Single-parent Families in Europe: Their Past and Present


Since the earliest times of human history the family is considered a very important building block of the community and society. Despite the fact that the humanity has always relied on the family as one of the most significant concepts of its existence, the understanding of the family and the social attitude towards different types of families was constantly changing. The European civilization was mostly based on the tradition of conjugal / nuclear families. This term applied to married couples with children who had self reliant household. However, the family was never limited to such conjugal / nuclear families and single-parent families always existed in any society regardless the general attitude to this category. This paper is devoted to the study of single-parent families in Western Europe.

The first two sections of the paper will analyze respectively the past of this social category beginning with the nineteenth century and the present situation beginning from the sexual revolution of the 1970s. The third section will examine the modern sociological and psychological studies devoted to the impact of single-parent families on the development of the society and the individual. The paper will prove that the single-parent families began playing more crucial role in the modern world, but in general such families may experience certain difficulties in providing the children with necessary amount of support, both moral and material.


Single-Parent Families: The Past

The single-parent families have a very long history that began at the time when the first human communities of hunter-gatherers were formed. Although the support of the tribe was quite significant, it was not uncommon that the general responsibility for bringing up the child was on one particular person. This paper will focus on the history of single parent families in Europe starting from the nineteenth century as the earlier history is considered to be irrelevant to the study.

The nineteenth-century Europe made a clear distinction between different types of single-parent families. The cause of single-parenthood was of crucial importance. If the child was born in marriage that was officially approved by the church or the state, the loss of one parent due to his or her death was supposed to be a respected cause and such single-parent family was usually supported by other members of the community. The mortality rates in the nineteenth century were rather high in almost all parts of Europe and “about one-fourth of children born around the turn of the nineteenth century experienced the death of a parent before they reached age fifteen”. The death of a parent could happen due to various reasons and the case when the parent (usually a man) died in a war or another form of military conflict that was considered “righteous” by the members of the community caused the biggest public response. Although the state had certain difficulties in monitoring such families and providing official financial support as the official statistics worked with numerous faults, such single-parent families received significant support from the members of the community. Usually it was organized by the parish’s priest or a women committee that was engaged in various charity activities. It could be some “baby-sitting”, financial aid or just regular visits from the distinguished members of the community that were supposed to raise the social status of the particular single-parent family. These examples can be found not only in various documental sources like diaries or scholarly articles of that period, but also in different literature works, like novels by Charles Dickens (in case of the British society).

However, such benefits were usually received by single women who did not have a husband. Historians argue that “a generous benefits system existed in parts of England”. The same situation was observed in France, Germany and other countries. Men who had to raise children alone, most often in case of the wife’s death, did not enjoyed the privileged situation of the lone mothers, but it could be considered discrimination only to some extent as it was the men who usually received profit from the land or business. In most cases women did not have the property rights and had to rely on the public support, so “lone mothers were the recipients of some of the biggest handouts”.

However, even for those women who were pregnant without being married the society granted the right to receive certain financial support. The procedure of “applying” for such benefits for lone mothers was quite simple. It was enough to swear before two officials that a particular man was the father of the child and the court did its best to take the corresponding amount of money from the father and cover all the expenses connected with the birth of the baby and later aid (either single or regular). When it was not possible to find the father or persuade him to pay to the woman, the community and the parish took care of the single-parent family. It was quite difficult for the community as the percentage of such families was not low and the living standards of people did not give them an opportunity to take part in such “charitable” projects without damaging the financial stability of their own families, but helping single parents and the elderly was obligatory for many European societies. It was especially evident in the Victorian Britain when acting according to the moral norms and principles was regarded to be a distinctive trait of a decent and respected gentleman. Despite the fact that it was often different from the reality, it was still an important behavioral leverage for the nineteenth century community.

Nevertheless, as it has already been mentioned, if the woman was pregnant as she had sexual relations without being married, her status of a single mother was much less respected and she was often claimed to be immoral. Such families usually live in poverty as the negative social attitude to such single mothers significantly limited their job opportunities. In some cases being a single mother significantly increased the chances of a woman to become a prostitute as the public opinion continuously pushed her to the bottom of the social hierarchy. It also made lone mothers to give their children to orphanages and similar places.

