Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Beyond Parental Status: Psychological Well-Being in Middle and Old Age

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Beyond Parental Status: Psychological Well-Being in Middle and Old Age

Article excerpt

Surveys show little evidence of psychosocial disadvantage among childless middle-aged and older adults, but less is known about the diverse experiences that influence subjective well-being among parents and childless adults. In this article, the author uses the National Survey of Families and Households to test a parental-status typology on the basis of attitudes among childless adults and parent-child relationship quality and the connection of these factors with loneliness and depression. Poorer parent-child relationships are linked to worse outcomes for both mothers and fathers, net of other factors. For childless adults, negative attitudes about childlessness are associated with greater distress for women than for men.

Key Words: Childlessness, depression, loneliness, older adults, parenthood.

Social research continues to affirm the value of parenthood as an important social investment and a potential source of instrumental and emotional support in old age (see Friedman, Hechter, & Kanazawa, 1994; Schoen, Nathanson, Fields, & Astone, 1997). Permanent childlessness, however, may not necessarily represent a social disadvantage. Although still nonnormative and sometimes stigmatized, childlessness has been increasingly accepted over the past 4 decades (Thornton, 1989; Thornton & DeMarco, 2001). The growth of voluntary childlessness has challenged conventional assumptions about the well-being and social resources of childless adults (Lang, 1991; Veevers, 1980). At the same time, changes in family ties, including increases in divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation, have redefined relationships as contingent and negotiated rather than ascribed (for review, see Johnson, 2000). Blood ties may not necessarily signify emotionally close or dependable relationships, and needed support, affirmation, or care may be provided by other formal or informal social resources.

Not surprisingly, research comparing childless adults with parents has found little consistent evidence of diminished subjective well-being (Koropeckyj-Cox, 1998; Zhang & Hayward, 2001). The emphasis on contrasting parental-status groups, however, has ignored the diversity within these groups and its relation to subjective well-- being. Connidis and McMullin (1993) have suggested that qualitative differences among older childless adults and parents, including the perception of choice in childlessness and the quality of parent-child relationships, may be linked to psychosocial vulnerability.

The present analyses build on prior research by expanding the conceptualization of parental status and its implications for psychosocial well-being in middle and old age. This article identifies a typology of parental statuses based on variations in attitudes among childless adults and in parent-- child relationship quality among parents. With nationally representative survey data for the United States, this typology is used to test whether psychosocial vulnerability, particularly loneliness and among older adults in these parentals-status subgroups.


Diversity Among Childless Adults

People who entered older age in the 1980s and 1990s are much more likely to have few or no children than are earlier cohorts (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1990), and about 21% of people aged 65 or older in 1990 were childless (Himes, 1992). The permanent childlessness of these people was most often unintended (a consequence of repeated fertility delays), but historical evidence has suggested that a nontrivial proportion of childless adults have used birth control to delay or avoid parenthood (Morgan, 1991). During the Great Depression, up to one third to one half of childless couples (or about 6%-10% of all couples) were childless by choice (Grabill, Kiser, & Whelpton, 1958). Childless adults therefore represent a wide range of reasons and intentions, from those who are childless because of physiological infertility, to those for whom marital or fertility delays led to inadvertent childlessness, to a small minority who chose to remain childless. …

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