind sexual fulfillment), divorce rates will continue to rise, and marriage will continue to fall out of favor.
While the economic toll of living with one parent—far more frequently a mother than a father—is known to be negative (with childhood poverty much more likely), too little is known and even less published about the psychological effects. Depression and behavioral disturbances occur at higher rates, but that may be the tip of the iceberg.
Having talked to children and adults in my practice of psychiatry over the past twenty years, I know that there are unresolved and, often, unaddressed concerns that children harbor when they are raised largely by one parent, and even when parenting is shared by divorced spouses. These include:
• Core psychological questions (which are, of course, not rational) about whether, as the product of a sexual union that did not lead to a clear family architecture, they are not truly “good” or “worthwhile” and may represent living remnants of a storyline gone awry.
• Often unspoken, sometimes unconscious, fear for the wellbeing of the parent with whom they are not living. Children not only need protection, but feel the need to keep their parents safe, too. Without seeing them going to sleep at home and waking up safe, they can have trouble believing they are not exposed to unseen, untold dangers.
• Fear about what will happen (in terms of living arrangements and economic needs and needs for nurturance) if their primary caretaker should die—or an inability to cope with the notion of such a tragedy, with resulting exaggerated fear of the loss of loved ones. Even in divorced families, there is an underlying question, rarely raised by the children or overtly addressed by the parents, about whether either parent would willingly step in to parent full-time, in the event of a tragedy.
• Deep concerns about whether expressing loving and positive feelings about one parent to the other (particularly in cases of acrimony between the two) will be unwelcome, potentially leading to the child developing a manipulative personality style or a reticence to share loving feelings, in general, even later in life.
I am not saying that forcing couples to marry would be a solution, nor that forcing unhappy couples to stay married would be a solution. Unhappy cohabitation may be more damaging than single parenting. However, with the trend toward single parenting accelerating, it is absolutely time to decipher what messages and reassurances children should receive, in order to feel safe and loved as they grow up. It may be that the issues listed above, for example, should be directly raised and addressed at appropriate moments and ages in children’s lives. I suspect this is the case.
I also suspect that our children would be well-served were we to create an architecture—short of marriage—that allows two adults to express and to codify their complete intention to love and care for their children as life partners in parenting, even if they are no longer partners in any other way. Traditional marriage—the one-size-fits-all approach to family—isn’t working. Millions and millions of Americans need another choice that would allow them to parent effectively and predictably, while living alone.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.