The percentage of people who consciously chose single parenthood was extremely low in the nineteenth century, close to the zero level. This decision was disapproved by the society and considered to be a deviation. However, closer to the end of the nineteenth century and at the 1910s the number of such families began to increase caused by the suffragist and feminism movements that advocated women’s rights to choose the way of life she wanted to have.

Single-Parent Families: The Present

This section of the paper is based on the statistical data obtained in various European countries since the 1970s and focus on the current situation in the twenty-first century. However, even statistics can be interpreted in many different ways. Some believe that single-parents families will soon take the place of dominating conjugal / nuclear families and others argue that such opinion is “fuelled by the tax and benefit system”, thus basing largely on the political tendencies and speculation and not on the real facts.

Another difficulty in interpreting the current statistics concerning single-parent families is that, according to the new definition recommended by the United Nations, the age of the parent should not be taken into account, so, for example, in Belgium about a quarter of single-parents are over 65 years old. It means that in most cases such families comprise a widow who lives with her adult daughter. It is obvious that such families do not fall into the same “problematic” category as described above. Another issue regarding the current measurement of single-parent families in Europe is that only Spain and Portugal included in their recent official census a set of questions that were aimed at analyzing the status of this social category. Other countries have only partial statistical data and Greece had none. Therefore, many studies are based on samples or unofficial data that sometimes cannot be 100 per cent reliable, but they are likely to give the general picture of the percentage of single-parent families in Europe and their everyday practices.

Despite the fact that the European society after the WWII was significantly different from the one of the nineteenth-century described in the above section of this paper, the real changes to the status of single-parent families began with the process that is often called the “sexual revolution” of the 1970s. The changes that occurred in the society not only affected the rights of homosexual people, made contraception widely used and in some parts of Europe led to the legalization of abortion. The sexual revolution changed the way how the society treated all aspects of the human behavior connected to sexual activities. The traditional nineteenth century society believed that only a nuclear family was a way to facilitate the individual’s sexual development. The scheme “reach the marriageable age, build a family, and have children” did not suppose people to have the right to change partners and many sexual practices that do not fall into the traditional stable monogamous relations. Therefore, the sexual liberation allowed all types of the single-parent families to have almost the same rights. After the 1970s single-parent families that were results of the divorce / break of the relations or the conscious choice of the lone parent were put into the same category as the families who lost one parent in case of his or her death. Frejka highlights that the increasing role of single-parent families in Europe is also accompanied by several related tendencies, such as significant drop of fertility levels and the general decrease of the family size (one-child families gradually become a norm at the twenty-first century, especially in the countries of Northern Europe), etc.

The twenty-first century witnessed a considerable rise in the percentage of single-parent families. Britain shows a remarkable tendency for the whole Europe. At the beginning of the 1970s around eight per cent of households were headed by a lone parent, but official data suggest that nowadays the situation in Britain is drastically different – by 2011 that figure had reached 22 per cent. There is also a tendency in changing the percentage of single-parent families caused by the divorce. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century this figure is decreasing while the number of lone parents who have never been married is constantly rising. This tendency is partially explained by the growing liberalization of the European population or the fact that the official marriage is gradually losing its significance and is no longer an “obligation” as it was in the nineteenth century.

The everyday practices of such families also changed in comparison to the way single parents had at the nineteenth century that was described in the previous section of the paper. The level of financial stability of such families is higher than earlier (although it is still not comparable with the nuclear intact families), so more lone parents are able to hire helpers that would take care of the child and they can also provide all the necessary assets that are required for proper education. However, certain financial difficulties remain and continue to have a negative impact as “child support, money paid by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent toward the support of the children, does not offset the economic deprivation experienced by single-parent families”. Single families are no longer associated in the public opinion with low morale and unethical behavior and it has a significant impact not only on the status of such families, but on their routine activities as well. French schools, for instance, tend to avoid obligatory two gaps for parents in the questionnaires that children fill in. Children feel free to write only one parent into such forms and even visually they are not made to acknowledge that single-parent family is something not “normal”.


