Study title
The multiple paths of lone parenthood
Ref study 13853
Study language French
Contributing institutions
  • Politiques publiques
  • Famille monoparentale
  • Parcours de vie
  • Garde des enfants
  • Transitions familiales
  • Remise en couple
2012 - current
Geographical space
French-speaking Switzerland
  • Switzerland
The research project "The multiple paths of lone parenthood", which has been taking place in French-speaking Switzerland since 2012, analyses the paths and living conditions of single parents and their children. Through an interdisciplinary approach, combining sociological and demographic perspectives, as well as public policy and legal analysis, this research team is interested in several dimensions of lone parenthood :

- The career paths of lone parents following their transition to single parenthood
- The role of lone parents' family and interpersonal networks (social networks) as a source of support or stressors
- The effects of work and unemployment on the health of lone mothers compared to couple mothers
- The meaning and repartnering of lone mothers
- The relationship between repartnering trajectories and the health situation of lone parents
- Child care arrangements, their determinants and consequences
- The role of public policies in addressing the vulnerability of lone parents

The project aims to contribute to the public debate on the growing diversity of family forms and social inequalities affecting children. This research also aims to provide a solid empirical knowledge base to inform public policies through the dissemination of its results to elected officials and professionals in the field.

The growing complexity of family forms affects an increasing number of people experiencing lone-parenthood at some point in their personal trajectory. Over the past three decades, their profiles have indeed become more diverse. The data analysis carried out in the framework of the project shows that while in the past lone-parenthood mainly concerned widows and, more rarely, young mothers without a partner, today it is mainly made up of divorced or separated women and, to some extent, women who decide to have children alone. During the same three decades, the average duration of lone-parenthood has decreased significantly, due to a very high rate of re-parenting. Added to this already complex picture of lone-parenthood are the increasingly common situations of alternating custody where both parents share a significant portion of the time with the children but separately from each other (Bernardi, Mortelmans, & Larenza, (2018).

As the results of the longitudinal study in French-speaking Switzerland show, the transition to lone-parenthood is often a non-linear and evolutionary process. Its beginning and sometimes even its end are difficult to identify precisely by the persons concerned, who express strong ambivalence in their relationships with their (former) partner(s) and in their family situation (Bernardi & Larenza, 2018). Lone-parenthood is therefore a dynamic process that cannot easily be locked into one-dimensional and fixed definitions. This fluidity of pathways challenges social policies aimed at reducing social inequalities between children from family breakdowns and other children.

Indeed, lone parent families remain a category more likely to experience precariousness. More specifically, the risks appear especially when several factors combine: mother's youth, lack of training, unemployment, health problems (of the children or the mother). Lone-parenthood is thus at the intersection of gender and class inequalities, these are sometimes exacerbated by social structures. The poor integration of women into the labour market and the difficulty of reconciling employment and family life significantly increase the risk of having to resort to social assistance. The weakness of work-life balance policies in Switzerland represents an additional source of stress for lone parents, who have no choice but to assume financial and childcare responsibilities alone (Struffolino & Bernardi, 2017).


Over-represented in social assistance statistics, lone parents are often stigmatized, portrayed as abusers of social assistance and reluctant to work because they raise their children alone. However, research findings suggest the opposite: whether in Switzerland or elsewhere in Europe, lone mothers are more likely to be active and to work long hours compared to mothers living with a partner. In particular, our analysis of survey data in Switzerland shows that most lone mothers maintain or increase their employment rate during the transition to lone-parenthood (Struffolino, Bernardi & Larenza, 2018). These mothers are proportionally more represented in full-time and high part-time jobs, but at the same time suffer from a proportionally higher unemployment rate than mothers living in a couple. Factors such as age, education level or migration path and region of origin may play a role (Milewski, Struffolino and Bernardi, 2018). These results suggest that the common and easy assumption that social protection measures tend to discourage lone mothers from entering the labour market should be revisited. Rather, the low employment rate among certain groups of migrant lone mothers suggests the following reasons:

- lower levels of remuneration and job security in low-skilled work sectors
- lack of social and economic capital needed to provide childcare and to pay for travel from a cheap and outlying housing area


Through a qualitative analysis of the stories of study participants, our research illustrates how social policies can contribute to the vulnerability of lone parents as stressors, with impacts several areas of their lives and over time (Larenza, 2019). The study also demonstrates that parents' ability to respond to stressors can be guided by their relationships with significant others in their lives.

Focusing on two specific policy measures, we found, among other things, that the legal framework is not very effective for mothers facing violations of child support payments. Indeed, the lack of financial resources due to these violations can still affect several areas of single mothers' lives. Moreover, not all mothers want to respond to violations, as they face moral dilemmas, involving the other parent and his or her relationship with the children. Some mothers also adjust to total violations by changing their own career paths to cope with the lack of financial resources, which has a negative impact on other areas of their lives.

Secondly, we have discussed the different ways in which lone parents respond to problems in accessing social assistance benefits. Our research shows that parents' responses to these problems depend on their individual resources and the timing of events in their life course. For example, if the separation is recent, parents may have less time to apply for benefits even though they know they could access them. In addition, lack of access to social assistance benefits may not only affect their economic situation, but also lead to a more complex set of changes in other areas of their lives. For example, career development or fulfilling parenting with children may be hindered.


Lone-parenthood continues to be associated with multiple disadvantages: poverty and fragmented employment trajectories are added to poor health. Differences in the health status of lone mothers have been attributed to both their higher levels of psychosocial and financial stress, as they are more likely to work in low-paying jobs and as they need to take care of their children alone. However, and in contrast to other studies, our research has shown that, in the case of Switzerland, lone mothers with post-obligatory education and working full-time have a higher level of well-being.

