Self-esteem plays a key part in a single mother’s happiness, but makes little difference to the life satisfaction of single fathers, new research shows.

Research by an academic at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, Bronwyn Harman, into the life satisfaction of different family formations, showed that single parents believed they were still viewed negatively by society, even though they accounted for 17 per cent of families in Australia.

Dr Harman interviewed scores of single parents, and then rated their life satisfaction based on their resilience, self-esteem and social support. She found that while all three factors contributed to the happiness of single mothers, self-esteem ”had no impact” on the life satisfaction of single fathers.

”Single mothers can have lots of social support, but unless they have that internal self-belief, they don’t believe what they’re being told,” Dr Harman said.

”With dads, they just believe what they’re told – ‘you’re doing a good job’.” Dr Harman found little difference in the ”relatively low level” of life satisfaction among both single fathers and single mothers. ”When you combine the negative stereotypes with the day-to-day struggle of being a single parent, it would generally not be a very happy place to be,” she said.

All single parents said they were stigmatized by society. ”Single mothers said partnered mothers were threatened by them, viewing them as potential husband stealers,” Dr Harman said.

”Single fathers said society viewed them as a ‘failure’, ‘with suspicion’, and ‘rejected’. There is an incorrect but pervasive view that only mothers know how to parent.”

Single dads told of spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for access to their child, being regularly excluded from special occasions involving their child, and being cut out of the communication loop by their child’s school.

Single mothers reported finding daily life a struggle, with no one to share the burden of illness and tiredness, or their parenting successes.

Dr Harman said a lack of social support for single parents contributed to their low levels of life satisfaction.

”Being a parent with a partner is hard enough,” she said. ”You can’t imagine what it would be like juggling and struggling all by yourself with no one to fall back on.” Justine Proctor became a single mother five years ago when her husband – from whom she was separated – died.

”There are not a lot of good things about being a single parent,” she said.

Now her son, Luke Harford, is on the cusp of adolescence, Ms Proctor feels keenly the lack of a partner. ”My son is just at the age where he does need a father figure around, a good male role model,” she said.

Ms Proctor said her ”saving grace” was the Single with Children support group.

She said the best thing about her family set-up was her bond with Luke. ”I’m hoping the bond is going to last through the teenage years,” she said.

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