Remarriage, Cohabitation, and Changes in Mothering Behavior

By Thomson, Elizabeth; Mosley, Jane et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Remarriage, Cohabitation, and Changes in Mothering Behavior


Thomson, Elizabeth, Mosley, Jane, Hanson, Thomas L., McLanahan, Sara S., Journal of Marriage and Family


We used data from two waves of the National Survey of Families and Household to investigate changes in mothering behavior associated with remarriage or cohabitation by single mothers. We considered three dimensions of mothering: (a) time and supervision, (b) harsh discipline, and (c) relationship quality. Mothers and children agreed that mothers who remained in new partnerships used harsh discipline less frequently than mothers who remained single or whose new partnership had ended by the second interview. Mothers reported less supervision if they had experienced a disrupted partnership, whereas children reported less supervision if their mothers remained in a new partnership at the second interview. Children but not mothers reported better relationships with

mothers in partnerships at the second interview, compared with children whose mothers remained single or whose new partnership had ended. Only a small part of the differences in harsh discipline, and none of the other observed differences, could be explained by maternal or family characteristics or by mothering behavior and relationships in the first interview. Although cohabiting partnerships were more likely to end than were marriages, we found no differences in effects of cohabiting or marital partnerships, net of their status at the second interview.

Demographic trends in cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage have changed children's experience of family life (Bumpass, 1994; Cherlin, 1992; Manning & Lichter, 1995). Gone for most children are the days of living with two biological parents until age 18 (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995; Graefe & Lichter, 1997). Many children whose parents divorce or end their cohabiting relationship or who were born to unmarried, noncohabiting mothers will experience further family change when a parent remarries or cohabits with a new partner (Cherlin; Norton & Moorman, 1987).

In this article, we use panel data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to estimate effects of mothers' new partnerships, cohabiting or marital, on mothering behavior. We examine three dimensions of children's experiences with their mothers: (a) mother's time and supervision; (b) harsh discipline, and (c) relationship quality. Our study makes two important contributions. First, the panel design of NSFH allowed us to measure mothers' behaviors and mother-child relationships before mothers form a new partnership. We could therefore control for potential selection of particular types of single mothers into partnerships, going beyond crosssectional analyses of differences between single and remarried or repartnered mothers. Second, because both the mother and a focal child were interviewed, we had a more complete picture of mothering at the second interview than we would have with only mothers' reports.

Why might one expect mothering to change when a woman enters a new partnership? First, new partners bring added income into the household. Remarriage in particular is associated with a large increase in family economic well-being (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1993). Low levels of income increase parental stress, which in turn may lead to poorer parenting (Elder, 1974; McLeod & Shanahan, 1994; McLoyd & Wilson, 1991). An increase in income and economic security should lower stress and thereby improve mothering.

New partners also bring a second pair of eyes, ears, and hands to the childrearing task. Crosssectional analyses show that the presence of another adult in the household is associated with increased supervision (Thomson, McLanahan & Curtin, 1992). A new partner may engage directly in childrearing tasks or take over some of the household and daily life tasks so that a mother can devote more time to children.

Third, a spouse or partner offers social support for the mother (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). He may be helpful in making difficult childrearing decisions and in strengthening her authority. …

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