Family Structure Transitions and Maternal Parenting Stress

By Cooper, Carey E.; McLanahan, Sara S. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Family Structure Transitions and Maternal Parenting Stress


Cooper, Carey E., McLanahan, Sara S., Meadows, Sarah O., Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Journal of Marriage and Family


Data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 4,176) are used to examine family structure transitions and maternal parenting stress. Using multilevel modeling, we found that mothers who exit coresidential relationships with biological fathers or enter coresidential relationships with nonbiological fathers reported higher levels of parenting stress than mothers in stable coresidential relationships. Mothers who enter coresidential relationships with biological fathers reported lower levels of parenting stress than mothers who remain single. Mothers' resources, especially their relationships with biological fathers, accounted for most of the associations between transitions and parenting stress, with posttransition resources being more important than pretransition resources. Mothers with high levels of education were less affected by transitions than mothers with less education.

Key Words: education, family structure, fragile families, parenting.

The past 50 years have witnessed dramatic changes in the structure and stability of American families. Increased rates of divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital fertility have contributed to a variety of new family forms and greater instability in children's living arrangements, especially among low-income and racial or ethnic minority families (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000). The increasingly diverse and fluid nature of American families has raised concerns about children's well-being and made understanding family structure transitions and their effects on parenting and child development a primary goal for social scientists. These changes have also led to policy initiatives designed to reduce nonmarital childbearing, increase marriage among unmarried parents, and reduce marital instability.

Although a substantial literature exists on divorce and remarriage, little is known about the consequences of marriage (with a biological or nonbiological, social father) for women who have children outside marriage. Even less is known about the consequences of entrances and exits from other types of unions (e.g., cohabitation) on mothers and their children. This study explores the associations between family structure transitions and mothers' parenting stress during the first 5 years of a child's life, paying special attention to transitions involving alternative family forms. Specifically, we ask the following: (a) Are family structure transitions associated with changes in maternal parenting stress? (b) To what extent do pretransition and posttransition maternal resources account for these associations? (c) Do the associations between family structure transitions and parenting stress vary by maternal education?

We pursue these three objectives using a valuable data set for research on family structure transitions: the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The Fragile Families study is a national, longitudinal survey of births in large U.S. cities that follows approximately 5,000 parents and their children from birth until age 5. Maternal reports of family composition were collected when the child was born and again at ages 1, 3, and 5. The longitudinal nature of the Fragile Families study and its oversample of nonmarital births make these data ideal for studying different types of unmarried mothers (e.g., mothers who live alone vs. those who cohabit with a biological or social father), different types of union transitions (e.g., into marriage and out of cohabitation), and the extent to which the associations between these transitions and parenting stress can be explained by pretransition and posttransition factors.

BACKGROUND

Parenting Stress

Within any family, parenting is a challenging process. For a variety of reasons, however, parents may be more or less reactive to the challenges of raising children. The extent to which parents experience stress in their parenting roles, in particular, has important implications for parent, child, and family functioning. …

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