Insights for Working with a Purposeful Single Parent

[Excerpt from Counselling in Relationships]

The following excerpt comes from our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The chapter, Purposeful Single Parenting, explores an increasingly common family structure based on choice.  Connecting with values, examining expectations, and building positive support networks are a few of the themes explored in this chapter.

Many people experience unique challenges based on what counsellors like myself call their age and stage. Life stages are a way of conceptualizing the various biological, psychological, and social changes that occur throughout life, as well as the growing pains that can come with these transitions. Within a family life cycle, there are common stages such as independence, coupling or marriage, parenting, launching adult children, and finally retirement and senior years (McGoldrick & Shibusawa, 2012). Each stage consists of various highly probable challenges and decisions that can impact someone’s trajectory and life experiences.

A child living with a purposeful single parent from the beginning of their life onward will have a different perspective as their attachment journey has not been impacted by any changes in family organization or dynamics.

Culture and society impact these decisions heavily. For example, between the early to mid-30s and early 40s, a stage that is often associated with parenting, people often feel as though they are in a critical phase of life. For the current generation in this age range (consisting mostly of millennials), this period is comprised of big decisions that can leave them feeling confused and overwhelmed. For those in this phase who hope to have biological children of their own but find themselves without a partner, a heavy burden can begin to settle upon their shoulders over time. As a counsellor I began to notice more and more clients coming into my office wanting to discuss their experiences with this particular phase as well as receive support in determining the right course of action.

Historically, single parent families have been defined as those in which only one caregiver is present. However, definitions of single parent often describe situations in which there is an absence of a live-in partner as well as the legal status of either sole or joint physical custody. This formal definition leaves a lot to the imagination as many nuclear families don’t easily fit within in this box. Today more than ever, it’s common for families to differ considerably in their membership constellations.

Within this widening landscape is a subsection of people who make the decision to intentionally become single parents, which I’m referring to as purposeful single parenting (PSP). Literature on “choice parenthood” typically describes this group as primarily cisgender women who proactively decide to engage in parenthood despite not having a primary romantic partner or partners (Statistics Canada, 2015). These individuals are unwilling to settle for a partner simply because of their readiness and desire to become a parent. They often describe this as a time in their life in which their focus has shifted to having children first and finding a partner later, if at all (Brill, 2006). This does not necessarily mean that they remain without a partner throughout their journey to parenthood, as it is entirely possible that a partner may come along at any stage of the process.

Most of my clients who identify as purposeful single parents are clear that their preference would have been to have a biological child with a partner, but they were unable due to their fertility window running out.

Regardless, the defining aspect of PSP is someone of any gender making the resolution to have a child. This may be with or without romantic partners involved and may lead to a chosen family in which various people negotiate the sharing of parenting roles. In this chapter I will include stories in which individuals are making choices about creating a family of intention.

The 2014 Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey uses the term lone parenthood to refer to people who are parenting on their own, whether by choice or not. In Canada, this group of individuals has increased from 9 percent of parents in 1976 to 20 percent in 2014 (Statistics Canada, 2015). Within these families, 81 percent of parents identified as female, although the number of male-identifying lone parents has been on the rise since 1990. In the U.S., according to the 2016 Current Population Survey, approximately 27 percent of the 73.7 million people surveyed live in single parent households. Similar to Canada, the majority of these households (85 percent) are headed by women, whether by choice or not.

Despite being put into the same category, there are important distinctions between purposeful and non-purposeful single parents, as each has very different experiences and challenges. I consider a non-purposeful single parent to be someone who originally intended to parent with a partner or partners within the context of a romantic relationship, but changes in that relationship have led to them parenting alone. It is important to consider that while the end of a relationship isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the couple, divorce, separation, death, or abandonment has potential for creating significant attachment interruption or loss in children (Golombok, 2015). In contrast, a child living with a purposeful single parent from the beginning of their life onward will have a different perspective as their attachment journey has not been impacted by any changes in family organization or dynamics.

When PSPs are compared to two-parent families, there are often no significant differences in parental stress or emotional involvement between the two family types. In a study published in Pedagogiek, researchers found that children of individuals who identify as single mothers by choice showed no significant differences in their well-being when compared to two-parent families (Brewaeys & Bos, 2018). In addition, these parents had significantly more social supports when compared to two-parent families.

When I ask, most of my clients who identify as PSPs are clear that their preference would have been to have a biological child with a partner, but they were unable due to their fertility window running out. Based on a brief history taken during our initial meeting, there is every indication that most of these individuals are financially stable and well educated, and they have previously been in meaningful partner relationships.

Despite a growing number of people choosing purposeful single parenting, it remains a relatively unknown and, at times, stigmatized concept for many North Americans. However, in countries such as Denmark, social acceptance of this approach has resulted in one in 10 babies being conceived with donor sperm even though the majority of adults indicated their decision to move forward alone was considered second best to having a child with a partner (Russell, 2015). Lowered stigma around having a child without a partner seems to be a vital need in today’s social landscape based on the current generation’s trend toward remaining single longer and waiting to have children until they reach certain milestones such as finishing school or starting a career.

In my counselling practice, I have found that people describe the importance of receiving help for working their way through their decision. The complexities of each situation, as well as the capacity of each individual, yields a fruitful discussion and wide range of possibilities for what will work for them.

Read the full chapter in our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available on our website.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Jody Lambert

MMFT, RCC, CCC – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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