The Impact of Single-Parent Families on the Development of the Individual and the Society

The change of the social attitude towards single-parent families also altered the way they were analyzed in the sociological and psychological studies. The 1970s witnessed a rise in the researches that treated such type of families not as “deviant or problematic, but rather as an alternative family form”. This approach remains valid nowadays, but denying the fact that such families usually tend to have more problems than conjugal / nuclear families would be a mistake. It is obvious that single-parent families can face a variety of different stresses as the responsibilities and duties that in a conjugal / nuclear family are shared by two parents, fall onto one parent. The most common and wide-spread problems are the lasting conflicts between the parents in case they were divorced and did not manage to remain in friendly terms, the decrease of the income and thus inability of a lone parent to provide the child with material facilities for development, problems that may result from the parent’s attempts to build new relations with new partners, etc. Moreover, the liberalization of the social attitude towards the marriage is still relative. In some parts of Europe, like, for instance, Ireland that has always been a country with strong religious affiliation, non-marital childbearing is “widely accepted, especially within stable cohabiting unions, whereas childbearing to single mothers is still mostly regarded as undesirable”.

Therefore, single-parent families having become a norm in the European society of the twenty-first century, the necessity of studying their impact on the society in general and the children who are brought up in such families in particular is increasingly evident. Almost all studies devoted to this topic compare the data obtained from the analysis of single-parent family practices with those of the conjugal / nuclear families, thus, despite all changes in the society, establishing the traditional two-parent families as a standard.

Some studies show the difference in academic performance between children from two-parent families and families with a lone parent. Pong, Dronkers and Hampden-Thompson suggest that “the single- and two-parent achievement gap is greater in countries where single-parent families are more prevalent”. The given research was conducted on the basis of the date from 11 countries and the highest gap between single- and two-parent children was observed in the United Kingdom and Sweden (leaving out the United States and New Zealand that have the highest percentage of single-parent families among non-European states). It is also proven by another research based on the data about the Swedish population. According to the study conducted by Weitoft et al, “children in single-parent households had increased risks compared with those in two-parent households for psychiatric disease in childhood, suicide attempt, alcohol-related disease, and narcotics-related disease”. In most cases scholars and researchers tend to explain it by the low levels of control that is sometimes a norm for single-parent families. Ledoux, for example, asked lone parents one question whether they know where their child (or children) are on Saturday evening and if the answer was negative, these families were more likely to show tendency of having problems with drugs or alcohol. The researcher also argues, “Children from non-intact families, those who were not satisfied with their relationships with their father or mother and those who were less closely monitored, were more likely to be heavy substance users than other students”. It means that the key role in increasing the risk of drug and alcohol belongs not to the fact that the child has only one parent, but is explained by the lack of control and monitoring of the children that are more likely to occur in case of lone parents.

Researchers believe that such risks result from accumulation of stresses that were described above (continuing conflicts between parents, etc). However, this negative impact of being raised in a single-parent family is likely to stem from a complex of causes and not just the lack of one parent. It could be the absence of stability in such families when a lone parent tries hard to find a new partner and a child has to face the constant adaptation to new partners of the parent. It could be the parent’s inability to provide the financial support for the child. Thus he or she gets worse education that leads to the child’s problem with understanding of the surrounding world and inability to apply critical thinking in troublesome situations. There are also many other disadvantages mentioned by researchers, but they seldom work separately, so singling out what exactly caused the increased risks of suicides, for instance, is almost impossible. Nevertheless, the researches devoted to single-parent families occupy one of the leading places in the sociology of the modern family, so the current advances in analysis of this social category are likely to be significantly deepened in the future.

Our essay papers are fully customized and originally created in accordance with your specifications!


In summation, the history of single-parent families is full of changes that significantly affected the public attitude towards this social category. They also had a crucial impact on the practices accepted by such families and, as a result, influenced the personality and development of the children raised in these families. As this paper focused on the history of single-parent families since the nineteenth century, the comparative analysis showed that the families that lost one parent due to his or her death were probably more respected in the nineteenth century than nowadays and received significant support from the community. However, the single-parent families that were formed due to the divorce or result from the conscious decision of the individual to bring up the child alone gained certain degree of respect from the European society only after the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Although the single-parent families in Europe comprise approximately one fifth of all families, the public still regard the conjugal / nuclear families as the desirable standard. Moreover, many researchers admit the possible negative impact of single-parent families on the child’s personality development highlighting the increase of drug or alcohol abuse risks, etc.

Related essays