The satisfying side of being home alone

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Divorce and single parenthood can make a mother more confident and leave a child feeling more loved, according to new studies.

In the past, most research has focused on the negative impact of divorce on parent and child. But the British Psychological Society heard yesterday that although single parent families may have more to cope with, mothers reported a sense of achievement and a feeling of doing a job well, while their children experienced feelings of love and security.

Children of single parent families were also less likely to have stereotypical views of male and female roles. The results of the studies were presented at a symposium in Oxford.

While single parents tended to have tougher lives than their married counterparts, they tended to use such experiences in a more positive way.

Doctor Ann Woollett, of the University of East London, interviewed 35 families to find out what divorce actually felt like.

"We're not trying to suggest that divorce is good," said Dr Woollett. "It is quite clear that children can suffer problems because of divorce." But she added that such an experience could galvanise women into taking charge of their lives.

"When the marriage breaks down, the mother is thrown into doing all sorts of things that are unfamiliar," she said. "There are new areas, new decisions and she is forced to cope."

Small events such as getting the car repaired at a garage, choosing the child's school and taking the child out for the day can leave mothers with a sense of achievement. "These things may sound trivial, but mothers can be filled with a sense of self-confidence."

As for the children, they often talked about a sense of stability. "Children reported a feeling of love focused on them," added Dr Woollett. "During the divorce, the parents may feel they have neglected the child with all the trauma. When the divorce is over, they begin to try to make up for that.

"The child may also be proud of how the mother is doing and how they are doing, they are proud to have taken up responsibilities."

Dr Woollett said the most satisfactory situation was when the child maintained good communication with the parent - usually the father - who lived away from home.

But Dr Charlie Lewis, of Lancaster University, whose research found that single parents experienced more negative and positive life events than their married peers, urged caution. "We must be careful about thinking about these positive changes," he said. "We are always comparing a positive change against the negative feeling that went before. The positive is only relative."

Dr Morag Smith, of Dundee University, interviewed 49 children and their mothers, half of whom were married and half single.

She found that children from single parent families were less rigid in their notion of what were "girls' toys" and what were "boys' toys".

The National Council for One Parent Families welcomed the findings. "The research is a recognition of the positive strength and achievements of mothers who are raising their children and creating a family life against all the odds," said Karin Pappenheim, the council's director.