Lone mothers have been shown to have higher levels of psychological distress than married mothers, but it is not clear how this difference arises. Using data from the 1958 British birth cohort followed to age 33, we investigated alternative explanations for the excess distress of lone mothers. Logistic regression models were used to estimate odds ratios for distress (measured using the Malaise Inventory) in lone vs married mothers. Odds ratios were adjusted to assess the contribution of explanatory factors. At age 33, psychological distress was greater among lone than married mothers (OR 2.59, 95% CI 1.97, 3.41). The odds ratio decreased to 1.43 (95% CI 1.02, 2.01) after adjustment for all explanatory factors (prior psychological distress, age of youngest child and number of children in the household, and contemporary measures of financial hardship, employment, and social support). Attenuation of the odds ratio was most marked after taking account of financial hardship. Psychological distress was greater among divorced mothers than never married mothers, though not significantly (OR = 1.70, 95% CI 0.88, 3.28). This difference was not explained by the factors examined, and was not due to the immediate distress associated with a recent divorce. Elevated psychological distress of lone mothers appears to be related to financial hardship, while other explanations, including social support and selection, have a more modest impact. Not all of the elevated psychological distress among lone mothers was accounted for, particularly among divorced lone mothers.