Beliefs about Women's Intergenerational Family Obligations to Provide Support before and after Divorce and Remarriage

By Coleman, Marilyn; Ganong, Lawrence et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Beliefs about Women's Intergenerational Family Obligations to Provide Support before and after Divorce and Remarriage


Coleman, Marilyn, Ganong, Lawrence, Cable, Susan M., Journal of Marriage and Family


Perceptions of women's intergenerational family obligations after divorce and remarriage were examined in this study. One hundred and ninety women and 93 men responded to a four-paragraph vignette about two women, either mother and daughter or in-laws, who alternately needed the other's help. Conditions in the vignette were systematically varied. Over time, the younger woman divorces and remarries. After each paragraph, respondents answered forced-choice and open-ended questions about what they thought the vignette characters should do. Participants believed that family members are obligated to help other family members in times of need, although these obligations are conditional. The obligation for the older generation to help their adult children appears to be greater than the obligation for adults to help elderly mothers and mothers-in-law, and there is a stronger obligation to biological kin than to in-laws. Perceived obligations toward stepgrandchildren are considerably weaker than obligations toward grandchildren.

Key Words: divorce, family obligations, intergenerational support, remarriage.

Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have become increasingly interested in beliefs and behaviors regarding intergenerational exchanges of support (Eggebeen, 1992). The focus on intergenerational issues can be attributed to a number of changes affecting American families, including rises in: (a) the number of elderly persons, (b) the percentage of households in which all adults are employed outside of the home, and (c) the number of marital transitions due to divorce and remarriage. As a result of these changes, there is a growing need for care for the elderly and for children (Wood, 1994). The elderly are the most rapidly growing segment of the population in the United States (Boyd & Treas, 1989), and it is estimated that by the year 2030, Americans aged 65 and older will be 20% of the population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). The rise in the number of elderly means that there are more people who potentially will need assistance as they get older. In addition, over half of mothers with children under the age of 3 work outside the home (Wood, 1994). Even when adequate day care is available, there are few facilities that care for children when they are sick. According to Hewlett (1991), the U.S. provides the least support for child care of any developed country in the world.

Who will be responsible for caring for the growing number of elderly? Who will care for the growing number of children whose parents, and especially mothers, are employed outside the home, particularly in circumstances such as illness? In the U.S., caregiving has not been defined as a social issue, an issue of public concern, but as an issue to be confronted and resolved by individuals and families. Consequently, beliefs about family responsibilities are important foci of research. Unfortunately, although there is a burgeoning literature about intergenerational caregiving and exchange of support, little attention has been paid to beliefs about obligations to provide support. Normative family obligations are societally agreed-upon duties and responsibilities between kin. "Family obligations can be seen as part of normative rules which . . . get applied in appropriate situations" (Finch, 1987, pp. 155-156). These rules are important to understand because they serve as guidelines that direct individuals' decisions and behaviors and provide a framework that people use to justify and explain their conduct to others (Finch, 1987). In other words, widely held beliefs about family obligations function as parameters within which individuals define and negotiate their responsibilities. Widely held beliefs about family obligations serve as criteria to measure how well individuals are functioning as family members, and what people actually do in relationships is based in part on personal beliefs about appropriate actions between kin and in part on widely held expectations about what should be done regarding family responsibilities (Finch, 1989; Lee & Shehan, 1989). …

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