Abstract: Fragile Families?: A Longitudinal Perspective on 21st Century Family (In)Stability (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Fragile Families?: A Longitudinal Perspective on 21st Century Family (In)Stability

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 16, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Brown-Weinstock, BA, PhD Student in Sociology and Social Policy, Princeton University, NJ
Sarah Gold, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Kathryn Edin, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs; Co-director of The Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University, NJ
Timothy Nelson, PhD, Lecturer in Sociology and Public Policy, Princeton University, NJ
Background and Purpose: Unmarried parents experience high rates of partner transitioning in the early years of their children’s lives; 43% of unmarried parents have at least two new relationships before their child turns five, while 16% have four or more. A large body of literature has shown that family instability during early- and mid-childhood has a direct negative effect on children’s socioemotional and cognitive development. This instability also has indirect adverse effects by reducing fathers’ contact and time spent with children. Despite this extensive literature, we know surprisingly little about how parents’ relationship trajectories evolve after mid-childhood and with what consequences, as children enter the critical stage of adolescence. Understanding these trajectories and what they mean are critical for public knowledge about how changing family structures have played out for 21st century families. 

Methodology: To begin answering these questions, we use two, related, datasets – the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) and qualitative interview data. FFCWS is a longitudinal cohort study of unmarried births; we use all six waves of data from the mothers’ interviews. Additionally, we capitalize on a rich qualitative dataset of 73 in-depth interviews with mother/child dyads. Beginning in the summer of 2018, a subset of the FF sample was interviewed using a life history format to better understand dynamics uncaptured by the survey. While the sample for these qualitative interviews was selected based on the accuracy with which variables from early waves of data collection predicted adolescents’ grade point averages, the sample is largely reflective of the FF sample. In our analyses, we examine the responses of youth born to unmarried versus married parents.

Results: Using both the quantitative and qualitative data, we find that many mothers and fathers who were unmarried at birth eventually find stability— either a long-term relationship or singledom—as their child approaches adolescence. Some, though not all, of these long-term partners adopt an active and affirming parenting role that youth identify as important and valuable. Furthermore, we find that some fathers reemerge during adolescence. The level of involvement these fathers have seems to be partially informed by whether the mother has repartnered; in some cases, the mothers’ repartnering leaves more room for father involvement particularly if the mother has had another child; sometimes, though, close relationships with the mother’s new partner may lead children to be less interested in building relationships with their biological fathers. In other cases, fathers reenter their children’s lives after being released from jail/prison and at the urging of new girlfriends. Among married-couple families, some resident fathers become “shadow dads" to their children, maintaining only peripheral involvement in their daily lives. Family form seems especially consequential for our youth during adolescence, as peer and neighborhood contexts become more salient and school more challenging.

Conclusion: This research both extends the time horizon of and adds nuance to the social scientific story of parents’ relational stability. The data show that families originally thought of as “fragile” may actually achieve the stability important for child wellbeing.