A Weak Embrace: Popular and Scholarly Depictions of Single-Parent Families, 1900 – 1998


Center for Policy Research, 426 Eggers Hall, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244-1020 (mlusdans@maxwell.syr.edu).


The growth of single-parent families constitutes one of the most dramatic and most studied social changes of the 20th century. Evolving attitudes toward these families have received less attention. This paper explores depictions of these families in representative samples of popular magazine (N = 474) and social science journal (N = 202) articles. Critical depictions of divorce plummeted between 1900 and 1998, a trend stemming not from any increase in favorable depictions but from the virtual disappearance of normative debate. Such de facto acceptance did not extend to nonmarital childbearing, however, depictions of which were almost as likely to be critical at the century’s end as at its beginning. These trends illustrate Americans’ ambivalent embrace of single-parent families as a reality but not an ideal.