Unmarried white and black mothers rated their health lower, on average, than their married counterparts. Hispanic women did not seem to suffer any health consequences from being single moms, possibly because they receive more family support than single mothers of other ethnicities, the study suggests.
Marrying Later Doesn’t Usually Help
Single mothers who went on to marry or live with a partner did not have better health compared with never-married moms, with the exception of white and Hispanic women who eventually married their child’s biological father. Black women may not reap any health benefits from marrying their child’s father because black men, as a demographic, are less likely to be able to provide the type of financial support that benefits a mother’s health, Williams says.
Donna Strobino, PhD, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, says it is a “no-brainer” that single mothers experience more health problems than paired-off mothers, but she questions how much direct impact single motherhood is having on their health.
Although the researchers controlled for demographic factors such as poverty, education level, and age of childbirth, it’s possible that single mothers are more likely than married moms to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and excessive drinking that could lead to poorer long-term health, Strobino says.
In addition, cultural changes over the past few decades may have weakened the relationship between single motherhood and poorer health. “There has been a trend of both increasing age at childbirth, particularly among white women, and in nonmarital childbirth for all women,” Strobino says, adding that women who choose to have children outside of marriage may represent a very different group than the study participants, most of whom likely had unplanned pregnancies.
Williams, however, is skeptical that changing norms regarding unwed mothers will have a significant impact on the link seen in the study. Although waning “social disapproval” of those mothers could potentially play a role, she says, “My guess is that financial strain and child-care responsibility are more important than stigma.”
Laura Lindberg, PhD, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on sexual and reproductive health, says the study highlights the importance of understanding how marriage-promotion programs actually affect the various subgroups of people they aim to help, including low-income single moms.
Much of the research used to support programs like these was conducted in middle-class white couples, Lindberg says. “I think in all policy settings, you want your motivating evidence to be on the population for which you’re going to implement the policy.”