Watching Olympians shine in Sochi, you simply know that the road to get there involved dedication. The condition in which athletes take to the slopes and to the ice reflects the entire lifetime that came before.
Nicola Barban shows us in a recent article in the European Journal of Population that the rest of us are not all that different: our health condition depends on where we have been before. More specifically, he shows that a key social determinant of women’s health—marital status—doesn’t tell us as much as marital history does.
The life course perspective that he takes uncovers more subtle differences than the well-known facts that single mothers face disadvantages and that cohabitation does not carry all the benefits of marriage. For instance, Barban found that early childbearing and early cohabitation are associated with poorer self-reported health, more depression, and more risk behaviors (drinking and smoking), but early marriage is not. Also, short cohabitations followed by marriage do not seem to compromise health, but long-term cohabitations as well as repeated cohabitations do. More generally, lots of family transitions are bad for health, but with an important exception: normative transitions in a traditional sequence enhance health status.
That might not make much sense to a mother who has had two marital births, when neither child sleeps through the night yet: that mother might feel convinced that multiple family transitions have added up to take a toll on her body. But the association between traditional family formation and better health could come from traditional parents’ lower stress levels even in the face of strenuous demands, and from the greater support they receive from family and friends. Married mothers may also receive and/or perceive more support from their partners.
When we measure just how much marriage enhances health, we have to pay attention to the pathway to marriage.
Barban additionally explains that “disorder” (variation in typical timing, duration, or order of events) makes it harder to achieve desired roles and to fulfill one’s own expectations. In particular, he stresses that “Individuals have expectations about the order of life course events, even if sanctions are not applied.” In other words, prolonged cohabitation may be a source of stress and frustration, even when it is socially accepted.
Barban’s work could be framed in different ways. On the one hand, his findings that normative transitions at normative ages enhance health while non-normative transitions at early ages compromise health could be interpreted in terms of social conformity: it is conformity itself that benefits people. On the other hand, others might assert that continuous marriage and childbearing within marriage are normative precisely because they are good for us—the health benefits being one of the ways they are good for us. Barban’s work cannot adjudicate between these interpretations.
But his work is nonetheless informative on another score. It means that when we try to measure just how much marriage enhances health, we have to pay attention to the pathway to marriage. A marriage that follows numerous cohabitations is not associated with the same health (and health behavior) benefits as a marriage that is a first union or that follows a single short cohabitation.
And there is good reason to believe that what is good for mother’s health is also good for children’s health. I argued earlier that the marriage premium to infant health was likely underestimated in a recent Demography article because the estimate was based on women who had experienced both marital and non-marital births. Barban substantiates that women’s own health is compromised when they have non-marital births. Certainly women who have had births both within and outside of marriage have not had a normative life course. His work supports the notion that the health benefits associated with marriage may be the greatest for those who remain in it the longest.