Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

More Kin, Less Support: Multipartnered Fertility and Perceived Support among Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

More Kin, Less Support: Multipartnered Fertility and Perceived Support among Mothers

Article excerpt

Recent research has documented the high prevalence of having children with more than 1 partner, termed multipartnered fertility. Because childbearing is an important mechanism for building kin networks, we theorize that multipartnered fertility will influence the availability of social support for mothers. Analyzing 3 waves of data from the Fragile Families study (N = 12,259), we find that multipartnered fertility is negatively associated with the availability of financial, housing, and child-care support. Our longitudinal evidence suggests a bidirectional relationship in which multipartnered fertility reduces the availability of support, and the availability of support inhibits multipartnered fertility. We conclude that smaller and denser kin networks seem to be superior to broader, but weaker kin ties in terms of perceived instrumental support.

Key Words: fertility, fragile families, kin networks, social networks, social support, stepfamilies.

Recent research has shown that having a child with more than one partner, referred to as multipartnered fertility, is prevalent in the United States. Among 36% of recent urban births, either the mother or the father had a child with a previous partner, an especially striking percentage given that it is not based on completed parity (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006). Multipartnered fertility may occur within or outside of marriage but is more common in unmarried families for two reasons: The relationships of unmarried parents have a high rate of dissolution and unmarried parents are younger on average than married parents, both of which will increase the opportunity for multipartnered fertility. Among a recent urban birth cohort, nearly 60% of unmarried couples and 21% of married couples had at least one child from a previous relationship (Carlson & Furstenberg).

Multipartnered fertility has substantial implications for the nature and quality of kinship relationships. High rates of multipartnered fertility imply that a significant proportion of children will be raised in a household apart from a biological parent, usually apart from their father, which may weaken children's ties to paternal kin. Many children will also have biological half-siblings in their household or in another household, potentially leading to complex extended family networks. Multipartnered fertility has potential effects on the structure and quality of ties to the entire extended family network and, in turn, may affect children's access to social and economic capital.

Prior research has yet to explore the question of whether and how multipartnered fertility is associated with the instrumental support available from a mother's social network. Yet we have reason to expect that multipartnered fertility and instrumental support are related. In U.S. families as in much of the world, kin networks represent an important source of instrumental support for parents and children. By uniting at least three maternal or paternal kin networks, multipartnered fertility potentially expands the size of kin networks, and, therefore, may create a larger safety net for mothers to draw upon. Multipartnered fertility results from breakups and repartnering, however, and many childbearing relationships were never formalized by marriage, so the strength of the connections between mothers and their larger kin networks may be weak.

In this article, we explore the relationship between multipartnered fertility and mothers' perceptions of the availability of instrumental support. We pool three waves of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study to see if mothers' multipartnered fertility or fathers' multipartnered fertility is related to mothers' perceptions of support. Then, we use longitudinal data to examine whether multipartnered fertility influences future perceived support, whether perceived support influences future multipartnered fertility, or whether both occur. We compare and contrast our findings across three domains of instrumental support: the availability of financial assistance, a place to live, and child care. …

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