New partners as co-parentsKate Funder
The Institute's study of parents and children after divorce (PCMB Study) examined the ways in which new partners/spouses enter the lives of divorced parents and their children. Kate Funder, AIFS Fellow, reports.
After divorce, parents who have established themselves with new partners appear to be more satisfied with their lives than those who have not (Weston 1986). There is considerable evidence that a significant other, a confidante, lover and friend is a buffer against depression (Henderson 1986) as well as an important factor in life satisfaction. However, the specific ways in which this other person supports the parent in his/her parenting functions have been less a focus of attention.
A new partner may do little directly with the children but still be a source of support, wisdom and guidance to the parent. Rather than offering direct assistance with supervision and care of the children, the new partner may be a 'silent' co-parent through sharing the parenting concerns of the parent, and by bringing a sense of joint endeavour to the responsibilities and joys of parenthood through interest, discussion and planning. If the parent is sustained by the new partner, he/she may be a better parent with benefits accruing to both parent and children.
The new partner may also act as a direct resource for the children, thus reducing the burden of supervision and emotional and financial demands on a single or unsupported parent. In other words, children may be the beneficiaries of the step-parent's direct actions on their behalf, and/or may profit indirectly from the influence on their parent of the new family member.
Some of these aspects of family re-formation after divorce were examined in the Institute's Parents and Children After Marriage Breakdown (PCMB) Study, to determine the ways in which new partners/spouses enter the lives of divorced parents and their children. Based on interviews with 523 parents with two children, five to eight years after separation, the study included 60 per cent who had repartnered.
Repartnered parents were asked how willing their new partners were to take responsibility for the children, and what parental activities they were actually engaged in. Parental activities were considered under two broad headings - guardianship/decision-making about the general parameters of how the child is to be reared, and day-to-day care/custodial roles.
Sharing the costs of children after marriage breakdown has always been a contentious issue: because of the poor understanding of the attitudes of new partners towards contributing to children's expenses, and the extent of such contributions, parents were asked specifically about the willingness of new partners to share housing, education, leisure and living expenses, and their actual contributions towards such costs.
Questions probing a number of factors which may affect the participation of new partners were also included in this study. Since in our society men and women are socialised into rather different parental roles, so too step- parents probably differ in the way in which they become co-parents. Moreover, after separation children usually live with one parent and visit the other, so that residence of children in the house can be expected to change the general opportunities for parenting, as well as the particular functions each partner has and the degree of involvement of new partners in the various aspects of parenting.
The study also collected information on the wellbeing of parents and their children to enable aspects of support from the new partner to be related to the functioning of the parent and children. It was thus possible to explore both the ways in which new partners become co-parents and also some outcomes of such support for parents and children.
Willingness to Share Parenting
New partners were seen as being extremely willing to be involved in parenting, with all groups (regardless of gender or residence) averaging more than four on a five-point scale of enthusiasm for joining the parent in his/her responsibilities. Moreover, the new partner was seen as a continuing resource to the parent, for as the new partnership continued the willingness of new partners waxed rather than waned, indicating that involvement with children did not dim enthusiasm for sharing. While willingness to participate in parenting was universally high, three factors increased the willingness - living with the children, being a stepmother, and being involved with younger children.
More specifically, since financial responsibility for children is such a contentious issue between parents after divorce, parents were asked how willing their new partners were to share the costs. Willingness to contribute to housing, holidays and leisure, and day-to-day living expenses was high to very high, all with averages of more than four on a five-point scale. Willingness to pay for children's education was slightly lower. Two factors increased willingness to share in the financial support of children - being male and living with the children. It appears that financial resources are more likely to be shared within the household, and that men are more willing to share this aspect of co-parenting, reflecting, perhaps, a difference in resources and gender-specific expectations.
From willingness to actual participation may, however, be a big jump. To examine the specific areas in which step-parents were felt to be participating, two general categories of parental functions were explored. The accompanying Table shows differences in the participation of new partners in the decision-making and the day-to-day care functions of parents.
|Right and wrong||94||93||94||42||27||41|
|Music and clubs||69||64||65||14||27||15|
On average, fewer than half the possible guardianship decisions were shared by step-parents, so that many elements of parenting were clearly not the province of step- parent input. Non-resident parents themselves, however, were not very active guardians which may skew the figures for their new partners. The participation of new partners in decisions concerning children's upbringing varied according to sex and residence. Overall, resident stepmothers were engaged in 68 per cent of the decisions, resident stepfathers in 59 per cent, non-resident stepmothers in 19 per cent and non- resident stepfathers in 17 per cent.
Clearly, residence determines a greater part of step- parents' involvement in decision-making about children, but within resident groups stepmothers appear slightly more involved. This last suggestion is possible rather than certain, since the PCMB study had only 32 resident stepmothers and 11 non-resident stepfathers.
Lending an ear to discussions about how the children should be disciplined, educated and guided may be one of the most supportive things a new partner can do. On closer inspection, much of the difference between men and women was associated with women controlling food and health matters; in terms of input from new partners, parents are most likely to receive support for setting standards for children's behaviour.
Care and Responsibility for Children
In day-to-day responsibilities and activities, residence has an even more marked effect on the new partner's involvement, as it does for parents themselves. Overall, new partners were most involved with discipline, celebrations, discussing problems and helping with homework. In addition, most contribute both time and money to their partner's children, with men giving more money than time, and women reversing this pattern. This probably reflects the distribution of resources between men and women in our society; it follows the pattern in most two-parent families, and mirrors differences between men and women in degrees of willingness to contribute financially.
