Academic journal article The Future of Children

Parental Relationships in Fragile Families

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Parental Relationships in Fragile Families

Article excerpt

Nonmarital childbearing increased dramatically in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century, changing the context in which American children are raised and giving rise to a new family form--fragile families, defined as unmarried couples with children. Some analysts see these changes as a positive sign of greater individual freedom and women's economic independence; others argue that they contribute to poverty and income inequality. (1) Given the importance of families to children's health and development, researchers and policy makers have become increasingly interested in the nature of parental relationships in fragile families and their implications for children's future life chances, especially children's access to resources and the stability and quality of these resources. Parents living in cooperative, stable unions tend to pool their incomes and work together to raise their child. By contrast, those living apart in noncooperative relationships can jeopardize their child's resources, both financial and social. (2)

In this article we review research findings about parental relationships in fragile families. We focus on four aspects of the parental relationship: the quality of intimate relationships, relationship stability, nonresident fathers' involvement with their child, and the quality of the co-parenting relationship between parents who live apart. Each of these indicators tells us something important about the parental relationship, and viewing them all together provides a more complete picture than looking at only one or two. In the first section of this article, we describe parental relationships at the birth of the child and examine how they evolve during the first five years after birth. In the second, we describe what is known (from nonexperimental research) about the determinants of good relationships. In the third, we discuss experiments that identify causal effects on parental relationships, as well as the implications of these findings for policy makers and practitioners. The first two sections are based primarily on analyses using the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study because these data provide the most extensive (and recent) information on the population of interest--unmarried parents. Although a broader literature examines cohabiting unions and transitions into and out of cohabiting unions, it is based mostly on samples that combine childless adults with parents or divorced mothers with never-married mothers. (3) When such studies are included, we note it.

Parental Relationships in Fragile Families

In the following discussion we describe what we have learned about parental relationships in fragile families, starting with a description of the parental relationship at the time of the child's birth and continuing up to five years after the birth.

Relationships at Birth

According to data from the Fragile Families study, most unmarried parents are in a romantic relationship at the time their child is born. (See figure 1.) Approximately 50 percent are cohabiting, and another 30 percent are romantically involved but living apart (visiting). The proportion of romantically involved parents is similar for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, although blacks are less likely to be cohabiting than other groups. (4)

At the time of the birth, most parents are optimistic about their future together and report relatively high levels of relationship quality. As shown in table 1, more than 91 percent of cohabiting mothers and over half of single mothers say their chances of marrying the father are "fifty-fifty or better." Reports of relationship quality are measured on a supportiveness scale that notes how often the other parent is "fair and willing to compromise, loving and affectionate, critical or insulting, and encouraging." Such reports are quite positive among unmarried parents, with cohabiting parents reporting the same level of supportiveness as married parents. …

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