Although the term ''single-parent family'' is a familiar one, upon careful examination, the precise definition of a single-parent family becomes less clear. Families are frequently (although not exclusively) identified on the basis of shared residential space and the presence of emotional bonds and support relationships among members. ''Single parent'' implies that a solo mother or father is responsible for the care of one or more children under the age of eighteen within such a family. For the purposes of this article, single-parent families will be defined according to these guidelines.
Such a definition, however, oversimplifies the diversity of circumstances that may define the lives of single-parent families. For example, single parents are usually fathers or mothers, but they are sometimes single grandparents raising grandchildren. Single parents may represent any of a variety of sexual orientations. They may be biological, adoptive, or foster parents. They may have arrived at their current life circumstances through divorce, separation, or death of a spouse, or may never have married at all. They may have become single parents during adolescence (often because of an unplanned pregnancy) or in early or middle adulthood (because of an unplanned pregnancy, through a deliberate decision to become a single parent, or because of a divorce, separation, or death of a spouse). In many cases, families classified as single parent by researchers or census takers actually involve a committed residential coparenting relationship, but one that is not legally recognized. Finally, many families progress through a variety of family structures over time (e.g., outside-of-marriage adolescent single parenthood, followed by marriage and subsequent postdivorce single parenthood). This diversity and fluidity among single-parent families is typically underrecognized in research and by the media.
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