Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single-Parent Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single-Parent Families

Article excerpt

The rise in single-parent families by way of increases in divorce and nonmarital childbearing has been one of the most strongly pronounced trends in family behavior over the past decades. Correspondingly, surveys indicate a certain extent of liberalization in attitudes toward these phenomena (Kalmijn&Uunk, 2007; Thornton& Young-DeMarco, 2001). Nevertheless, negative and stigmatizing connotations with regard to single-parent families are still present, and the nuclear family ideology remains the yardstick against which single parents are perceived and measure their own families (Nelson, 2006; Usdansky, 2009). Yet knowledge is less profound in terms of the connections between such accounts and single-parent family members' ways of dealing with them.

The present study contributes to the field in two respects. First, although recent work has elaborated on normative attitudes regarding single-parent families, this study additionally sheds light on the strategies that single parents and their children adopt in an attempt to deal with moral understandings. Second, research on this topic has so far relied basically on adult respondents' perspectives. Although an increasing number of investigations ask children about their family lives (Maes, De Mol, & Buysse, 2012; Moxnes, 2003; Rigg & Pryor, 2007), few of them concentrate on children's perspectives toward single-parent families or combine children's and their parents' perspectives. These aspects were covered in this study, which provides a detailed portrait of constructions of single-parent families and a systematic analysis of their strategies in dealing with normative accounts. Theoretically guided by social constructionist and configurational approaches, the study expands work on divorced and single-parent families (Coltrane & Adams, 2003; Hertz, 2002; Nelson, 2006; Nixon, Greene, & Hogan, 2013) and contributes to the debate over changing family forms and norms.


For decades of sociological debates about the family, Parsons and Bales (1956) set the terms with their structuralist conception of the nuclear family as a legally married, heterosexual couple, residing with at least one (biological) child, with the male adult acting as the primary income earner and the female adult being responsible for caring for husband, household, and children. Families that did not fit the nuclear family concept were regarded as a risk for the functioning of society. In recent decades, however, divorce rates have increased, and single-parent families and stepfamilies have become more prevalent (Amato & James, 2010; Teachman & Tedrow, 2008). These developments have led to a greater tolerance of family-related behavior that had formerly been categorized as nontraditional (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001).

Dorothy Smith (1993) was one of the first investigators to point at the still-prevalent and powerful ideology of the Standard North American Family. Other scholars emphasized the enormous influence of the nuclear family ideology on family life and family-related behavior (Farrell, VandeVusse, & Ocobock, 2012; Hansen, 2005; Smart, 2007), children's lives within their families (Ribbens McCarthy, Edwards, & Gillies, 2000; Rigg & Pryor, 2007), and perceptions of divorce (Coltrane & Adams, 2003; Miles & Servaty-Seib, 2010; Moon, 2011). Within this body of work, the normative two-parent ideal was shown to be extraordinarily strong. Being brought up by married and resident biological parents is still widely regarded as the best option for children, and other family forms are seen as disadvantaged. This view does not correspond to empirical evidence indicating that the outcomes of divorce and single parenting depend on a variety of factors, such as economic and social resources, the coparental relationship, and the relationship between children and nonresident parents (Amato, 2000; Amato, Kane, & James, 2011).

Attitudes toward single-parent families have been characterized as ambivalent or negative (Moxnes, 2003; Usdansky, 2009). …

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