Is single motherhood a recipe for disaster?

When children are raised by a single father or mother, they grow up with social and psychological inhibitions that affect their worldviews, according to research.

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What you need to know:

  • On Madaraka Day, President Kenyatta lamented that the rise of single parenthood posed a danger to the country.
  • The President’s concern is based on normativity–that there are certain desirable and acceptable standards to define human life.
  • A family is conventionally defined as a unit with at least two parents (male and female) and offspring.

In his Madaraka Day speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta lamented that the rise of single parenthood posed a danger to the country.

He said 38.2 per cent of families were headed by a single parent. This figure is slightly higher than in 1999, when the proportion of female-headed households was 37 per cent. The 2021 economic survey indicates that between 2016 and 2020, “single women accounted for 12.3 per cent of registered births.”

The President’s concern is based on normativity–that there are certain desirable and acceptable standards to define human life. A family is conventionally defined as a unit with at least two parents (male and female) and offspring. This derives from gender division of labour and the fact that human life arises from the union of male and female gametes. Single parenthood defies this convention.

Social decadence perception

The expression ‘single parent’ connotes a mother raising children without a father. One primary cause of this is pregnancy before wedlock, traditionally considered a symptom of social decadence.

Albert Hsu argues in The Single Issue that “whereas once society ostracised the person who reared a child out of wedlock, today such births are tolerated or even affirmed as a symbol of independence and self-sufficiency”.

In Kenya today, getting a family with no teenage mother is a curiosity. Even marital prospectors no longer ask whether the prospective bride has a child; the question is how many.

In The phenomenon of female headed households in Kenya: Causes, consequences and implications, Arungu-Olende traces the history of single parenthood to migration of African men to urban areas as labour to the colonial administration.

The men earned so little that they could not visit their families regularly, hence started new ones. Simultaneously, women from peri-urban areas who provided sexual services to the men ended up pregnant and developed their own families.

Educational and professional levels

A rise in women’s educational and professional levels is also cited as a factor that pushes marriage to the periphery. Once through with education, the search for a husband is complicated by lack of appropriate matches. This is due to the pattern that women tend to marry men substantially superior to them in one way or another and the fact that the average Kenyan man is intimidated by an academically outstanding woman.

In the circumstances, women resort to baby studs to get children from men with desirable genes, but raise them on their own. Choice is also prominent in the equation. While “choice” denotes a free and conscious decision, it is often coerced by circumstances. This arises from what Hsu calls “relationship burnout” where women who have had painful marital relationships feel better off alone.

On the consequences of single parenthood, the traditional school of thought argues that the absence of one parent denies the child the ideal environment for growth and development. According to Michel Roudel’s Dad, Mum We Need You, the father is the authority figure, while the mother provides tender loving care.

Psychological precept

There is also the psychological precept of role typing, that boys imitate their fathers and girls their mothers. The school argues that because single parenthood denudes the child of this combination, the result is social maladjustment and delinquency. However, this is debatable.

Loanna Cullen, in Confronting the myths of single parenting, maintains that single parents have raised many well-behaved, successful people.

For her part, Jolly Makena argues, in Growing up with a Single Parent, that a single parent environment could even be better since the children are “spared the agony of witnessing parental quarrels”, become confidants to the mother and assume responsibilities that make them more socially competent.

One effect of single parenthood is that it loads one person with all parental responsibilities, often associated with a compromised socio-economic status. Studies by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics illustrate, for example, that women-headed households account for a slightly larger percentage of those living below the poverty line than male headed ones.

The President’s rancour with single parenthood is due to the socialisation of self-expectations, that marriage is “as a natural development in life”, according to Hsu. Those who do not attain it are regarded as, and regard their situations as, testimonies of inadequacy.

Among the Gikuyu, this is captured in the proverb Githomo kinene uguo ni gia ki, akorwo ari o riiko (What is the point in her great education if she is still in her mother’s kitchen, unmarried?).

We are, obviously, a society in transition with regard to family. Social scientists should seize this opportunity to debate what the future portends given predictions that 60 per cent of Kenyan women are likely to be single by the time they are 45. Is this a recipe for disaster or are there benefits to look forward to?

Dr Miruka is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]com)

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