Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"I'll Be There for You": Teen Parents' Coparenting Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"I'll Be There for You": Teen Parents' Coparenting Relationships

Article excerpt

With more than one in six U.S. girls projected to become a mother before age 20 (Perper & Manlove, 2009), teen parenthood is viewed as a serious social problem by most American adults (Science and Integrity Survey, 2004). Researchers have long known that most teen pregnancies occur within long-term romantic relationships (Hardy & Zabin, 1991). Yet the vast literature on teen parenthood has focused little on coparenting relationships between young mothers and fathers (i.e., active involvement in parenting, whether or not they are in a romantic relationship). In this lack of attention to coparents, research reflects larger trends in public discourse. For example, popular reality shows such as MTV's Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant focus heavily on young mothers. Research has shown that coparenting relationships in teen-parent families really matter. Florsheim and colleagues (2003) found that fathers who had a strong relationship with their teen partner during pregnancy were better parents later on, even if the relationship broke up. Increasing problems in the partner relationship heightened young mothers' stress in parenting, presumably affecting the child. In line with the literature, Jones, Zalot, Foster, Sterrett, and Chester (2007) defined coparenting as "the processes by which two adults work together in their role as parents to negotiate childrearing" (p. 677). Our analysis shows that this definition also applies to parenting teens, identifying a very important aspect of their lives. Although some scholars have begun to expand the study of teen motherhood to incorporate the complicated dynamics among mothers, fathers, and extended families, they have relied primarily on young mothers' reports to do so.

Our study consisted of 76 in-depth interviews with teen mothers and fathers in the Denver, Colorado, area, including both couples and single parents, supplemented by ethnographic observations of the school and clinic site in which we met them. Our analyses focused on the presence or absence of and experiences with coparenting relationships. Our analysis of coparenting has a wider lens than the approaches used in much of the previous literature in three ways. First, we view the study of coparenting as larger than looking only at those who are currently active coparents; we included teen parents who coparented for a while and then stopped and those who intended to coparent but never did, as well as those who are still actively coparenting. Second, we examined coparenting as a lived experience that changes over time. Third, we expanded the typical dyadic focus to view coparenting as embedded in broader social relationships and institutions. Our aim was to contextualize the experience of coparenting among teen parents as a culturally and structurally embedded phenomenon, taking into account the decisions and challenges that coparenting involves for teens and their possible longer term impacts.

Because our interviews with teen mothers and fathers incorporated a subsample of teen-parent couples, we had a unique opportunity to investigate coparenting relationships before, during, and after the experience of a teen pregnancy from both parents' points of view. A second group of participants were also actively coparenting, but we were able to interview only one of the parents. Our data also include interviews with single fathers and mothers to uncover other kinds of coparenting histories. Supplementing the interview data with observations from the school and clinic sites provided information about institutions that serve teen parents.

This study had two research goals. First, we described typical types of coparenting experiences among teen parents over time. Second, we conducted a multilevel qualitative analysis of these coparenting experiences. Like others (e.g., Armstrong, Hamilton, & Sweeney, 2006; Risman, 2004), our multilevel analysis focused on the individual, interactional, and institutional levels. We considered ways in which coparenting affects teen parents (individual level) as well as the interplay between coparenting relationships and extended families (interactional level) and the institutions and programs that work with teen parents (institutional level). …

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