Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

When Children Have Two Mothers: Relationships with Nonresident Mothers, Stepmothers, and Fathers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

When Children Have Two Mothers: Relationships with Nonresident Mothers, Stepmothers, and Fathers

Article excerpt

Using data on 294 adolescents from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health who live with a biological father and have both a resident stepmother and a nonresident biological mother, this study examines the prevalence, antecedents, and consequences of adolescents' closeness to each of their parents. Findings demonstrate that adolescents vary in their likelihood of having close relationships to resident fathers, resident stepmothers, and nonresident biological mothers, but when they can do so, they appear to benefit. Close relationships with both resident fathers and nonresident mothers are associated with fewer adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems. Closeness to resident stepmothers, however, is unrelated to these two outcomes. Results suggest that fathers play a particularly important role in these families.

Key Words: adolescents, child well-being, fathers, nonresident mothers, parent-adolescent relations, stepmothers.

High rates of divorce, remarriage, and nonmarital childbearing over the past few decades have contributed to complex family arrangements including increasing rates of single parenting, stepparenting, and nonresident parenting. Although women continue to be heavily overrepresented among single parents and men continue to be heavily overrepresented among resident stepparents and nonresident parents, this gender gap has been declining and is likely to continue to do so. For example, among single parents living with their children in 2004,18% are men (U.S. Bureau of Census, 2005). From the standpoint of children's lives, an increasing number are living with their fathers and many will experience having "two mothers": a resident stepmother and a nonresident biological mother. Although it is unknown exactly how many children are living in such families, several trends are suggestive.

Over two million children were living with their single biological fathers in 2001 and almost another million were living with their fathers and a stepmother, together representing the living arrangements of over 4% of all U.S. children (Kreider & Fields, 2005). Given that the majority of divorced men remarry (Sweet & Bumpass, 1987), it is likely that many children living with single fathers will experience the addition of a stepmother at some point. The vast majority of children living with single or remarried fathers have biological mothers living elsewhere (Greif, 1995). Part of the rise in resident father families reflects the fact that fathers increasingly receive physical custody following divorce (Grail, 2003). The number of children living with never-married fathers, however, has also increased (Meyer & Garasky, 1993). (I herein use the term resident father to refer to fathers who live with their biological child(ren) but not with the child's biological mother, distinguishing them from both nonbiological resident fathers [e.g., stepfathers] and fathers in two biological parent households.)

The implications of these arrangements for child well-being have been of increasing concern given previous findings on the disadvantages faced by children in single-parent families and in stepfamilies (Amato, 2000; Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000), which some studies suggest may be even worse for children in single-father and father-stepmother families (Hoffman & Johnson, 1998). Further, to the extent that children's attachment to mothers is greater than to fathers, it has been suggested that children may have more difficulty adding another mother to their family than they do adding another father (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). Research on children's relationships with nonresident motiiers, resident stepmothers, and resident biological fathers is limited and studies rarely consider children's relationships to all three parents simultaneously.

This study employs nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to address three central questions: (a) How close are adolescents to nonresident mothers, to resident stepmothers, and to resident fathers? …

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