The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Linking Up, Breaking Up—Consequences for Mothers

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Sociologists have known for some time that watching Mom move into and out of relationships can prove highly stressful for children. But how does Mom herself fare in negotiating these transitions? That is the question researchers at the University of Texas at Austin set out to answer in a recent study. Their findings indicate that mothers breaking up with a male partner experience a decline in their well-being, but mothers forming ties connecting their children with their biological father or with a social-father surrogate experience notable improvements in their own well-being. Though unsurprising, such findings merit attention at a time when the number of women living as solo parents continues to climb.

Beginning their research aware that previous studies had established that “family instability and complexity are associated with adverse child outcomes,” the Texas scholars launched their inquiry to determine “whether family instability and complexity [also] influence parental well-being”—more specifically, the parental well-being of mothers of young children.

“Understanding whether and how family instability affects parents is important for two reasons,” the researchers explain: “First, the well-being of adults is important given that society needs healthy, productive citizens. . . . Second, parents bear primary responsibility for transmitting social norms to children and fostering children’s healthy development. To the extent that family instability and complexity influence parents’ access to resources and psychological well-being, these processes may also . . . impact their children’s subsequent well-being.”

Basing their analysis on data collected for 4,898 children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 American cities with populations of over 200,000, the researchers adduce considerable evidence that “family-structure transitions may influence maternal well-being.” Whether that influence proves positive or negative depends largely on whether the transition in question moves a mother into or out of a stable relationship with a man who is—or who, in social terms, can act as—the father of their children.

After careful analysis of the data, the researchers report that a mother who is “transitioning into a biological-father family” generally experiences “significant declines in material hardship.” The researchers further observe that for a mother of young children, “transitioning to a social-father family is marginally associated with declines in material hardship and maternal depression.” The researchers see quite different outcomes, however, when they shift their focus to mothers breaking up with male partners: they remark that “transitioning to a single-mother family is associated with adverse outcomes with regard to perceived social support, material hardship, maternal depression, and parenting stress.”

Condensing their “overall results” into a few words, the researchers conclude that “relationship dissolution is associated with some adverse effects on maternal well-being, whereas union formation is associated with neutral to positive effects.” Such findings translate into relatively few maternal gains and a great many maternal losses in a 21st-century America in which a depressed number of unmarried mothers are belatedly finding their way to the marriage chapel and in which an elevated number of mothers are losing their husbands or cohabiting partners. The researchers have very good reason to worry about how family-structure transitions that affect mothers will significantly “impact their children’s subsequent well-being.”

(Cynthia Osborne, Lawrence M. Berger, and Katherine Magnuson, “Family Structure Transitions and Changes in Maternal Resources and Well-Being,” Demography 49.1 [2012]: 23-47.)