Unmarried Mothers’ Changing Partners Comes Between Fathers and Children

Here’s an excellent piece from the Los Angeles Times by Kay Hymowitz (Los Angeles Times, 11/11/10).

The reason it’s so good is that, as far as I know, for the first time ever, a major publication is spreading the word that’s come out of the groundbreaking longitudinal study done at Princeton called the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.  Of course I’ve written several pieces on the Fragile Families study on this and on the Glenn Sacks sites, but it’s good to see the L.A. Times catching up.

The Fragile Families study is headed by Sarah McLanahan and has involved many of the best sociologists of the family in the country.  It’s a longitudinal study that was started in 1998 and is continuing.  They’re gathering data, at or near the birth of a child, two years later and then at five year intervals after that.  The 5,000 families studied are poor and often unmarried.  They’re from medium-sized cities across the country.

Go to the Fragile Families site and you’ll see the truly astonishing number and variety of analyses that many, many scholars are conducting of the data being gathered.  The breadth and depth of the information are truly amazing.  Hymowitz rightly calls the study, “the most extensive, long-term database on the family lives of the urban poor we’ve ever had.”

Now the fall issue of a journal called the “Future of Children” has been devoted to articles based on Fragile Families data.  That’s what Hymowitz is reporting on and much what she says is what I’ve been saying for many years.  I’m glad she and the Times are finally giving it a larger audience.  Frankly, the picture painted of unmarried childbearing among the poor is completely at odds with the one we so often see in everything from the worst of popular culture all the way up to the words of  president of the United States.

At the birth of a child, 80% of the couples were romantically involved and half were living together.  Most figured they would soon get married.

But within five years, a tiny 15% of the unmarried couples had taken wedding vows, while a whopping 60% had split up. At the five-year mark, only 36% of the children lived with their fathers, and half of the other 64% hadn’t seen their dads in the last month. One-half to two-thirds of the absent fathers provided little or no financial support…

By the time the children were 5, 20% of their mothers had a child by a different man; 27% of the kids were living with their mother’s new live-in partner. These relationships tended to reduce father involvement: Dads are less likely to come around when a new man is in the house. In the long run, it’s not even clear that the new boyfriends are good for the women involved, because mothers with children by more than one man “reported significantly less available [financial] support than those with children by one man.”

As I’ve written before, that’s just what Harvard researcher Kathryn Edin was talking about in her paper (along with Ronald Mincy at Columbia and Laura Tach at Harvard) entitled “Parenting as a Package Deal: Relationships, Fertility and Nonresident Father Involvement Among Unmarried Parents.”

As Edin and colleagues point out, fatherhood tends to be seen as a “package deal” in which “a father”s relationship with his child is contingent upon his relationship with the mother.”  Both mothers and fathers see it that way.  That means that, when the relationship between the mother and father breaks down, so does the relationship between the father and his child.

I would add that that’s what occurs generally, not just among poor, unmarried parents.  Indeed, I would argue that it’s the very foundation of much of family law and family court practice.  Where the mother goes, the child goes and if she want the dad there too, he can be.  But if she doesn’t, he gets left behind.  That explains the overwhelming judicial preference for maternal primary custody; it explains the unwillingness of family courts to enforce visitation orders; it explains the power mothers wield over fathers’ rights in adoption cases; it explains the broad legal acceptance of paternity fraud; it explains maternal gatekeeping.

Edin writes,

We find that father involvement drops sharply after relationships between unmarried parents end. Mothers” transitions into new romantic partnerships and new parenting roles are associated with larger declines in involvement than fathers” transitions.

In short, when a mother moves on to another partner, her child’s father tends to drop out of the picture, but the converse is not true.  When the father moves on, his contact with his child remains the same although it may become less “intense.”

Changes in a mother”s partner and parental status is strongly related to declines in paternal involvement, and is at least as great in magnitude as changes in a father”s economic characteristics or other personal characteristics. Changes in a father”s status are not predictive of whether or not the father has contact with the child, but it is related to the intensity of his involvement, suggesting a “crowding out’ effect.

All of this makes a difference, or at least it should.  As Hymowitz points out, and as we’ve seen before from Paul Millar, father involvement with children has a lot more to do with what mothers choose to allow than anything else including his economic circumstances.

You wouldn’t know it from the remarks of the president of the United States for whom every absent father is an irresponsible one… end of story.  The simple truth is that, until we start legally requiring responsibility of mothers toward fathers, we’ll continue the current scandal of fatherless children.  Until family law, family court practices and our culture generally stop allowing mothers to control fathers’ rights, we can’t pretend that we’re facing perhaps our society’s single greatest problem.

The Fragile Families study tells us the truth and points us toward solutions.  Whether we pay attention is another story altogether.  But whatever may happen, thanks to Kay Hymowitz and the Los Angeles Times for bringing it to our attention.

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