It appears, then, that parents perceive their new partners to be very willing to enter their lives as co-parents: they appear to do so according to their resources of time and money, and to a much greater degree if they actually live with the children. From the perspective of parent support, however, there is only a slight difference in willingness of parents to participate; so it seems likely that parents receive support in accordance with their own involvement with the children. Naturally enough, when children visited their fathers more often, stepmothers took more care of the children and fathers perceived their new partners as being more supportive in making decisions.
Parent, Former Spouse and New Partner
The relationship between parents after divorce has been shown to be a strong indicator of continuing involvement of non-resident fathers with their children (Funder 1989). The bond formed between the children and the non- resident parent's new partner may thus be associated with the relationship between the parent and the former spouse. Better communication and low levels of conflict accompany, and probably facilitate, the bond between non-resident fathers and their children; by the same token, such a situation also paves the way for new partner and non- resident father to participate to some extent as co-parents.
The Institute's PCMB study showed that parents who have better communication with their former spouses and report little hatred and desire for revenge are significantly more likely than others to have the support of their new partner in both decision-making and care of the children. So finding a way to maintain open, low-conflict communication with the former spouse also paves the way for more support in parenting from the new partner, at least for non-resident fathers.
Thus sorting out difficulties with the former spouse may bring the subsequent benefit of accessing the resources of the new spouse as an additional co-parent. Another possibility is that new partners might step into the breach as parents when the former spouse is not available (that is, new partners substitute for former spouses). However, no support was found for this - the involvement of the new partner in child-rearing was not related to the degree of sharing of parental duties between former spouses.
Support and Parent Wellbeing
Although it is commonly assumed that support in parenting is an advantage to divorced parents, the supposition remains to be tested. Current Institute data show only whether there is a significant correlation between involvement of the new partner and parental wellbeing. Such correlations may mean that well-adjusted parents are able to involve their new spouses as co-parents or, alternatively, that such involvement increases wellbeing.
The relationship between feelings of depression/anxiety and degree of support from the new partner is slight but significant for both resident mothers and non-resident fathers, but the results are hard to interpret. For non- resident fathers, having a more involved new partner as parent in day-to-day activities is associated with feeling more optimistic and less depressed. For resident mothers the trend is in the opposite direction; depressed and anxious mothers appeared to rely more on their new partners.
Support and Child Wellbeing
Two measures of children's wellbeing were derived from the parent's reports. The first comprised an aggregate rating of the parent's satisfaction with aspects of the child's achievement and material and social circumstances; the second was an index of the children's health and wellbeing - for example, how they got on at school and with friends, and whether they showed signs of anxiety or unhappiness.
Neither resident mothers' nor non-resident fathers' reports of children's wellbeing significantly correlated with the participation of the new spouse in parenting. Non- resident fathers, however, reported significantly more behavioural problems the more involved their new partner was in parenting. Although at first glance it may appear that new wives' cooperation in child rearing might be counter-productive, other explanations may have more strength.
If fathers saw their children frequently they were likely to comment on the children's problems - presumably they had more intimate knowledge of their ups and downs. When the frequency of visits was accounted for, the relationship between the stepmother's involvement with the children and their level of difficulties disappeared. Thus stepmothers did not appear to induce problems in children - at least not from the father's perspective. The small size of the non-resident mother group made it impossible to determine whether this observation is gender-specific. No significant relationship between children's wellbeing and behavioural problems and resident stepfather involvement as co-parent was found.
The willingness of a new partner to act as co-parent and support for the parent is generally high, so that most parents who repartner after divorce acquire helpmates who support them in their role as parent. The extent of this support is dictated largely by the opportunities to engage in the making of various decisions and in direct activities with and for the children. It appears that parents who come to a reasonable arrangement about co-parenting in the time before repartnering leave open the door for the entry of other, generally willing, adults who may be direct and indirect resources for the children. Thus resolution of conflict between the two parents may subsequently make it possible for a willing stepmother to support the father in his roles as both guardian and caregiver.
Some gender differences exist, and these appear to reflect both access to resources and socially accepted roles - men do more financially, and women spend more time attending to food and clothes. Non-resident fathers and resident mothers seem to receive support from their new spouses commensurate with their own concern and involvement with the children.
Although repartnering is associated with increased wellbeing among divorced parents, the willingness and involvement of new partners in parenting does not have a significant bearing on either parent or child happiness, or the incidence of behaviour problems in children. More depressed and anxious mothers, however, were likely to report support in parenting from their new partners, while fathers had a more positive outlook when they felt their partners were more engaged as co-parents.
Further analysis will be directed to looking more closely at parent-child and step-parent-child interactions, from both the child's and the parent's perspectives.
- Funder, K. (1989), 'Financial support and relationships with children', Report No.6, AIFS Child Support Scheme Evaluation Study, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Henderson, A. (1986), The Problem of Dementia in Australia: A Report to the Department of Community Services, National Health and Medical Research Council, Social Psychiatry Research Unit, The Australian National University, Canberra.
- Weston, R. (1986) 'Money isn't everything', in P. McDonald (ed.) Settling Up: Property and Income Distribution on Divorce in Australia, Prentice Hall of Australia, Sydney.
This analysis was completed while Kate Funder was working on exchange at the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth.
In this issue
- Juggling work and family commitments
- Work and stress: Can a sense of control help?
- Child care resources: inner and outer Melbourne
- Employment and income security support
- Mothers in the workforce: Coping with young sick children.
- Pushed out or rushing out? : Buying on the outskirts of Melbourne
- Youth wages and poverty
- Sole Parent Pension: A bridge for solo players?
- To work or not to work? : Women, work and family responsibilities
- The outskirts of Sydney and Melbourne: Economic diversity or homogeneity?
- New partners as co-parents
- Mediating divorce: An alternative to litigation