“For children, it is better to live in a real family, where mom and dad are around”, a ten-year-old girl from a single parent family said to the interviewer in a study in Austria.  And a boy living with his single mother said: “Actually children would need two parents, that´s what my friends say.”  A single mother in a more rural area said: “… in the back of your mind, it will always be there, that a father is missing”.

In Germany, people were recently asked in a representative study what they consider as family.  Everybody agreed to: “man and woman married living with their children.” Nearly everybody (97%) agreed to: “man and woman not married living with their children”,  but only 82% would call a single mother living with a child and without partner a family.

It might be different in other countries in Europe but it shows the predominance of the image of the nuclear family in the German speaking area at least.

Recently we met friends, their daughter, a single parent of a four-year-old child was with us. Asking her how she is doing she said, nearly a little bit annoyed: „well, we live without a father, but we are doing well. Marianne (her daughter) does not really miss a father. Of course, it would be easier and we would have more money, but I give her love, much more than she would have when I also have a partner. We are doing as well emotionally if not better than nuclear family.”

In everyday talk, we, obviously, cannot avoid to compare and say: we are “doing as well as”, or “better than” or “worse than” or “want to look alike” and “being treated alike”. The reference point is always the model of the nuclear family: of parents with their own children. And the personal situation is measured against that. It has normative power.

Why do same-sex couples want to marry and have children? They want to be a family and recognized as one. In Germany, 88% consider them as a family, rather than single parents (82%).

Can we think differently? What if the image of the nuclear family would lose its normative power?

There would be no discussion about the issue if single parents do as well as, better or worse. There would be no discussion in same-sex couples about the necessity to marry and nobody would make it a discussion if they marry or not.  There would be no need to value stepfamilies, patchwork families or families with their own biological child differently.

But: we cannot live without an image, humans need reference points, humans need norms, humans want orientation, security. And instead of a discussion on the decline of the family: the nuclear family, parents with their biological children living in the same household are still the most common lived family form in Europe.

You can´t change the image, and why would you? What nations can do is offering the best infrastructure for all the living arrangements and measure them against the common standards of well-being.


Ulrike Zartler, How to Deal With Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single-Parent Families.  Journal of Marriage and Family 76 (June 2014): 604–619. DOI:10.1111/jomf.12116

Schneider, Norbert, Sabine Diabate, Kerstin Ruckdeschel,  Hrsg.:  Familienleitbilder in Deutschland, Verl. Barbara Budrich, Opladen, 2015.

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