Theses Doctoral

Cultivating Capacities: How Children of Single Mothers Manage Stigma and Endure Strain

Torres-Mackie, Naomi

This study explored the experiences of individuals who were raised in single-mother families. Children of single mothers (COSM) constitute an understudied population that has often been misrepresented in literature on diverse family structures. The present study builds on current knowledge about the barriers to thriving COSM experience and how COSM build strength in the face of challenges. Data were gathered through 20 semi-structured interviews with self-identified adult children of single mothers. Analysis of the data was guided by constructivist grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2014). A theoretical framework emerged from the data that suggested a core narrative of cultivating capacities through strategies that manage social stigma and at-home strain. Participants described taking an active role in navigating the complexities of holding an identity that falls outside of dominant norms. A combination of participants’ at-home, familial environment and their broader, societal environment provided the foundational context for this process to emerge.

Cultivating growth-fostering capacities or simply “capacities” was a process that allowed COSM participants to take agency in managing their circumstances. This process was described by participants as “bittersweet,” as it was born through experiences of overcoming, yet left them with traits that had the potential to be assets. Often, these capacities served COSM participants well across different contexts and throughout the lifespan. The findings of this study therefore offer a broadened understanding of a group that is represented by more than 17.2 million children being raised by a single mother in the U.S. today (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Findings also provide insight into the impact of stigma and how strength is built in the context of the various life stressors, negative attitudes, and discrimination that previous studies have shown COSM experience (e.g., Dowd, 1995; Hoffman & Avila, 1998; Jarrett, 1996; Kennelly, 1999; Kjellstrand, 2011; Wilson, 2011; Worell, 1986).

The present investigation serves as a foundation to inform future research and practice with COSM, and it assists in repositioning single-mother households so that greater validation may be given to these families as legitimate social constructs, while counteracting the stigma that presents barriers to optimal functioning. Specific implications for practice, training, research, and policy are provided and include a need for greater attention to family structure diversity as well as the accompanying process of “othering” that can result when this is lacking. Among clinicians, COSM identity ought to be seen as an important clinical consideration, rather than a concern. Suggestions for future research include: (a) continuing to explore COSM adversity management and strength construction within today’s societal context; (b) seeking a deeper understanding of how capacities built under hardship are utilized; and (c) examining further the impact of intersectionality of COSM identity with other social group affiliations. Implications for policy suggest that addressing the systemic shaming that this group has faced for decades requires structural-level work.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Counseling Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Miville, Marie L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 5, 2020