FRIDAY, June 3, 2011 (Health.com) — Motherhood can take a toll on any woman’s health, but single moms may have an even harder go of it. According to a new study, women entering their 40s who had their first child out of wedlock experience poorer health, on average, than women who were married when they first gave birth—even if they marry in the interim.
Stress and money troubles associated with being a single mom are likely the main culprits, says the lead author of the study, Kristi Williams, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the Ohio State University, in Columbus. “We know these are much more common among single mothers, and both are strongly implicated in a wide range of health outcomes,” she explains.
Since 1979, when the study began, the percentage of U.S. babies born to unmarried women has shot up from 17% to about 40%. The increasing rate of out-of-wedlock births, combined with an aging population, could spell problems for public health, Williams says.
To make matters worse, the health consequences of single motherhood appear to be surprisingly persistent. The study found that women who gave birth while unmarried reported poorer health later in life even if they eventually married or entered a stable relationship with someone other than the father of their child.
This finding suggests that government programs designed to promote marriage, such as the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative and others like it that emerged from the 1996 welfare-reform legislation, aren’t likely to improve public health, the researchers say.
“This study could help us refocus our efforts and to say, ‘Clearly, pushing marriage isn’t a remedy,'” says Wendy Chavkin, MD, a professor of public health and ob-gyn in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City, who was not involved in the research.
To promote health among low-income single mothers, Dr. Chavkin adds, the government should focus on providing subsidized child care, increased wages, and better health insurance for working moms—none of which, she says, is provided by “the current welfare apparatus.”
In the study, which appears in the American Sociological Review, Williams and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 3,000 single and married mothers who are participating in an ongoing, nationally representative government survey. All of the women gave birth before the age of 36. At age 40, they were asked to rate their current health on a five-point scale from “poor” to “excellent.”
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.
Next page: Marrying later typically doesn’t help