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Looking at lone parent families is like looking at a hologram picture: holding it
one way you see one thing, holding it a other way, you see another thing. This can be
profoundly disorienting. In order to avoid vertigo, I shall start by looking at the picture
from different angles, turning it slowly, noting the shifting patterns. All of these angles
are informed by the basic lens used here: what are meaningful concepts for social policy
It is dangerous to identify problems – and thereby their solutions – on the basis of
a structural factor (the presence of one rather that the two parents) when upon
examination this factor does not turn out to be the crucial variable. Consequently the first
question is, in what way are lone parent families the same or different from two-parent
families and from each other? What is the connection between poverty and lone parent
families? What is the connection between household membership and family
membership in lone parent and two-parent families? Underlying these questions will be
another question: What are the appropriate terms with which to label the various types of
I shall proceed from there to explore models of the family underlying various
types of policies and their implications for lone parent families, and identify problems in
the currently prevailing model as well as suggest a possible alternative model. I shall be
using the term lone parent rather than one-parent or single parent family, since the latter
terms provide an inaccurate description of most of the families under consideration.
First of all, there are five pathways by which lone parent families may come into
existence. Three of them are subsequent to union dissolution, and two are through
acquisition of a child by an unmarried parent. A lone parent family may come into
existence through the death of a married parent, through the separation or divorce of a
married parent, through union dissolution of a parent living common-law, through birth
to an unmarried woman or through adoption of a child by a single adult. These different
pathways have different consequences for social policy.
By contrast, two-parent families come into existence in only two ways. A couple
marries and subsequently have children through birth or adoption or a person (with or
without children) marries a parent. This couple may have joint subsequent children as
Lone parents may be either male or female. The vast majority are female, but a
small minority of them are male. The economic and social situation s of male and female
lone parents tend to be quite different, reflecting the differential economic and social
positions of men and women in general (McKie, 1993).
Lone parenthood is quite often identified with poverty. There is a strong
likelihood that lone parent families will be poor, especially if that lone parent is female
(Dooley, 1993), but in absolute terms, there are more husband-wife families in Canada
who are poor than there are poor lone parent families. Poverty is unfortunately a
characteristic that is typical of both husband-wife as well as lone parent families (as well
as unattached individuals).
Adopting the angle of the child – the participant that makes the lone parent family
a family – we can see major differences in the existence of this family form. A child may
live in a lone parent family during his/her entire childhood. Alternatively, living in a lone
parent family may be preceded by living in a two-parent family, and/or this may be
succeeded by living in a two-parent family, or there may be a repeated pattern of living in
a lone parent/two-parent situation.
Looking again at the holographic picture of the lone parent families as
well as two-parent families (biological as well as social), the differences within the
category of lone parent families and between the categories of lone parent and two-parent
families are as large as the similarities. Both types of families may involve a parent who
is not living with his (occasionally her) children. Household membership for children in
lone parent, as well as two-parent, families may or not be congruous with family
membership. Both types of families may be above or below the poverty threshold. Lone
parenthood may be a permanent or impermanent state, which is also
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Family, Parenting, Fatherhood, Single parent, Father, American society, Family structure in the United States
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