Depression and Single Parents

Maternal depression in single parents presents a complex set of realities. There is considerable evidence that depression in single mothers tends to place their children at higher risk for an assortment of psychological and social problems (Chung and Suh, 1997; Eamon and Zuehl, 2001; Jones et al., 2001; Lyons, 1995). There is also contrary evidence that shows the resiliency of single mothers in confronting many of the vicissitudes of life (Campbell, 1998; Ebin, 1996; Paterson, 1997). An earlier study investigating family processes in married, divorced, single-mother, and stepfather families and depression in boys found that family structure, chores, and family processes were predictive of depression in boys (Lyons, 1995). Family hierarchy, cohesion, and assignment of chores were related to the adolescent's perception of himself as a valued contributor to the family or a burdened member of it. Divorce status was a major contributor to the burdened role, as were greater hierarchy and lesser cohesion. Low cohesion in divorced families was related to an increase in burden and depression. This study was important, as it explored family functioning in different family systems and attempted to measure its impact on the mental health of adolescent boys. Boys of divorced single mothers provided measurable evidence of depression.

One study that did not clearly fall into the above categories investigated the question of family transmission of depression from mother to child. A sample of 115 white, middle-class mothers (mean age 39.6 years) and their children (mean age 13.1 years) was compared with an African-American, predominantly single-mothers group (mean age 32.9 years) and their children (mean age 8.6 years) for maternal depression and depression in their children (Jones et al., 2000). A critical finding was that maternal depression was predictive of child depressive symptoms. No direct evidence was found for a higher rate of depression in single mothers and their children. The quality of the mother-child relationship was also found to have a nonsignificant effect. The strongest support emerged for transmission of depressive symptoms from mother to child. Eamon and Zuehl (2001) also found that maternal depression in single mothers influenced their children's emotional problems directly and indirectly through physical punishment. In a survey of 878 4 to 9-year-olds, they found that the effects of poverty were mediated by the mother's depression and her use of physical punishment.

Campbell (1998), in her study of 189 divorced or never-married mothers from three ethnic/racial groups, investigated the variables related to strengths in single mothers. Three qualities, namely, self-esteem, mastery, and lack of depression, consistently indicated strength for all groups. Nevertheless, the author noted that single mothers successfully developed numerous strategies for coping with excessive social pressures levied against them. The oppression they experienced appeared to have a negative impact on their ability to access inner strength and empowerment. Similar findings were reported by Ebin (1996), who, in a comparative study of single mothers and married mothers, found that married mothers had lower self-esteem than their single counterparts. Low self-esteem, low income, and lack of control over one's life explained the variance in depression. Marital status had only an indirect effect on depression via its effects on self-esteem.

Social pressures can have far-reaching consequences. Chung and Suh (1997) investigated the relationship between a host of social and psychological variables in single mothers and their impact on the scholastic achievement of their 275 adolescent children. Higher depression in the child predicted a lower grade-point average (GPA), the mother's high exposure to negative experience after the loss of the child's father, low attachment to the mother, and low sense of self-control contributed to the low GPA. The extent to which some of these factors was a function of the mother's altered marital status was not altogether clear, although it would be reasonable to assume that changed family circumstances contributed to these outcomes.

An altogether unexpected set of findings was reported in an investigation of 51 older (25 years and over) single mothers and an equal number of married mothers (Ebin, 1996). Depression emerged as a function of low self-esteem. What was remarkable was that the single mothers gave evidence of higher self-esteem than the married group. The author speculated that older, educated single women may self-select into single motherhood because of high self-esteem, or they may have accrued high self-esteem by successfully adapting to a difficult task.

Ireland has achieved remarkable economic progress during the last 10 or 15 years. These changes have given rise to significant upheaval in the traditional aspects of Irish life. The role of the church has been in a steady decline, and there has been a rise in single-parent homes. The total number of single mothers in 1981 was 23,685. By 1991, this figure had risen to 38,235, arise of 61.4% (McCashen, 1996). There was only a very small increase in single fathers during the same period. The total for single parents rose from 29,658 to 44,071, an increase of 48.6%. Divorce was made legal in Ireland in 1996. With the increase in single-parent households, the poverty in this group also rose; 33% of the single parents indicated that they could not afford to buy new clothes, with 31% indicating that their households experienced debt problems arising from ordinary living expenses. Interestingly, many single women experienced a distinct sense of independence. The separated women expressed few concerns about the negative impact of the separation on the children. In fact, most were happy about the absence of conflict and of the destructive effects of their marriages on the children (McCashen, 1996). This relatively new situation in Ireland continues to be monitored closely by academics and the government.

Socioeconomic and age variables are determinants of the presence or absence of major stressors in single mothers. The fact remains that the single mothers are the poorest in our society, and the social, psychological, and medical ill-effects of poverty are well documented. Also, the cyclical and multi-generational nature of single parenthood, so evident in the African-American population, only adds to vulnerability of single mothers (Lee et al., 2002).

This snapshot of the current state of family structure reveals remarkable changes over the past 30 or 40 years, the main features of which are (1) the proliferation of single-parent and blended households; (2) an extraordinary variety of families made possible by technology, such as IVF, that was unavailable not so long ago; (3) multiple routes to single motherhood, and the recent phenomenon of older unmarried professional women choosing to have babies; and (4) same-sex couples. In relation to single-parent families, the social disadvantages for a vast majority of single mothers are often at the root of many of their ills. The family intervention literature with single-parent families has proliferated over the last few years, and in the following section we shall review that body of literature.

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