Academic journal article Family Relations

Maternal Conjugal Multiplicity and Child Development in Rural Jamaica

Academic journal article Family Relations

Maternal Conjugal Multiplicity and Child Development in Rural Jamaica

Article excerpt

Using field-based observations and standardized measures of the home environment and child development, the authors followed 59 rural Jamaican women and their offspring from birth to age 5. The findings suggest that conjugal multiplicity, a female reproductive pattern characterized by multiple unions, maternal unmarried status, and absent father, does not necessarily result in poorer developmental outcomes for preschool-aged children. Rather, it is a strategic adaptation to the conditions of poverty that may, in fact, provide developmental advantages for poor children in rural Jamaica. Households in which there are six or more maternal siblings, however, appear to compromise child development regardless of multiple unions, conjugal status, or father's presence.

Key Words: child development, ethnography, father absence, Jamaica/West Indies, maternal conjugal behavior, singleparent families.

When the Moynihan (1965) report was published, it set in motion a debate over the impact of family structure on child development that has lasted more than four decades. Moynihan argued that African American family structure - specifically absent fathers, single parenthood, and female-headed households - deprives children of the skills needed to be socially and academically successful. Despite extensive research on this topic by scholars from many disciplines, the results have been inconclusive and often contradictory (Coontz, 2000). The limitations of this body of research have been attributed, in large part, to the failure to contextualize both family structure and child development and to the use of family structure as a proxy for the complex human, social, and financial capital that is known to influence child development (Cooksey, 1997; Nugent, 2002; Slaughter-Defoe, Nakagawa, Takanishi, & Johnson, 1990). Almost two decades ago, Slaughter-Defoe et al. called for a cultural/ecological approach that would embrace the contextual social and economic imperatives that influence family organization and child socialization and achievement. They cited the need for small-scale, longitudinal studies in which family interactions could be carefully monitored so that beliefs and behaviors cogent to childrearing and schooling could be identified. Finally, they suggested that our understanding of family life and child achievement would be enhanced by cross-cultural comparisons.

The purpose of this article is to report the impact of women's reproductive strategies on the intellectual and physical development of their preschool-aged children within the social, economic, and cultural context of rural, workingclass Jamaican communities. It examines the relationship between women's conjugal behavior and the intellectual achievement and physical development of their preschool-aged children. The findings are derived from a prospective, longitudinal study of the health and development of 59 children. Although the original study focused on prenatal cannabis exposure (Dreher, Nugent, & Hudgins, 1994), the 5-year longitudinal data set collected for each child, using routine ethnographic observations and standardized measures of development, provided a unique opportunity to examine the influence of family dynamics and household structure on child development over time. The findings reported here describe the impact of "situated reproductive activities" (Browner, 2000) on the cognitive and physical development of the children by tracing the strategic use of fertility by rural Jamaican women in response to social and economic imperatives.


Rural Jamaica is a useful context in which to investigate commonly held assumptions about the influence of maternal conjugal behavior on child development. Jamaica, an island nation with a population of 2.6 million, is classified by the World Bank (2002) as lower middle income. Like many developing countries, however, poverty and unemployment are widespread. …

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