Rhona Mahony

Divorce, nontraditional families, and its consequences for children

If in the future women achieve real economic equality with men, men will doing roughly half the unpaid work in the home that women now do. That is the main prerequisite of women's equality. If men are doing roughly half the unpaid work at home, that me ans that roughly half the primary parents--the parents who stay home when Junior is sick, reduce their job-related travel, or stay at home for years while the children are small--will be men. That is, the sexual division of labor in the home will have me lted away. Could that happen? I think so. One question we should look into carefully, though, is what effect such a big change would have on the rate of divorce. To help us evaluate how important a question that is, I would also like to explore what t he consequences of divorce are for children.

First, what will happen to divorce rates? The honest answer is that no one knows. The research done by psychologists and physicians on two-parent families in which the father is the primary parent really doesn't yield good information about divorce rates in such families. We can speculate a little. Economists have found, for example, that as women's incomes rise in a country, the divorce rate rises, too. It seems that when most women have low incomes, few feel that they can afford to divorce. Wh en many women make enough to barely survive on independently, more bail out of marriages that make them miserable. The current trend, and the trend required if women are to achieve economic equality, is for women to greatly increase their incomes. That may increase the divorce rate. However, during the 1980's, when women's average earnings were rising considerably in the United States, divorce rates levelled off. Clearly, many other factors influence divorce rates.

We can say that after the sexual division of labor melts away divorce will not be as harmful to women as it is today. Half of them will be breadwinners. They will not have as much trouble supporting themselves or their children, whether or not they have custody, as the typical separated or divorced woman today.

What about children? When people ask me about divorce rates in nontraditional families, their real concern--as with most people who worry about divorce--is usually about the impact on children. To answer that question, we need to debunk a myth which has infiltrated academia as thoroughly as it has popular newspapers. The myth is that a typical couple's divorce leaves their child seriously troubled, socially withdrawn or disruptive, with falling grades and disciplinary problems, and possibly in need of psychotherapeutic counselling. Superficial reading of Judith Wallerstein's books--Second Chances (1989) and Surviving the Breakup (1980)--helped start this myth. Now it has a life of its own. Long ago, Francis Bacon saw wh y: falsehood flies but truth comes limping after.

Imagine the following study. Researchers interview 60 recently divorced couples who are experiencing such trouble with their separation that they have sought counselling from a professional psychologist. They also interview 131 of the children. One -third of the parents have generally adequate mental health. One-half the men and almost one-half the women are moderately disturbed or are often incapacitated by a disabling neurosis or addiction, which includes chronic depression, suicidal urges, and d ifficulty controlling feelings of rage. An additional 15 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women have severe mental illness, such as paranoid thinking or manic-depressive disorder. The researchers discover that after the divorce, many of the chil dren in those families have trouble in school and struggle with intense feelings of anger and sorrow.

Wallerstein's book Second Chances reports on children from exactly that sort of sample of families. The appendix of her first book, published nine years earlier, describes the unusual prevalence and severity of mental illness in her sam ple. Her work explores with sensitivity the pain and confusion of the children in those families. However, it tell us little about the children of a typical divorce. For the typical couple, her book is irrelevant.

How could we figure out what the effect of divorce is on the typical children who experience it? That is a tough nut. We know that children of divorced parents have more emotional and behavioral problems and do less well in school than children who live with both their biological parents. But there could be several reasons for that. For one, parents with psychological problems are more likely to divorce and children of parents with such problems are more likely themselves to have a rough time. Se cond, some parents who wind up divorcing have a long period of unpleasant conflict before they separate. Parental conflict causes many children to act up and do less well at school. Last, divorce itself may cause kids problems. The income and parental time available to them drops, they see more conflict, the separation scares or angers them, and so on. In order to weed out the separate contribution that each of those factors makes in a scientific way, we would have to follow thousands of children, beg inning in intact families, for many years. When some marriages ended in divorce, we could look back and see which families were full of conflict all along, which kids acted up from an early age, and so. Such a study would be expensive and painstaking.

Lucky for us, a top-notch research team made the effort. Andrew Cherlin and his colleagues studied random samples of over 11,000 children in Great Britain and over 2,200 children in the U.S., using information gathered on parents' and teachers' repor ts of behavioral problems and the children's reading and math scores (Cherlin, et al., Science, 1991, June 7, 252 (5011), pp.1386-89). They statistically controlled for the children's social class, race, the children's early behavioral and t est scores, and factors such as physical, mental, and emotional handicaps as assessed by physicians. After controlling for those factors, boys of divorced parents scored as high as boys from intact couples on the behavioral and academic tests. For girls , there was a small residual effect, apparently caused by the divorce itself, on their parents' and teachers' ratings of their behavioral problems.

This work implies that most of the problems we see in children of divorced parents are due to long-standing psychological problems of the parents, the stresses of poverty and racism, disabilities the children themselves suffer, and so on. Their pain is real and must be handled compassionately. However, by itself, the effect of divorce on children seems to be small. Politicians and lobbyists working to make it more difficult for Americans to divorce have either failed to learn about this research (p ublished in one of the most famous scholarly magazines in the world) or they dishonestly ignore it.

Let us return to our question. When the sexual division of labor in the home has melted away, what will divorce mean for children? No one knows for sure. In all likelihood, though, it will be be less harmful to children than it is today. I suspect that the average breadwinning mother will be more emotionally attached to her children than the average breadwinning father is today, because of the lingering emotional echoes of her pregnancies and her breastfeeding, if she breastfed. Even if her prima ry-parent husband catches up with and surpasses her in emotional attachment, she is starting from a higher base than the average father today. Concretely, that means that fewer, absent breadwinning parents will fail to visit, fail to send money, and go A WOL completely. More of them will be mothers. Remember, too, that improvements in child support assurance, and in other programs, will probably be necessary to attract millions of men into primary parenting. Those improvements will also cushion the eff ects of divorce for children whose fathers are breadwinners, too.

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-------(c)Rhona Mahony--rmahony@leland.stanford.edu-------
Last modified: Thu Nov 20 10:48:30 PST 1997