Family life has undergone dramatic change in recent decades, especially in relation to family structure. Marked increases in union dissolution and nonmarital childbearing have resulted in a growing number of children living apart from one of their parents. Most non-resident parents are fathers but with resident fathers becoming one of the fastest rising family forms in many western countries, non-resident mothers too are increasing in number.
Throughout history, fathers have been absent from their children’s lives for many reasons: for work, to fight wars, or through incarceration. But more recently, the transition to non-resident parenthood typically occurs in one of three ways: nonmarital childbearing where parents never live together; the breakdown of the relationships of unmarried cohabiting parents; or marital dissolution between parents. Non-resident parenthood has become a common transition in the life course of many parents, even though most parents, of course, never anticipate such a transition.
Up until recently, not a great deal has been known about non-resident fathers. Even less remains known about non-resident mothers. While concern for children’s well-being has catalyzed research efforts, researching non-resident parents is no easy task. Non-resident parents are hard to identify, locate, and recruit for research. They can be geographically mobile, and can have tenuous living arrangements as boarders, housemates, or as those not legally related to other people in a household. As such, they can slip through surveys that make use of traditional household rosters to identify target respondents. Non-resident parents have been found to underreport their parental status -some may be reluctant to declare it; some fathers may not know this status. The relatively small proportion of non-resident mothers, in particular, means that even in large national surveys there are often insufficient numbers of them to explore meaningfully and reliably.
Non-resident parents have attracted much negative attention in recent years – stigmatized as deadbeat dads or as bad moms – and so their reluctance to participate in research is perhaps not surprising. This negative attention is beginning to give way to emerging evidence that many non-resident parents want to play an active role in their children’s lives but struggle to do so in the face of numerous emotional and practical obstacles. Emotional issues include: dealing with the loss of daily interactions with children and familiar family activities; the pain of brief, superficial contact “visits” with children; role ambiguity; a sense of inadequacy and rejection; and feeling disenfranchised and disconnected (Am I a “real” parent?). Practical difficulties include: fewer financial resources in the aftermath of parental separation (particularly in light of rigorous child support enforcement regimes); finding adequate housing that can provide a home or home like space for caring for children; and maintaining a connection with children in the face of parental conflict,
physical distance, new family responsibilities, and children’s peer, school, and extracurricular activities. These challenges, individually and in combination, lead many non-resident parents to believe that they cannot maintain much more than a superficial relationship with their children. In particular, the time limited nature of contact means that non-resident parents often feel under pressure to engage in recreational and social activities with children (giving rise to the phrase Disneyland Dads/Disneyland Moms).
It is noteworthy that a sizable proportion of non-resident parents (especially fathers) do not appear to be able to overcome the above challenges, and as a consequence have little or no contact with their children (estimates vary in time and place from 20 to 50 percent of separated/divorced parents). Father absence has enormous implications for children’s well-being, and has been shown to be associated with a plethora of social ills for children (from poor academic achievement to youth suicide), spur ring a flurry of concerned social commentary in recent years. However, there is compelling evidence that parental conflict and the economic fallout from parental separation drives many of the negative consequences of divorce for children – not parental absence per se.
Much of the research into non-resident parenting has focused on two domains of critical importance to children’s well-being: parent-child contact and child support.
Most studies of parent-child contact have taken a quantitative tack, measuring the frequency and/or overall amount of face to face contact between non-resident parents and their children. There is mounting evidence, however, that the nature and quality of the interaction are more important than how often contact occurs. In particular, authoritative parenting (encompassing warmth and involvement, the encouragement of psychological autonomy, and monitoring and boundary setting) has been shown to be an important dimension of relationship quality. In pursuit of a better understanding of what non-resident parents do when they are with their children, research is moving away from the use of simple measures of contact frequency toward approaches that aim to recognize and describe the multiple qualitative and quantitative differences in the ways that non-resident parents can share the care of children.
In the meantime, there is much to suggest that family dynamics in tandem with demo graphic factors temper the form that contact takes. These factors largely reduce to the three Rs – repartnering, relocation (i.e., physical distance), and residual bad feelings (particularly conflict) between parents. To this list may be added three other Rs – relative economic disadvantage, ”rotten behavior” by a parent (including abuse, domestic violence, or obstruction of contact), and regard for parents’ work pat terns, and children’s age, developmental stage, individual temperament, resilience, experience, and wishes. Not surprisingly, higher levels and qualitatively richer types of contact appear to be associated with lower levels of interparental conflict, lower rates of repartnering, less physical distance between parents’ households, and higher levels of financial resources.
