Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Psychological Implications of Motherhood and Fatherhood in Midlife: Evidence from Sibling Models

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Psychological Implications of Motherhood and Fatherhood in Midlife: Evidence from Sibling Models

Article excerpt

Using data from 4,744 full, twin, half-, adopted, and stepsiblings in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, I examine psychological consequences of motherhood and fatherhood in midlife. My analysis includes between-family models that compare individuals across families and within-family models comparing siblings from the same family to account for unobserved genetic and environmental endowments that may confound the relationship between parenthood and mental health. Further, I examine whether the psychological effect of parenthood varies among different types of sibling dyads. The findings reveal that parenthood has similar psychological implications for middle-aged mothers and fathers. Main differences arise from specific configurations of the parental role. The association between parenthood and mental health partly reflects genetic influences but not shared early-life environment.

Key Words: depression, fixed-effects models, gender, midlife, parenthood.

Psychological implications of parenthood in midlife have received relatively little attention from researchers. Yet, midlife is an important stage of parenthood when parents develop adult-to-adult relationships with their children and begin to see children's early accomplishments in adult roles (Ryff & Seltzer, 1996). Moreover, midlife is characterized by a remarkable diversity of parental experiences (Marks, 1996; Umberson, 1996). Ryff and Seltzer emphasized the necessity of exploring heterogeneity among middle-aged parents to uncover conditions under which midlife parenthood might be stressful or gratifying. Using a sample of middle-aged men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and their siblings, I examine psychological consequences of the structural configurations of the parental role, including the number and age of children, the presence of nonbiological children, and coresidence of parents with adult children. In addition, I analyze gender differences in the psychological implications of parenthood. Finally, genetic and environmental early-life endowments can potentially influence both the configurations of the parental role and mental health and, thus, confound the relationship between parenthood and psychological well-being observed in adulthood (Kohler, Behrman, & Skytthe, 2005). I use fixed-effects sibling models and prospectively measured characteristics of family background to account for genetic and early-life environmental factors that may affect the association between parenthood and mental health at midlife.


This study explores variation in the psychological effect of parenthood using the number of children, children's age and living arrangements, and biological relatedness between parents and children. In addition, I consider the quality of parent-child relationships. I examine the psychological implications of parenthood using depressive symptoms as an outcome. The relationship between parenthood and depression has been well documented in large representative samples (e.g., Evenson & Simon, 2005; McLanahan & Adams, 1987; Nomaguchi & Milkie, 2003). Therefore, this measure enables me to examine the extent to which associations observed in previous studies reflect genetic and early-life environmental influences. In additional analyses (available upon request), I considered indicators of positive psychological well-being, and the results are consistent with models for depression.

The Number of Children

Parents with large numbers of children tend to report higher levels of parental role strain and lower levels of psychological well-being (Kohler et al., 2005; McLanahan & Adams, 1987; Ross & Van Willigen, 1996). Yet, it is possible that the relationship between the number of children and parents' mental health is nonlinear because there may be an optimal family size associated with the highest level of well-being. Most participants in my study came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when an average family had about three children (Casper & Bianchi, 2002). …

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