Laurie Maldonado’s research focuses on single-parent families. After suddenly becoming a single parent herself, she experienced first-hand how quickly single-parent families can fall into poverty in the United States, not knowing if she could continue her research. Then Laurie secured an AFR PhD grant, conducting her research at the LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg and at UCLA. A few years and a successful PhD defence later, we talked with Laurie about her journey and her close-to-home research.
What is the focus of your research?
“My research is on single-parent families in the U.S. and from around the world. I hope to contribute to research that informs policies and programs that will improve the lives of single parents and their families.”
Before your AFR PhD, you co-authored a report looking at cross-national comparisons of single-parent families, which received significant interest from the media, can you go into more detail?
“It was my first piece, a report co-authored with Tim Casey from Legal Momentum, titled ‘Worst Off: Single-Parent Families in the United States: A Cross-National Comparison of Single Parenthood in the U.S. and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries’. It described the difficult plight of single parents in the U.S. as mostly due to lack of social policies and protections offered in other countries. According to Worst Off, most American single parents were working and yet their families were poor.
“Why is this the case? One reason is that many single parents were working in the low-wage job market. The study received media attention in The Nation, by Bill Moyers, in the New York Times, in Forbes, and by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and I was interviewed on WBAI public radio and Al Jazeera International English.”
Then your personal life converged with your research, can you explain how you ended up with this unique perspective?
“At the same time that Worst Off was gaining attention, my husband and partner of 14 years asked for a divorce. I was devastated as my ‘traditional’ family fell apart right in front of my eyes. I became a single parent, sharing custody of my one-year-old son with his father, yet still I was living below the poverty line in the U.S. This was the worst possible scenario that I could have ever imagined for my family – it was an emotional and intellectual meltdown.
“It was a turning point in my life. I was finding my voice as a scholar and policy advocate, and at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I could continue the PhD program and the research that was so important to me.”
Then you were successful in getting an AFR grant to continue your PhD research, working with the LIS Cross-National Data Center in Luxembourg. What impact did the grant have on your life and research?
“Yes, in my very fortunate case, there was a silver lining. I received the AFR grant! This was a game-changer for me and my son. I was able to provide for my son and continue the PhD, complete the research I cared so deeply about.
“A highlight of my experience as an AFR grant recipient, was that my son and I, along with grandparents in tow, spent a significant amount of time in Luxembourg. This was a wonderful experience for my family –and it very much informed and contributed to my research. As I went from one country with little to no support (U.S.) to another country with generous protections and policies (Luxembourg), I experienced the enormous consequences that better policy for single-parent families had on my own family life. It was transformative.”
Your PhD research and the subsequent findings have led to a book which you co-edited, can you go into more detail?
“During my PhD research, I was able to build collaborations with leading scholars in my field and co-edit a book with Rense Nieuwenhuis from Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI), The triple bind of single-parent families. It’s a tremendous book, with 21 chapters on the latest research on single-parent families across 40 countries. The book makes an important contribution to what really matters for single-parent families. The book analyses how single parents face a triple bind of inadequate resources, employment, and policies, which in combination further complicate their lives.
“I’m most proud of this collection of work, the exceptional research of top-notch scholars. I was able to launch this large-scale project with my colleague, because I had the AFR PhD grant to support my research.”
What are the differences in how single-parent families are perceived and supported, from country to country, and how can their situation be improved?
“In the U.S., single mothers are often blamed for their own circumstances and offered little support. This discourse is very much shaped by the image of the “welfare queen”; mothers seen as taking advantage of the state, undeserving of assistance. Whereas in the Nordic countries, single mothers are viewed in a much more positive light, and therefore are more supported by a wide-range of policies and programs. There was an interesting article in the New Yorker that I often refer to, in Iceland, co-parenting among separated parents is more common and single “independent” motherhood is seen as a strength.
“A take-home message is that it really depends in which country a single mother lives that determines her life circumstances. Policies and institutions matter. This resonates with my own story in the US and in Luxembourg. Although, similar to the US, Luxembourg has the highest rate of working single parents in poverty as compared to other European countries, which is alarming.
“What can be done? The triple bind of single-parent families proposes key lessons to improve the well-being of single-parent families. Overall, we know that single parents do better in societies with institutions that support equality of gender and equality of class.”
It must have been quite a feeling when you received your PhD certificate, can you describe it?
“It was my greatest personal accomplishment especially given the road I took was not always a straight path. Graduation at UCLA was a proud moment for me and for my family. I was alone on the stage, dressed in cap and gown, my dissertation chair highlighting my research in front of a big crowd. My dear, sweet five-year-old son shouted out “THAT’S MY MOMMA!!!” from the stands. It was so clear and so loud that all that heard were deeply moved.
“It was an especially “sweet moment” as I realized that my son had been watching me the entire time. He was with me everywhere and he was watching how I responded to life’s challenges, rising above them, to eventually earn the highest degree. It was the best feeling in the world, and I still get teary-eyed when I reminisce about this moment.
“I am so grateful for my son, his grandparents, my beautiful family and community. There are many that have supported me every step of the way. I greatly appreciate my academic mentors and colleagues, in particular, Janet Gornick who served as the PI on my grant. Janet was instrumental in this award and she continues to have great influence in my research and on my journey.”
Now that you have earned your PhD, what are your plans – will you continue your research on single-parent families?
“Yes! I will continue with the research on single-parent families. My next projects will explore policies that promote shared parenting and various outcomes.
“I’m looking for a position in either academia or at a research and policy institute. I’ll thrive in an environment that supports research and is interested in policy impact.
“I will write a sole-authored book that is my own voice and experience of being a single parent in the U.S. and the opportunity that I had to experience Luxembourg. It will be an illustrative narrative that is very much grounded in the literature. It takes the lessons on what works from other countries and applies them to the United States. We can do much better for single-parent families, for all types of families.”
The triple bind of single-parent families: resources, employment and policies to improve wellbeing © Policy Press 2018 (open access)
Single Parents In A Gendered Triple Bind, article written for Social Europe, March 2018
Published 8 May 2018
 The triple bind of single-parent families: resources, employment and policies to improve wellbeing
 The Independent Mothers of Iceland
 Handbook of In-Work Poverty, Single parents and in-work poverty