Academic journal article Family Relations

Gaining a Child: Comparing the Experiences of Biological Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Stepparents

Academic journal article Family Relations

Gaining a Child: Comparing the Experiences of Biological Parents, Adoptive Parents, and Stepparents

Article excerpt

This study compares the experience of gaining a child through birth, adoption, or marriage, extending the focus of investigation beyond biological parenthood and the transition made by first-time parents. Using a subsample from the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 204), we compared reasons for having children, parental well-being, family relationships, and work roles among parents who gained a child biologically, through adoption, or by becoming a stepparent. Overall, there were many similarities in the impact of gaining a child across the three parental groups. Repeated measures analyses of covariance showed that across family groups, after gaining a child, respondents reported less depressed affect, more disagreements with their spouse, and more support from their own parents. The differences across groups suggest that the experience of becoming an adoptive parent or a stepparent may be less stressful than the adjustment to biological parenthood.

Key Words: adoption, family, marital quality, parenting, stepparenting, well-being.

Although marked by society as a generally glorious life event, research indicates that the birth of a child presents many new parents with a potentially difficult and complicated adjustment period. The transition to parenthood has been widely studied, and the array of negative individual and relational outcomes following the birth of a first child is one of the most consistent findings reported in the literature. Indeed, Cowan and Cowan (1998) declared that "the normal process of becoming a family in this culture, at this time...stimulate(s) moderate to severe distress for a substantial number of parents" (p. 170) who attempt to juggle the numerous economic and emotional needs of their families. Hence, adding a first child to a household is consistently associated with an initial decline in marital quality (e.g., Crohan, 1996; Demo & Cox, 2000), an increased risk for psychological symptoms (Cowan & Cowan, 1995; Cox, Paley, Burchinal, & Payne, 1999), and shifts in intergenerational relationships and support structures (Cowan & Cowan, 1998; Fischer, 1988; Hansen & Jacob, 1992).

Most of the research covering the transition to parenthood focuses on the adjustment process for first-time, biological parents. This is true despite the number of families that include more than one child, and the different ways in which adults can become parents, including adoption and stepparenthood. Presently, in the United States, stepfamilies are the fastest growing family structure group (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999), with about half of all marriages representing a remarriage for one or both partners (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000; Ganong & Coleman, 1994), and about 65% bringing a child from a prior marriage into the new one. Moreover, more than one million American children are living in adoptive families (Grotevant & Kohler, 1999). Because negative stereotypes dominate our perceptions of many "nontraditional" family forms (Wegar, 2000), it is important to establish whether such families actually suffer in their adjustment to gaining a child.

Using data from a nationally representative sample, the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), we compared the psychological implications for parents of gaining a child through birth, adoption, or marriage. Specifically, this study investigated psychological well-being, marital quality, family relationships, and work roles in three different parental groups. The literature on the "transition to parenthood"-though it focuses mainly on gaining children by birth and on the birth of first children-offered an initial framework for our study. Research on family adaptation in the context of adoption and remarriage helped us elaborate this framework for considering the likely implications of gaining a child under all three circumstances and potential differences among them.

The routes to becoming a parent of a biological child, an adopted child, or a stepchild are quite different. …

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