Photo © Jacek Chabraszewski -

Study on the many faces of single parenthood in Switzerland

LIVES researchers started in July 2012 a qualitative study of a fact which has now become common but is still little analyzed. Based on forty interviews, the team consisting of two sociologists and a demographer intends to challenge some stereotypes about single mothers and fathers.

In a city like Geneva, one in five households is composed of a parent without a partner to face one or more children. "These are not only miserable and depressed mothers”, says Cornelia Hummel, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Geneva and a researcher at the NCCR LIVES. "Conversely, it is possible to find a real precariousness with a higher education", adds his colleague Nasser Tafferant, senior researcher at the University of Lausanne.

This heterogeneity of situations emerged during the first interviews that both sociologists have conducted since July 2012, the premises of a study which will continue until mid 2013, in collaboration with the professor of demography and life course Laura Bernardi, vice-director of the NCCR LIVES.


The team focuses not only on the objective and material conditions of single parenthood in everyday life, but also on representations associated with such a status, whether chosen or forced. During the interviews, the researchers approach the history of the couple and its separation, the role of the ex-spouse in education of children, expectations for the environment and society, the attitude to celibacy. "Some single mothers have expressed a sense of stigma that overwhelms them either through institutions or in the neighborhood," noted the sociologists.

If the failure of the couple project seems to affect most people already interviewed, some women however mention the extra freedom and social life that the separation made possible, provided that the father takes part to the child care. These fathers may even be "pervasive", by wanting to get involved, mention some mothers... Statements running counter to the belief that single parenthood means isolation.

But dig a little deeper, we see that these modern families retain traces of gendered division of domestic labor: joint custody does not always mean alternating laundry, and many children come back from dad’s home with a suitcase loaded of dirty chothes.

And children in all this? "The lone parents are permanently subjected to questions about the psychological state of their child-ren. We do not want to emphasize on this point. Enough people tend to confuse us with psychologists and we are not here for that", says Cornelia Hummel. The researchers rather try to identify which kind of man or woman exist behind the role of father or mother, how this identity is evolving and how the surrounding network is changing.

"No Victims"

In many cases, the researchers found how the vulnerability felt by respondents could be constructed by the gaze of others. Without denying the lack of resources - money or time - that weighs on many single-parent families, the team was particularly struck by the courage and dignity of those parents who accept their condition and avoid the most to be a burden to the community in seeking help. As noted Tafferant Nasser, "there is in many of the women we heard a symbolic struggle for autonomy and recognition of their status. They do not want to appear as victims. "

The team hopes to follow families encountered over time to monitor their progress. People who will agree may even be included in the sample of the future wave of the Swiss Household Panel which collects longitudinal data on different types of households in Switzerland.