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

Single Mothers Lacking Sensitivity

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressive commentators worry a good deal about women becoming mothers too young, especially if those women are poor. But a study just completed by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), however, concludes that it is a mistake to lump all young impoverished mothers together: some of these young mothers are handling the responsibilities of parenthood quite well, while others are not. And a closer look reveals that marital status makes a big difference.

To identify what social characteristics best predicted optimally sensitive and responsive motherhood, the NIH team collected data from 58 European-American mothers raising infants and toddlers in rural West Virginia, a part of Appalachia notable for its relative poverty. Not surprisingly, these data establish that, when compared to younger mothers, “older European American Appalachian mothers were more sensitive and optimally structuring, and their infants and toddlers were more responsive and involving.”

But the researchers are quick to warn against “stereotyping younger or older mothers as single homogeneous ‘at-risk’ populations” and to stress a need for “recognizing diverse linkages of maternal age . . . with parenting and child development.” Avoiding such stereotyping means recognizing that “neither ‘adolescence’ nor ‘adulthood’ is a monolithic social address.” Indeed, careful parsing of the data reveals that different marital circumstances translate into big differences in a mother’s “social address,” with big differences in how sensitive and responsive a mother is in caring for her child at that address.

In fact, after sorting through a variety of background variables (such as extended-family support and hours of employment), the researchers report, “only marital status and father presence in the home explained maternal age effects on dyadic emotional relationships.” “It may be,” the researchers theorize, “that marital status and father presence serve to legitimize the mother’s status as parent in her own or others’ eyes. Marital status and father presence may also buffer against life stresses and other difficulties common to communities where financial and other resource strains are common, like Appalachia.”

Appropriately, the researchers invoke earlier studies to provide an interpretive context for their findings. They note, for instance, two earlier studies showing that “male partners (including fathers) and what they provide during the postpartum period are often critical to the young mother’s well-being.” The researchers also recognize the relevance of an earlier study establishing that “emotional support and childcare from a spouse, but not from other family members, were associated with more positive maternal affect.”

Because of their findings, the researchers endorse plans to help mothers through “interventions that successfully adopt and integrate cultural mazeways” in which these mothers actually live. An understanding of how these mazeways work in Appalachia, they argue, justifies “switching the focus from an age-based to a resource-based model” for intervention, with particularly acute concern for the resources that come to a mother through the father of her child. “Our data,” the researchers write, “indicate that for Appalachian mothers, having a committed partner [which usually means ‘husband’] can enhance mother-child emotional relationships.” On the other hand, these data also mean that “rural mothers who do not have a committed coresident partner [husband], who have a low level of parenting knowledge, and who report less investment and satisfaction with parenting may be most at risk for disrupted mother-child emotional relationships.”

Progressive commentators may obsess about how many birthdays a mother has celebrated. But if they really care about children, they need to start worrying about whether that mother has celebrated a wedding day.

(Marc H. Bornstein, Diane L. Putnick, and Joan T.D. Suwalsky, “A Longitudinal Process Analysis of Mother-Child Emotional Relationships in a Rural Appalachian European-American Community,” American Journal of Community Psychology 50.1/2 [2012]: 89-100, emphasis added.)