We also compared the Swiss situation with other European countries (Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, France and Germany), in particular by testing the relationship between lone parenting pathways, re-partnering and the health status of mothers (Recksiedler & Bernardi, 2019). The question was: does a new relationship represent additional resources or additional stress in these delicately balanced families? Our results show that the type of public policies in place in each country is very important in defining the impact of re-partnering on maternal health. These results suggest that in countries with public policies that are less generous towards the family, such as Switzerland, maternal health improves with a new union. But at the same time, the family life course of these women tends to be less stable. We interpret these results as an indication that re-partnering may be a partially ineffective strategy in the long run to cope with the lack of resources of lone parents.

We have also studied a case centred on the Spanish situation (Garriga and Bernardi, 2019), a country where alternate custody has recently spread as a family arrangement following breakdowns. We compared the well-being of adolescents living in a lone parent situation to that of adolescents who share their time with both separated parents in a more equal manner. Well-being was measured in terms of satisfaction and assessment of quality of life as well as a series of symptoms indicating psychological discomfort such as difficulty sleeping or somatic symptoms such as frequent headaches. We were particularly attentive to differences among children from disadvantaged families and their peers. Our results suggest that alternating custody is more common for children from more advantaged families and that these children benefit more than children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
Methods (description)

Since 2012, around 40 parents who have experienced a lone parent situation are being interviewed at intervals of 2 to 3 years. Biographical interviews have been combined with life calendars and social network questionnaires to address the following:

- the transition to lone parenthood and the relationship with the non-custodial parent (custody negotiations and support payments)
- other family events and transitions (remarriage, family reunification)
- other areas of the life course (education, employment, housing, health)

In addition, each wave of field interviews focused on a specific element. Wave 1 (2012-2013) focused on the life course of lone parents and the retrospective experience of their transition to lone parenthood. Wave 2 (2015) focused on the role of public policies in overcoming the vulnerability of single parents. Wave 3 (2017-2018) focused on the social support obtained through the support networks of these parents. Wave 4 (2020) addressed the impact of the situation derived from COVID-19 on these families. The common thread running through these different waves makes it possible to analyse changes in pathways in the areas of family, employment and health.
Methods (instruments)
  • Qualitative interviews
Replicated study No
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura; Voorpostel, Marieke. 2016. Self-reported health among lone mothers in Switzerland: Do employment and education matter?. Population, 71(2), 193–222. Online:
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura. 2017. Vulnerabilität alleinerziehender Mütter in der Schweiz aus einer Lebensverlaufsperspektive. ZSE Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation (2).
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura. 2017. Vulnerability of lone mothers over the life course in Switzerland. Lives Working Paper 2017/60. Online: 10.12682/lives.2296-1658.2017.60
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Mortelmans, Dimitri. 2018. Lone mothers in Belgium. Labour force attachment and risk factors. In Bernardi L. and Mortelmans D. (Eds.) “Lone parenthood in the life course”, Life Course Research and Social Policies Series, vol. 8, pp. 257-282, Springer, Cham. Online: 10.1007/978-3-319-63295-7_12
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura; Larenza, Ornella. 2018. Lone Parenthood and Employment Trajectories : a Longitudinal Mixed-Method Study. (Lives Working Paper No. 67. Online: 10.12682/lives.2296-1658.2018.67
  • Milewski, Nadja; Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura. 2018. Migrant status and lone motherhood – Risk factors of female labour force participation in Switzerland. In Bernardi L. and Mortelmans D. (Eds.) Lone Parenthood in the Life Course, Life course research and social policies series, Springer.
  • Bernardi, Laura; Larenza, Ornella. 2018. Variety of Transitions into Lone Parenthood. In: Bernardi L., Mortelmans D. (eds) Lone Parenthood in the Life Course. Life Course Research and Social Policies, vol 8. Springer, Cham. Online: 10.1007/978-3-319-63295-7_5#enumeration
  • Bernardi, Laura; Mortelmans, Dimitri; Larenza, Ornella. 2018. Changing Lone Parents, Changing Life Courses. In L. Bernardi & D. Mortelmans (Eds.), Lone Parenthood in the Life Course (pp. 1–26). Cham: Springer International Publishing. Online: 10.1007/978-3-319-63295-7_1
  • Bernardi, Laura; Mortelmans, Dimitri. 2018. Lone Parenthood in the Life Course. Life Course Research and Social Policies, vol 8. Springer, Cham. Online: 10.1007/978-3-319-63295-7
  • Larenza, Ornella. 2019. Social policy shaping the life-course: A study on lone parents' vulnerability. Doctoral dissertation, University of Lausanne. Online:
  • Recksiedler, Claudia; Bernardi, Laura. 2019. Lone Mothers’ Repartnering Trajectories and Health: Does the Welfare Context Matter?. Journal of Family Issues, 40(17), 2582-2604. Online: 10.1177/0192513X19860175
  • Garriga, Anna; Bernardi, Laura. 2019. Heterogeneity in the effects of children living arrangements on children's health outcomes. Revue des politiques sociales et familiales,n° 131-132 (2e et 3e trimestres) : 207-221.
  • Struffolino, Emanuela; Bernardi, Laura; Larenza, Ornella. 2020. Lone parenthood and employment trajectories: A longitudinal mixed-method study. Comparative Population Studies, Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung, Wiesbaden, Vol. forthcoming.
Financed by
Ethical approval No
Study type
Data availability
Source (Updates) Web
Date created 30.06.2020
Date modified 07.07.2020
Start - End date 01.01.2012 -