Families in the 21st century

Spanish society has undergone major demographic, social and economic changes in recent decades, going from being in 1960 a poor country by European standards, politically conservative and isolated from its surroundings, socially traditional and Catholic, with low levels of urbanization and education, to a country in the year 2000 richer than it ever was, with an economy, politics and society closer to European ones, with a more educated, urban, worldly and consumerist population, and ideologically more flexible and tolerant, less traditional.

This evolution has had consequences on the family institution. The Spanish family is going through a period of profound transformations, which affect both its structure and the dynamics of the processes and roles played within it.

In terms of structural changes, we can observe that there has been a drastic reduction in multiple or complex households (those in which different family nuclei coexist) and that, alongside traditional nuclear families (a married couple and their children), “post-nuclear” families are increasingly present: Non-marital unions, couples without offspring, “reconstituted or blended” families (from previous unions), homosexual couples and of course single-parent families (they can be formed from single biological or adoptive parenthood, following the death of a spouse, or from the separation, divorce or annulment of a couple’s bond). These different genetic circumstances are not mere anecdotes, but shape different life trajectories that lead to unequal access to social privileges. Within single-parent families, the group of single mothers presents a series of particular conditions that are the main object of our analysis.

On the other hand, taking into account the dynamics of the processes and roles played within the family, it is evident that the growing access of women to education and paid employment, as well as the ideological change in which these have taken place, is causing progressive changes in family dynamics. Thus, the roles that men and women play within the family have been moving closer together, at a faster pace in its more public aspect, and at a slower pace in its private aspect. In the particular case of single mothers, there are greater difficulties in accessing the labor market, mainly due to lack of education and the limitations imposed by family responsibilities.

All these changes have led to a new concept of family that could be defined as “a group of people, united by relationships of affection and mutual support, personally committed to a common life project that is intended to last”. This acceptance and recognition of family and life situations that were previously rejected or ignored is translating into a process of legal equalization of both different types of unions and different types of filiations.

In this context, the situation of single mothers in Spain continues to be ignored to the point that many of these families are not aware of having the same rights and obligations as any other type of family.