Date of Award

Winter 1997

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cynthia Duncan


This study examines why women form single parent households and how they maintain them in a rural community. In 1995 and 1996 I conducted in-depth interviews with 50 divorced, separated, and never-married mothers, and 10 interviews with people working in community service programs. My findings show how one group of women benefited from early financial investments from their own steadily employed parents who owned their home and raised a large family. These "strong" families are headed by women who finished high school and had work experience before getting pregnant. Although many of them gave birth out of wedlock, they had the emotional and financial support of their families, friends, and partners. Other women grew up in families that had a difficult time making ends meet, either because parents had low-wage work or there was a single earner in the household. These women found it hard to finish school, often because they moved from place to place or they were burdened from pressures at home. When these women became pregnant, they were less prepared for parenthood and had few relatives in a position to help. Some of these "struggling" women married their children's fathers because it was the "only thing to do" while others turned to public assistance. A third group of "transitional" women had few family resources but have been guided by teachers, church members, social workers, or others in the community who helped them connect with school, work, and parenting programs that made a real difference in their lives.

In sum, the majority of single mothers in this study are successfully raising their children when they have access to sufficient family and community resources. Women rely on their families for financial and emotional support, and they benefit from living close to their parents and siblings. In situations where women cannot turn to their own relatives, many are aided by education and training that improve work opportunities and increase self-confidence. Finally, affordable health care and reliable child care make combining work and family possible for all these women.