Single Mothers of Children with Developmental Disabilities: The Impact of Multiple Roles

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Single Mothers of Children With Developmental Disabilities: The Impact of Multiple Roles*

Alison Stokes Gottlieb**

The impact of employment status and a nonspousal partner on the overall well-being of 148 single mothers of children with developmental disabilities was assessed through self-report questionnaires. Although generally multiple roles were associated with greater well-being, the quality of the roles (perceived helpfulness of the partner and perceived financial importance of the job) was more predictive. In fact, interaction effects indicated that having a supportive partner was associated with greater wellbeing for mothers whose employment was their primary income source (primary providers) and for nonemployed mothers, but not for mothers whose employment did not provide the primary family income (partial providers). Among those without a supportive partner, mothers who were partial providers reported greater well-being than did nonemployed mothers or primary provider mothers.

Single mothers raising a child with developmental disabilities at home face a dual challenge: They must provide for the emotional and financial needs of their families while coping with the challenges associated with caring for a child with special needs. Most children with disabilities are cared for at home, not in residential programs (Fujiura, Garza, & Braddock, 1989). Caring, however, continues to be viewed primarily as a woman's responsibility with the assumption that mothers will be available to provide this care (Traustadottir, 1991). At the same time, there are increasing societal pressures for single mothers of school-aged children to be employed rather than rely on public welfare (Ellwood, 1996).

Despite societal concerns about single-parent families and families caring for a child with disabilities and the large bodies of literature that address each of these family issues independently, there has been very little research documenting the experiences of mothers who combine single parenting with caring for a child with disabilities. Moreover, research on the effects of employment and multiple roles on women has failed to focus on either single mothers or mothers with special caregiving functions. In this era of increasing interest in supporting families to become less dependent on government programs, it is important to understand how employment affects single-mother families of children with developmental disabilities.

The purpose of this study, therefore, was to investigate the importance of employment and a nonspousal partner among single mothers caring for a child with disabilities. Based on current multiple role theories, research questions addressed how employment and a nonspousal partner may affect different dimensions of mothers' well-being, and the extent to which well-being may be influenced by employment choices.

Background

The dramatic growth of single-parent families has resulted in greater financial insecurity and increasing numbers of single mothers who enter the work force or seek welfare assistance. It is well documented that single mothers frequently suffer from poverty, role strain, social isolation, and social stigma (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Mulroy & Pitt-Catsouphes, 1994), which, in turn, can negatively impact their children's social and academic adjustment (McLanahan, 1994; Weissbourd, 1994).

At the same time, while families have traditionally cared for their children with disabilities at home, policy shifts towards inclusion and community-based services have resulted in societal expectations that children with disabilities should live with their families, despite receiving limited outside support (Birenbaum & Cohen, 1993; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990). The long-term care of children with special needs often results in increased financial costs, caregiving burden, and restrictions on family lifestyle and career opportunities (Allard, Gottlieb, & Hart, 1993; Birenbaum & Cohen, 1993; Singer et al. …

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