Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Life Course Changes of Children and Well-Being of Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Life Course Changes of Children and Well-Being of Parents

Article excerpt

How do children's life course transitions affect the well-being of their parents? Using a large panel survey among parents with longitudinal information on 2 randomly chosen children, the authors analyzed the effects of children's union formation, parenthood, and union dissolution on changes in depressive symptoms of parents. Negative effects were found for children's divorce, and positive effects were found for children's marriage and parenthood. Mothers suffered more from a child's divorce or separation than fathers. Effects depended in part on the parent's traditional family norms, pointing to a normative explanation of life course effects. Little evidence was found for explanations in terms of altruism or selfish motivations. In a more general sense, this article supports the notion of linked lives suggested by the life course perspective. This research provides stronger support for this notion than the few previous studies that have examined it.

Key Words: demographic events, divorce, intergenerational relationships, life course, marriage, well-being.

Much research has examined how life course changes of parents affect children. Researchers have found that experiencing a parental divorce can be harmful for the well-being of young children (Amato, 2000; Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Sigle-Rushton, Hobcraft, & Kiernan, 2005; Uhlenberg & Mueller, 2003). Much less is known about the reverse causal effect, that is, the influence that children's life course transitions may have on parents' well-being. How are parents affected by whether their children marry, have children, and experience a divorce or separation themselves?

At first, such effects would seem less likely - after all, children are not responsible for socializing their parents, and children typically offer few resources to parents. Nevertheless, there are also reasons to believe that such "reversed" life course effects may occur. Parents care very much about their children, so it seems plausible that they are affected by what happens to them (Knoester, 2003). Evidence indicates that parents do a great deal of worrying about their adult children (Sechrist, Suitor, Vargas, & Pillemer, 201 1). Parents may also feel proud of or shamed by the decisions their children make, and such feelings may affect their own well-being (Pillemer, Suitor, Pardo, & Henderson, 2010). These feelings may be especially important for parents because parents have socialized their children and hence may feel that they are partly responsible for how their children turn out as adults (Ryff, Lee, Essex, & Schmutte, 1994).

So far, there is little evidence available on the effects of children's life course transitions on parental well-being. Some studies have examined how children's personal problems affect parents. These studies used cross-sectional data and showed that parents with children who experienced "personal problems" had a higher level of depression and stress than parents of children who did not experience such problems (Greenfield & Marks, 2006; Pillemer & Suitor, 1991). Some cross-sectional research also has shown that when children have more problems in their relationships (as perceived by parents), parents feel more ambivalent toward these children (Birditt, Fingerman, & Zarit, 2010). Because feelings of ambivalence are related to depressive feelings (Birditt et al.), this also hints at possible negative effects of divorce and separation.

Cross-sectional data hinder conclusions about causality; studies that focus directly on children's life course transitions are more appropriate, but these are rare. A recent and important exception is a study conducted by Milkie, Bierman, and Schieman (2008). They analyzed longitudinal data on elderly parents over a 4-year interval. They found no effect of children's divorce on changes in parents' level of depression. A number of studies also have examined how the departure of children from the parental home affects parents (White & Edwards, 1990). …

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