Academic journal article Demographic Research

Children's Union Status and Contact with Mothers: A Cross-National Study

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Children's Union Status and Contact with Mothers: A Cross-National Study

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Population aging in North America and Europe has increased the time that individuals spend as mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. In these demographic contexts the potential for intergenerational contact and support between generations is great. Later life in particular is a time when parents, once the primary contributors of emotional, financial, and instrumental support to children, are now more likely to receive, rather than provide, support to offspring (Bianchi et al. 2008). Yet parents' reliance on offspring, and adult children's ability to provide care to parents, is influenced by several factors. In particular, support to older parents may depend on the adult children's relationships with new family members.

In this paper we examine the association between adult children's union status and ties to older mothers in Europe and the United States using cross-national data. We distinguish between offspring who are married, cohabiting, or single and explore how these different partnership contexts are associated with maternal contact. We focus on contact not only because it reflects a central dimension of intergenerational ties, but also because it provides the foundation for other types of parent-child transfers, such as financial and instrumental support (Silverstein et al. 1997).

Our paper proceeds as follows. First, we summarize previous research on the relationship between children's union status and contact with parents. We then discuss theories that may explain cross-national variations in this link. We continue with a delineation of our research questions and hypotheses, followed by a summary of the data, methods, and measures used to address our research questions. We present our results and conclude with a discussion of the relevance of context in studies of union status and intergenerational relationships.

2. Literature review

In North America and Europe, marriage has long been considered a fundamental social institution. Historically, marriage was the primary mechanism through which individual kinship networks expanded and ties within and between families strengthened (Slater 1963). As historian Stephanie Coontz (2005) argues, love took a backseat in times when marriage was based on alliances formed between families to consolidate land, power, and other resources (2005). However, as economic and social changes granted young people more freedom in choosing their partner, the meaning of marriage changed. Modern marriage today emphasizes self-fulfillment and self-realization as well as a reliance on the partner to fulfill emotional and social needs, which many argue was not characteristic of historic marriages (Giddens 1992; Lesthaege 1995). An emphasis on dyadic quality and the time and resources needed to maintain these partnerships, often to the detriment of other social ties, has prompted many scholars to characterize modern marriage as a "greedy" institution (Coser 1974).

In fact, a growing body of research from several countries suggests that married individuals tend to have weaker ties to the family of origin than those who are single. Married offspring are less likely to provide practical and instrumental help or emotional support, and they are less likely to live with, or maintain frequent phone, e-mail, or face-to-face contact with parents compared to single counterparts (Bucx et al. 2008; Spitze et al. 1994; Waite and Harrison 1992). Several structural explanations have been put forth to explain why married offspring spend less time with parents than their single counterparts. Married individuals are more likely to work full-time, to be parents of young children who require much attention, and to spend time doing housework than those who are single. However, accounting for these characteristics does not close the gap in married versus single offspring's ties to parents (Sarkisian and Gerstel 2008). In addition, marital duration has little effect on parent-child contact, with evidence suggesting that ties to parents do not "bounce back" after an initial honeymoon stage (Musick and Bumpass 2012). …

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