Women who have had children with multiple partners are less likely than others to feel supported by their family and friends, according to analyses of data on mothers of an urban U.S. cohort of children.1 Multipartnered fertility was negatively associated with women’s belief that if they needed it, someone would give them money or a place to live, or help them with child care. The association appears to be bidirectional, with multipartnered fertility affecting perceived support, and vice versa.
The analyses were based on three waves of survey data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study—a longitudinal study of an urban U.S. cohort of nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000. Participating mothers were asked at baseline, and again in one- and three-year follow-up surveys, about their social and demographic characteristics, their or their partners’ childbearing with other partners, and their perceived level of social support. Three types of support were examined: whether women believed that if they were in need, someone would loan them $200, provide them with a place to live or help them with babysitting or child care. The researchers pooled all three waves of data, and they excluded records from mothers who did not respond to a follow-up survey and records that were missing data; the final sample consisted of 12,259 records. Logistic regression analyses were conducted to examine the independent relationships between social and demographic characteristics, multipartnered fertility and perceived support.
On average, mothers were 28 years old and had had two children. Forty-one percent were black, 28% were white and 25% were Hispanic; half had had some postsecondary education. Nineteen percent of mothers were immigrants, 6% reported being in poor health, and 49% had lived with both parents at age 15. About one-third (30%) of mothers and one-third (33%) of fathers had had children with a prior partner. Overall, mothers’ perceived level of support was high; the vast majority believed that someone would loan them money (88%), provide them with a place to live (88%) or help them with child care (91%) if they needed it. Of mother-father couples, half were married and 19% were cohabiting; 11% rarely or never talked.
In logistic regression analyses controlling only for parity, mother’s and father’s multipartnered fertility were each negatively associated with perceiving all three types of support (odds ratio, 0.7 each); increased parity was associated with reduced odds of perceiving social support as well (0.8). When social and demographic variables were added to the model, the odds ratios for mother’s and father’s multipartnered fertility were slightly reduced (0.8 and 0.7), but remained significant. Most of the social and demographic variables were significant: Having a high school diploma or some college, being white or Hispanic and having lived with both parents at age 15 were positively associated with perceived support (1.2–1.9), whereas being an immigrant and being in poor health were negatively associated with the outcome (0.5 and 0.6, respectively). Finally, when variables pertaining to the relationship between the mother and the father were added to the model, the odds ratios for mother’s and father’s multipartnered fertility were further reduced (0.9 and 0.8), but remained significant. Three of the four relationship variables were significantly associated with perceived support: being married or cohabiting (1.4 each) and being estranged (0.7). All social and demographic variables that were significant in the second model remained so in the third.
The researchers conducted separate analyses by type of perceived support, controlling for social, demographic and relationship characteristics. A mother’s multipartnered fertility was negatively associated with her belief that someone would loan her money or would help her with child care (odds ratio, 0.8 each); a father’s multipartnered fertility was negatively associated with a woman’s perception of all three types of support (0.7–0.8).
To investigate the causal direction of the association between multipartnered fertility and perceived support, the researchers first conducted analyses among mothers who reported perceiving all three types of support at the one-year follow-up. At the three-year follow-up, 7% had had a child with another partner, and 16% perceived less support than they had earlier; of the mothers who experienced new multipartnered fertility between surveys, a disproportionate share (25%) reported a decrease in perceived support. In multivariate analyses, women who experienced new multipartnered fertility between surveys were less likely than those who did not to perceive support (0.7). Then, to investigate the opposite causal direction, researchers conducted analyses among mothers who reported no multipartneted fertility at the one-year follow-up. At the three-year follow-up, 8% had had a child with another partner; of mothers who did not perceive support at the one-year follow-up, a disproportionate share (14%) had experienced multipartnered fertility between surveys. In multivariate analyses, women who had perceived all three types of support at the one-year survey were less likely than those who did not to have experienced multipartnered fertility between surveys (0.6). The evidence suggests a bidirectional relationship, in which multipartnered fertility reduces the availability of support and the availability of support inhibits multipartnered fertility.
The authors acknowledge that a limitation of their analyses was that they relied on women’s perceived level of support, which may have been different than the true amount of support available to women. Nevertheless, the authors comment that "as a result of multipartnered fertility, children may be losing access to valuable resources from social networks." They add that because multipartnered fertility occurs disproportionately among blacks and unmarried individuals, "a loss of perceived support resulting from multipartnered fertility may contribute to racial inequality and to inequality across family structures." —J. Rosenberg
1. Harknett K and Knab J, More kin, less support: multipartnered fertility and perceived support among mothers, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2007, 69(1):237–253.