Moving On: The Expansion of the Family Network After Parents Separate
This is the third of three reports commissioned by the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada. These reports use family history data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) to explore the impact of parents' conjugal behaviour on their children's family environment and economic well-being. The previous report focussed on the first and most common transition experienced by children: their parents' separation. In this report, we move on, looking at the expansion of children's family networks, as separated mothers and fathers continue their conjugal and parental life courses, entering new unions and creating new families.
The report is divided into two main sections. The first section focusses on the arrival of new parents, stepsiblings and half-siblings, showing how complex and diverse the experience of family life has become for Canadian children. In the second section, we explore how children perceive their relationship with parents and parent figures, and we attempt to gain an insight into how these relationships are affected by their family life pathways.
"Family and Custody History" section of the NLSCY provides complete conjugal and parental histories of each child's biological parents, whether or not they live in the same household. This makes it possible not only to reconstitute children's family life pathways, but also to extend the study of family networks beyond the residential group. With growing proportions of children spending a decreasing number of years in a family that includes their two biological parents, close family members who play an important role in a child's life do not necessarily live in the same household.
The family life course analyses in Section 1 are based on information collected from the NLSCY longitudinal sample of approximately 15,000 children included in the first two survey cycles, and aged between 2 and 13 years at Cycle 2 (1996–97). The analyses of children's perception of their "parents" draw on data collected at the third cycle in 1998–99 for children aged 10–15 years who completed the child-based questionnaire.
Creating new conjugal unions after separation
- The probability that parents will enter new conjugal unions rises consistently with time since separation, though fathers form new relationships more rapidly than mothers.
- Within three years of separation, one third of fathers and a quarter of mothers had remarried or started living with someone other than the child's other parent.
- Within 10 years, one third of mothers had done so.
- Mothers and fathers in Quebec formed new relationships more rapidly than parents in any other region of Canada. With time, regional differences lessened among fathers and increased among mothers.
- Once-married mothers and fathers are just as likely to enter a new union as are parents separated from a cohabiting union.
- Non-resident fathers who have only limited contact with their children are most likely to enter a new relationship, and those with full custody are least likely to do so.
- Children are much more likely to live with their mother's new partner than with their father's new partner: more than four fifths (84 percent) of children in this sample lived full time with their stepfather, while only 6 percent did so with their stepmother.
Stepsiblings and half-siblings
- Close to half the new relationships formed by separated parents were with individuals who already had children from an earlier union.
- As children usually remain with their mother when parents separate, stepsiblings rarely share the same residence.
- Although fathers enter new unions more rapidly, mothers tend to have babies within these new unions more quickly. Fathers catch up over time, and nine years or more after the separation, approximately 40 percent of fathers and mothers entering a new union had started a second family.
- Children more often live with maternal half-siblings than with paternal half-siblings.
- Overall, almost one in five children aged 0–13 years in 1996–97 had at least one stepsibling or half-sibling in their family network.
Can I talk to my father and mother about myself and my problems?
- Boys and girls (aged 10–15 years) were more likely to confide in their mother than their father, though the difference between the two is much smaller for boys than girls.
- Irrespective of family circumstances, the ability to confide in parents declines as children enter their teens, less so among boys than girls. The father-daughter relationship is particularly affected.
- In all family environments that involved a parental separation, a smaller proportion of children felt able to talk to their parents.
- Compared with children who, at separation, lived with their mother but saw their father frequently:
- children with sporadic or no contact with their father were significantly less likely to confide in their father, and more likely to confide in their mother; and
- children in shared physical custody were significantly more likely to confide in both their mother and father.
Relationship with mothers, fathers and stepfathers
- Biological fathers clearly remain fathers even when they do not reside with their children, and even if there is a stepfather in the picture. Asked to select the
"father figure with whom they spent the most time," the vast majority of children living with a lone mother, and a good proportion of children living with a stepfather, identified their biological or adoptive father.
- Most children have a very positive perception of their relationship with both biological parents. Differences between mothers and fathers were small; mothers scored a little higher in understanding children, giving them affection and maintaining overall closeness, while scores were almost identical in terms of "fairness," a question that may be less oriented towards maternal aspects of parenting than the others.
- Children held a higher opinion of the quality of their relationship with a biological father than with a stepfather. Nonetheless, the stepfather relationship is more often seen in a highly positive light than a negative one: 45 percent of children identifying a stepfather as the main father figure stated that they received "a great deal" of affection from him compared to the 21 percent who received "very little."
Perhaps the most important policy contribution of the life course analyses is that they promote awareness of the growing fluidity and diversity of family life in Canada. To avoid simplistic solutions to complex situations, it is essential to appreciate the shifting nature of family circumstances after separation. In many cases, for example, arrangements made at separation in terms of custody, visiting and child support will need to be modified in response to changes in mothers' or fathers' conjugal or parental situation.
As more parents become responsible for children from two or more unions, they will increasingly have to address the competing needs of these children. Similarly, issues related to stepparents' rights and responsibilities now apply to an increasing proportion of families. Already, the majority of separated parents face this situation; with rising numbers of adults and children in step-relationships, these relationships are likely to become more rather than less important.