What Being A Single Mom — Or Getting Married — Does To Your Health

What does being a single mom do for your health by age 40? Mostly, nothing good, as you might guess. But a new study that measured its effects also suggests that marriage isn't necessarily a magical cure for all women.

The study conducted by sociologists at Ohio State, led by Kristi Williams, sought to measure the effect of single motherhood on a woman's health, and also to see whether later marriage had any effect on that status. Using longitudinal data, they found that in general, "premarital childbearing" had negative health consequences for white and black women later in life, but not Hispanic women. Getting married to the biological father after having kids mitigated that effect for some women, but the researchers write, "We find no evidence that the negative health consequences of nonmarital childbearing are mitigated by either marriage or cohabitation for black women."

The study notes that premarital childbearing already has a strong association with other factors that are, in turn, associated with negative health outcomes: 41 percent of never-married mothers with minor children live under the poverty line, and the economic disadvantages tend to follow these women later in life. Still, they write, "we know surprisingly little about the health of single mothers—a large and particularly vulnerable segment of the U.S. population." Large indeed: The CDC reports that 41 percent of all births are to unmarried women.

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The "paucity of research" on these women means that statistics about the beneficial effects of marriage many not necessarily be generalizable to them: "We do not know whether marriage protects their health or if it might, in some cases, pose health risks," and whether it favorably compares to remaining single."

Interestingly, overall there was a difference in health benefits between marrying the biological father of one's child or children, and marrying someone else; marrying the biological father had a better impact, but was only significant if the marriage lasted.

As to why marriage didn't present the same health benefits for black single mothers, the authors note several studies showing that, "in summary, marriage market constraints that stem largely from inequality and economic disadvantage likely result in black single mothers receiving fewer of the resources—economic resources and emotional support—through which marriage's health advantages are conferred." (Again, read "The Marriage Cure.")

By contrast, Hispanic women surveyed in the study actually indicated no negative health consequences from single motherhood at the outset. The authors speculate that many of these women have marriage-like partnerships with the fathers of their children, as well as the support of extended family units that make unmarried parenthood less emotionally and physically costly.

Single Mothers Entering Midlife May Lead To Public Health Crisis [Eureka Alert]