The first year of being a single mom was tough on Alaina Sheer's health.
The marketing professional turned author and blogger said the pressures of raising her newborn son, combined with her crippling divorce debt and the feeling that she'd been cast out of her social network, took their toll.
"Can you imagine the stress that came with that?" Sheer asked. "That first year, I lost like 80 pounds. The stress just took hold of my body." At the time, Sheer was just 28 years old.
But a new study in the American Sociological Review tracking the health status of single moms at age 40 suggests that the negative health consequences of single motherhood might be even more long-lasting.
Focusing on the self-reported answers from moms who were unmarried at the time that they had their first child, researchers combed through data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which included some 13,000 participants who were interviewed at regular intervals for more than 30 years.
They found that white and black women who were unmarried when they had their first child reported that they were in worse health than their married counterparts. Hispanic women did not report the same negative health consequences -- a fact researches speculate could be tied to strong family networks and the prevalence of long-term, cohabitating relationships within that group.
The researchers admit that determining the exact reason why women who have their first child outside of marriage have negative health consequences was beyond the scope of their study. However, they offered several possible explanations.
"The stress associated with non marital childbearing, as well as the economic disadvantages that can come with it can put real strains on people's health," said Kristi Williams, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University and the study's lead author. "The question of which are the most important stressors still needs to be answered, but you have to keep in mind that this is on top of the day-to-day strains of simply caring for a child."
The study further considered the question of whether or not women who had their first child outside of marriage enjoyed better health if they later lived with or married someone.
While white and hispanic women who subsequently married their child's biological father did report improved health, the researchers found that generally, subsequent relationships don't make a difference, health-wise. Williams said the general stress of cohabitating could be one possible explanation. She added that women who remarry often choose spouses who have their own children, and blending families can be stressful.
For her part, Sheer -- who has since entered into a relationship -- agreed.
"I'm glad they pointed that out," she said. "When you're a single mom, you can start to think that the answer to everything is a man, and you're waiting to be rescued by a prince. But the fact is, when you bring someone new in, suddenly you're worried about both of them."
Overall, Williams said that the health implications of single motherhood have only just begun to be explored. But given a 2007 estimate cited in the study, which found that nearly 40 percent of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried women, she said the potential public health implications were enormous.
"We are soon going to have a large population of single mothers who are entering midlife, when many health problems just begin to emerge," she said in a statement. "This is a looming public health crisis that has been pretty much ignored by the public and policymakers."
The study, she hopes, will give rise to more research. For example, she thinks it sheds doubt on the idea that by promoting marriage among single, low-income mothers, the government could also help improve their health.
Leah Klungness, PhD, co-founder of the website Singlemommyhood put it a different way.
"Nothing inherent to single parenting [puts] an individual at greater risk for stress related health concerns post 40," she said in an e-mail. "My personal experience? Health and overall well-being [are] greatly improved after leaving a stressful and unhappy marriage."