Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Mothering Mothers: An Exploration of the Perceptions of Adult Children of Divorce

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Mothering Mothers: An Exploration of the Perceptions of Adult Children of Divorce

Article excerpt


It is only within the very recent past that the children of the divorce boom of the 1970s in Australia have grown to adulthood and are in a position to reflect on the impact of their family's breakdown on their lives. The outcomes for these children using various measures of physical, psychological, emotional and financial wellbeing have been widely explored in the divorce and clinical literature (see Amato, 2000; King, 2002; Neale, 2001; Smart, and Neale, 2001; Wallerstein, 2000; Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980; Wallerstein and Blakesless, 1990; Wells and Johnston, 2001).

Little is known about the ways in which parental separation (1) continues to shape the relationships between adult children and their parents, although it is clear that the degree of ambivalence towards parents correlates with conflict and poor parental relations in early life (Willson, Shuey & Elder, 2003; Hallie, 2007) whether the parents are separated or not. As parents age and their support needs grow, the quality of their relationships with their children become crucial (Bianchi, 2006; Willson, Shuey & Elder, 2006). Levels of contact, and levels of intimacy appear to be key determinants to adult children's willingness to offer care to their aging parents--where contact levels have been low (commonly with fathers) support levels are low and concomitantly, where intimacy levels are high (more commonly with mothers) it has been assumed that ongoing support will be more forthcoming (Wells and Johnson, 2001; Bianchi, 2006).

Intimacy (2) and distance are two themes central to the literature relating to post-separation relationships. There appears to be a general consensus that children and custodial mothers forge a close bond in the immediate post separation period and this commonly persists into adulthood (see Aquilino, 1994; Kruk, 1994; Arditti 1999). But there is no consensus about the efficacy of this bond. Structural family theorists, for example, type such a bond as an example of 'role reversal' which transgresses the role boundaries which generate healthy family dynamics, especially for children:

   ... when the parental alliance breaks down and the emotional
   boundaries are blurred, the children may be induced to assume
   spousal/parental functions. They may take on the role of confident,
   peer or mentor to a distressed parent, as well as 'parent' to their
   siblings (Johnston, 1990: 406).

In other words, children are commonly 'promoted' after separation (Arditti, 1999a: 116) in a way which interferes with, and ultimately destroys, the 'executive leadership' (Johnston, 1990: 405) of the parents. As the data from this project show, this can also lead to adult children giving their parents a performance appraisal. Workplace terminology aside, it is argued by Guttman and Rosenberg (2003) that this inversion blurs the family's boundaries which define both the relationships between individual family members and the relationships between members and the larger family structure per se. Quite what the long-term effects of this are is unclear. Wallerstein's (2000) twenty five year longitudinal study of separated families suggests that it may generate early maturation, and more generally contribute to the plethora of difficulties experienced by the adult children of divorce which the Wallerstein study recounts. Similarly, Amato and Keith (1991) in a meta-analysis of the literature to that date argue that the key three explanations for the relative lack of achievement of the children of divorce are as follows; a decline in their living standards, a depletion of their family structure and the stress associated with the changes which divorce engenders. More recently, there has been considerable attention paid in to the ways in which these results can be ameliorated through the use of mediation during the separation process (see Emery et al, 2001), an outcome which informed the recent changes to the Family Law Act in Australia (Australian Parliament House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, 2003; Australian Parliament House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, 2005). …

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