Academic journal article Family Relations

Negotiating Relationships in Single-Mother Households: Perspectives of Children and Mothers

Academic journal article Family Relations

Negotiating Relationships in Single-Mother Households: Perspectives of Children and Mothers

Article excerpt

Little research has considered the nature of parent-child relationships in stable single-parent households that have not undergone transitions such as divorce and repartnering. This study explored how single mothers and their children negotiated their relationships in a context where the mother has been parenting alone continuously from early in the child's life. Thirty-eight children and adolescents and their mothers participated in qualitative semistructured interviews. Both mothers and children characterized their relationship as highly intense and exclusive. Perceived limitations in mothers' resources yielded opportunities for shifting dynamics of power and dependence where children adopted an ethic of care in their relationships with their mothers. In response to this, mothers worked to reaffirm clear distinctions between parent and child roles and protect against role boundaries becoming blurred by exercising their authority and managing children's exposure to household responsibilities. These findings provide insight into how mothers and children negotiated interdependence as they moved functionally between vertical and horizontal interactions in their relationship.

Key Words: children's agency, interdependence, motherchild relationships, power, role boundaries, single parents.

Much has been researched and written on the effect of growing up in a single-parent family on children's development. This vast literature has concluded that children who grow up in a single-parent family are disadvantaged in many ways and do less well, on average, on a number of developmental outcomes relative to children who grow up with both parents (Amato, 2001; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001; Weinraub, Horvath, & Gringlas, 2002). As Acock and Demo (1994) have argued, however, using family structure as a social address is limited, as it tells us little about the processes within these families that may mediate associations between family structure and children's well-being. This family process perspective asserts that dynamics within families, such as disrupted parent-child relationships and diminished parenting, may have more salient consequences for children's development than family structure per se (Lansford, Ceballo, Abbey, & Stewart, 2001; Raley & Wildsmith, 2004). More recently, it has also been argued that stability of family structure is crucial, with evidence highlighting cumulative disadvantage arising from parents' transitions in and out of marriage and cohabitation (Aquilino, 1996; Dush, 2009; Raley & Wildsmith, 2004).

To date, relatively little research has focused on stable single-mother families in which mothers have not entered into cohabitation arrangements with new partners. A better understanding of relationships within these families may illuminate some of the processes associated with living in a single-parent family while at the same time eliminating confounding risks associated with transitions. Informed by this family process perspective and the dearth of research on stable single-mother families, the purpose of the present study was to explore how mothers and children negotiate their relationship within the context of a stable single-parent household.

The conceptual focus for the study is relationships between parents and their children. Relationships are defined in terms of their accumulated history of constituent interactions across both time and contexts (Hinde, 1979). Participants in a close relationship engage in interactions characterized by interdependence, where one partner effects change in the other, and reciprocity, where the interchanges are mutually influential (Laursen & Bukowski, 1997). Youniss and Smollar (1985) have suggested that it is through the study of constituent interactions that relationships can be understood. Their study of how relationships with peers and parents develop during adolescence focused on key interactive events, such as typical and enjoyed activities, topics of communication, conflicts, and procedures of conflict resolution. …

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