The above factors also appear to influence or mediate the close but complex links between contact and child support. Parent-child contact and child support often go hand in hand (the so called access-maintenance nexus). Non-resident parents who pay child support also tend to spend time with their children; those who do not see their children tend not to pay child support. Seltzer et al. (1989) have proposed three broad causal explanations for this seeing-paying relation: common demographic causes, unobserved psychosocial factors, and more direct causal relationships between contact and child support themselves.
Common demographic factors constrain or enhance the resources necessary for contact and the payment of child support. For example, the presence of new children in the non-resident parent’s household places constraints on time and money and this is likely to reduce the frequency of contact and the amount of child support paid to children of a previous union. Unobserved psychosocial factors can also influence the co-occurrence of contact and child support. For example, non-resident parents’ commitment to their children and the desire for a close emotional bond might result in the payment of child support and regular parent-child contact. Finally, contact and child support can themselves be causally related. For example, parent-child contact can foster a context in which non-resident parents stay in touch with children’s material needs, and the costs of these needs. They might thus be more inclined to provide financial support than parents who do not see their children. Where conflict exists between parents, the causal links between con tact and child support can be quite explicit: both activities can become power play activities whereby children become ”pawns” in a power struggle between parents in which the pieces traded are contact and child support: money from the non-resident parent is traded for con tact with children (”I pay so I see”), or vice versa (”You don’t pay so you don’t see”).
These three causal explanations are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, a combination of these processes is likely to define the particular seeing-paying relation (such as where parents’ commitment to raising their children influences their decision to live near one another). These processes are also likely to alter over time as parents’ circumstances change and as children grow older. Changing relational, economic, and life circumstances can trigger sudden shifts in parenting arrangements (and vice versa). For example, informal parenting arrangements around contact and financial support might become highly structured as a result of one parent repartnering and moving some distance from the children’s other parent. The contact-child support nexus, and the dynamics around it, can thus be quite complex and fluid.
Complexities aside, a solid body of data indicates that the payment of child support by non-resident parents improves children’s well-being on many levels, and significant gains have generally been made in the collection rate and amount of child support paid for children since enforcement regimes were introduced in recent decades – although some schemes have been more successful than others.
Child support nonetheless continues to act as a ”lightning rod” for much pent up anger, grief, and disappointment by non-resident parents surrounding relationship breakdown and the loss of everyday family life. Not surprisingly, non-resident parents and resident parents differ markedly in their criticisms of legally mandated collection regimes. The most common complaint by parents who pay child support (mostly non-resident fathers – especially those who have new families to support) is that they are paying too much. By contrast, the most common complaint by resident parents eligible for child support (mostly mothers) is that payments do not occur, debts are not pursued, or that the child support system can be manipulated in order to minimize or avoid child support obligations altogether. In recent years, these different perceptions have been given voice through the emergence of a number of grassroots fathers’ or mothers’ pressure groups that seek to shape policy reform. Gender politics loom large in relation to contact and child support issues.
Gender differences also pervade non-resident parenting itself. While non-resident mothers report experiencing many of the same pressures and feelings as non-resident fathers, they typically carry the additional burden of greater economic vulnerability. Women are generally more vulnerable financially across the life course than men; marital disruption often exposes this vulnerability. Non-resident mothers are generally poorer than non-resident fathers, and a lack of economic resources in the first place is one of the most common reasons that mothers voluntarily give up the full time care of their children. Many non-resident mothers believe that their children’s father is in a better position financially to raise their children. Related to their often weaker economic circumstances, non-resident mothers are less likely to pay child support than non-resident fathers (but still provide in kind contributions such as clothing, toys, and outings).
Social attitudes toward non-resident mothers are also more likely to be negative than toward non-resident fathers. This is because society expects women to be the nurturers and carers of children. Traditional gender role expectations place greater pressure on non-resident mothers than on non-resident fathers to stay in touch with children. The empirical data (albeit piecemeal) suggest that this is indeed the case. Non-resident mothers are more likely than non-resident fathers to see their children, and to do so more often and in qualitatively richer ways (such as through overnight stays or extended contact). Non-resident mothers may also be more inclined than non-resident fathers to use other forms of communication (such as telephone and letters) to maintain a connection with their children in the absence of daily face to face contact. Moreover, there may be greater intimacy between non-resident mothers and
their children and a higher level of involvement than is the case for non-resident fathers, as evidenced by the discussion of feelings, talking about daily problems and concerns, and more open communication generally. These apparent qualitative differences between non-resident mothers’ and non-resident fathers’ relationships with their children probably mimic pre separation gender differentiated parenting roles.
Regardless of gender, one of the fundamental challenges for all non-resident parents is to learn new ways of contributing to their children and staying involved in their lives while living elsewhere. A broad array of policies, interventions, and research continues to be developed to support non-resident parents in this crucial endeavor.
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