Mother’s Day is just around the corner, a time when children of all ages recognize and honour mothers, grandmothers and, increasingly, great-grandmothers! As we focus our attention on moms, many people worry about the prevalence of lone mothers and express concern about the well-being of their families.

“For many people, the term ‘lone mother’ brings to mind an image of a poor, struggling victim of sorts. They’re often seen as a single, growing group in crisis, toiling to raise children all on their own,” says Vanier Institute of the Family CEO Nora Spinks. “But this stereotype overlooks the diverse family experiences of lone mothers. This diversity, and the complexity of family life, is often lost in the statistics.”

“Of Canada’s 9.4 million families, only 16% lived in lone-parent families in 2011, with eight in 10 being led by women,” says Spinks. Many people feel that lone-parent families have been growing consistently over time. The truth, however, is more complex.

This belief is in part the result of looking only at trends since the 1960s, when the “traditional” family model with two married parents was at its peak. However, family structures fluctuate over time. Looking back further, lone-parent families were relatively common; the share of children living with a lone parent was 12% in 1931, similar to the 1981 rate of 13%.

While these numbers are close, the stories behind them differ because families faced different realities in these times. Many lone-parent families in the first half of the 20th century were in fact the result of mothers who died giving birth. The rate of children living in lone-parent families resulting from family death was eight in 10 in 1931. By the end of the century, it was only one in 10.

After the baby boom, a growing share of lone mothers were the result of separation and divorce, particularly following divorce law reform in 1968. This was just one of many changes for women in Canada during this period: women also gained greater capacity for family planning after the birth control pill emerged, and a growing number were pursuing higher education and joining the paid labour force, resulting in rising incomes.

This growth continues today, as the economic well-being of women improves. The incomes of lone mothers grew by 51% between 1998 and 2008 (compared to 13% among men). The income gap among lone parent families has shrunk: lone-parent families headed by women had incomes worth 53% of those headed by men in 1998, but 70% by 2008.

The prevalence of lone mothers, and lone-parent families in general, has always fluctuated over time. The reasons change, but the reality of ongoing change is constant. Families adapt and react to change, regardless of their form or the number of parents within.

The “lone mother” label often leads to another misperception: that these moms are without support. “Lone” suggests that these mothers are raising a family without any outside support (as does “sole” in the alternate label of “sole support mother”).

Often, these moms are not raising their children alone. Sometimes support comes from ex-partners. In 2011, 35% of separated or divorced parents said that decisions about their child(ren)’s health, religion/spirituality or education were made jointly or alternately. That same year, 9% said that their child(ren) live equally between their homes.

Support can come from other family members as well. In 2011, 8% of grandparents lived with their grandchildren, and one-third of these technically lived in “lone” parent households. “That’s 600,000 grandmas and grandpas in the family home, many of whom provide care and support to both generations,” says Spinks.

Multigenerational living is on the rise. It’s relatively common among immigrant and Aboriginal families. Shared living makes it easier to share costs, pool savings and provide care. Three-quarters of grandparents in lone-parent homes report some responsibility for household costs.

Many lone mothers may be in committed relationships with a partner who contributes to their family life, but choose to live in “living apart together” (LAT) couples. According to Statistics Canada, 8% of women aged 20 and over (1.9 million) are in LAT couples. However, we do not know how many of these are lone mothers.

Just as families are diverse, so are the forms of support they can provide and receive. Not all networks of care or forms of support are easy to capture with statistics. Lone mothers can be supported by friends or family members who offer help in ways such as child care; financial loans; living space; transportation; used toys, books or other goods; meals or groceries; and emotional support.

“Any portrait or discussion of modern lone mothers requires an open mind. One needs to understand that family life is diverse and complex, and families of all kinds are adaptable, strong and resilient. Myths and stereotypes about particular family types only lead to misunderstandings,” says Spinks. “That idea has guided the Vanier Institute of the Family since its founding 50 years ago, and will continue to as we study Canada’s families in the years ahead.”