On the Margins of the Nuclear Family: Single-Parenthood Stigma in Taiwan

Written by Ming-shan Lee.

Image credit :母親 by 夏卡爾 Chagall/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taiwan’s divorce rate has soared since the 1990s. While single-parent households’ main cause was originally spouse death, it is now divorce and out-of-wedlock birth. According to the census data (2016) of the Executive Yuan’s Chief Accounting Office, there were about 7.44 million single-parent households in Taiwan by the end of 2010. New Taipei City accounted for 1.34 million households, and Taipei City also accounted for 950,000 households. There are about 555,000 single-parent households in total, accounting for 7.4% of all households. Among them, there are 145,000 male single parents and 409,000 female single parents. The latter accounted for 5.4% of all households. 

As a so-called “incomplete” family structure, single-parent families have long been a concern of sociologists and demographers. With the increase in the divorce rate and the increase in single-parent families, the “problems” brought by such families have also received more attention. The consequence of which has been an increased discussion surrounding the poverty of single-parent households and the intergenerational cycle of single-parent poverty. In other words, not only are single-parent families vulnerable to disadvantage in their day-to-day life, but most of the children of single-parent families are also unable to get rid of these disadvantages as they mature. Although the issues faced by such families can be approached through a purely economic lens, there are typically psychosocial aspects due to the pressure to conform to the expectation of being a “normal family.” Although single-parent families are increasingly common in Taiwan, this family-structure generally remains under-discussed in the public discourse and – if discussed – is framed negatively. Such stigma confounds other challenges that these families already face. Through family interviews, I have been trying to understand better the experience of such pressures, stigma and challenges.

Firstly, these interviews have uncovered how economic uncertainty and insecurity are experienced emotionally by those who grow up in such households. For example, it often manifested itself through increased pressure and the children’s lack of confidence who grow up in such families. Interviewee Xuan xuan once said that “poverty is a kind of atmosphere in life,” which will fully affect a person’s consumption habits and psychological feelings:

Poverty is an atmosphere of life, and spending will be more restrained. . . I am very good, I will go home after class, and I will not hang out with friends, because it costs money, and saving money is very happy for me.

Xuan xuan’s mother deliberately hid their economic challenges from her daughters. Hence, Xuan xuan was in the dark about her family’s plight for a long time. After finding out, Xuan xuan informed her mother about a “low-income household subsidy” to apply for. Her mother’s decision to not reveal their economic difficulties resulted from the stigma of being a single parent. According to Xuan xuan:

(Mum) didn’t talk much about her single-parent situation to outsiders. Only a few close friends of her really know they were divorced. In fact, she was not shy about the state of separation, but they wouldn’t talk about divorce or divorce agreement…

There is often an assumption that single parents could make their situation better if only they “cheer up” or proactively try to change their situation. This results from framing single parents as morally deficient in some way rather than being an alternative kind of family. This manifests itself in a type of overcompensation as general strictness. 

In one interview, Jieru quoted her mother saying “You are a single-parent child, you must be more sensible, work harder and more motivated.” Alternatively, Ting Wei said that his mother often reveals in her speech that Ting Wei “sit a breath and show it to the person who abandons you (meaning father).” Therefore, she asked her best in schoolwork:

When I was in elementary school and middle school, I was very unhappy. As long as I failed the exam that day, I thought that day would be ruined, because I would be beaten by my mother when I went home. . . I think that besides the great financial pressure of my mother, wanting to take care of us and show it to others also puts a lot of pressure on her.

In terms of single-parent parental education strategies, research indicates that working-class single-parent families have the same three characteristics commonly found in many working-class families in Taiwan: “beating and scolding education, mental deterrence, and authoritarian education.”  One reason such behaviors are common is that lack of time means single parents have to be quick and effective with discipline, along with the mental stress and emotional maladjustment caused by single parents to the mother. Unfortunately, sometimes more extreme disciplines may occur for rapid and effective discipline, including excessive protection or excessive harshness. Single parents often place a higher premium on socially legitimized forms of “success” for their children but aim to attain such success with fewer resources and time. 

Whether it is a discipline strategy – or pedagogical investment – the stigma of single parenthood causes many mothers to develop parenting strategies that may be too stringent. This includes using stricter disciplinary methods than two-parent households and participating more frequently in educational activities such as parent conferences, or giving their children educational investments beyond their economic capacity. The image of the “normal” nuclear family remains powerful in the cultural imagination in Taiwan. It creates pressure for those who do not integrate into the status quo to have to emulate or fear disadvantage or ostracization for their children. Perhaps, the issue of single-parent families is not the single-parents themselves, but the lack of economic support and stigma they face. With the right policies and cultural shifts, we might realize that these families have never actually been “incomplete,” as there is likely no one “complete” family. 

Mingshan Lee is a Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University. She is interested in the sociology of the family and the sociology of education.

One comment

  1. Is there a “Single-Parenthood Stigma in Taiwan”? I see only anecdotal evidence that there is a scarcity of resources in single-parent families, an issue that is not really surprising when we consider that two-parent families have double the resource potential of single-parent families. Less income requires restrained “consumption habits”. Less time requires “more extreme [measures] for rapid and effective discipline”.

    Most parents strive for their children to have a better life, especially when the family suffers hardships. Is this equivalent to “plac[ing] a higher premium on socially legitimized forms of “success” for their children”? No, they just want for their children better opportunities in life that come with better performance in better schools. No stigma or pressure on single-parent families is needed to explain this behaviour because two-parent families behave the same.

    “Perhaps, the issue of single-parent families is not” so much that “the image of the “normal” nuclear family remains powerful in the cultural imagination in Taiwan” but rather the growing “divorce [rate] and out-of-wedlock birth”.

    It might be more beneficial to ask what circumstances cause so much stress in marriages that they break up in growing numbers and what social forces contribute to the growing number of out-of-wedlock births.

    Two-parent families simply have it easier to bring up successful children than do single-parent families. That’s why they are preferred by a majority, not because of a lingering image in the cultural imagination.

    Single-parent families have issues first of all because of scarce resources. Social stigma and social pressure are secondary. To make the single-parent family appear less undesirable “with the right policies and cultural shifts” might make some people feel better but surely would not make the life of single-parent family members substantially easier and more successful in getting out of their disadvantaged position.

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