In 2013, Child Protective Services received 3.5 million referrals involving 6.4 million children in the United States. I think most of us see this staggeringly high number and nonetheless view child maltreatment as something that only “truly horrible” people do. Even those who recognize that divorce and re-partnering can be very problematic for children probably put child maltreatment in an entirely separate category.
That is one of the reasons that William Schneider’s new piece in Demography is so sobering: he shows that something many American mothers do—transition in and out of unions—significantly increases the risk of child abuse. In other words, the very common practices of breaking up and re-partnering can increase the risk of something horrible.
Let’s be clear: Schneider showed that mothers who became single became more likely to abuse their children and that mothers who entered a cohabiting relationship with a stepfather became more likely to abuse their children. I’m focusing on his maternal abuse findings here precisely because “maternal” has synonyms like caring, giving, and nurturing—synonyms that can’t be paired with “abuse.” We all acknowledge that there are bad mothers, but I think that many of us probably misinterpret the finding that children are more likely to be abused when their mothers form a cohabiting union with a stepfather by assuming that the stepfather is the perpetrator. Schneider shows that children in that situation actually suffer more abuse from their mothers.
Does he really show that the relationship transitions themselves put children at risk? I think he does. His data set—the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—followed families over time, collecting data when children were born as well as at 1, 3, 5, and 9 years of age. That means that he was able to relate changes in relationship status to changes in parenting practices. It isn’t very compelling to show that a divorced woman is more likely to abuse her child because maybe her violent behavior predated (and perhaps caused) the divorce. But to show that when a woman divorces, she actually becomes more likely to abuse her child—that’s more compelling. Moreover, Schneider went a step further: he tested whether the observed effects of relationship transitions were explained by household income, material hardship, unemployment, depression, parenting stress, or social isolation. He found that the transitions themselves still mattered, even net of all that. That means that children of divorced mothers aren’t at higher risk because of the stress of poverty—they are at higher risk of maltreatment because of the divorce as well.
Everything I’ve said so far has emphasized the worst parts of his findings. Let me soften the story by noting that new relationships with cohabiting stepfathers only increased the risk of maternal spanking, not high-frequency spanking, high-frequency physical aggression, or high-frequency psychological aggression. Schneider makes a compelling case that all four measures tap risk of abuse, but there was a significant finding for only one of them in the case of re-partnering. In the case of union dissolution, only high-frequency spanking was significant. However, mothers who became single were also more likely to neglect their children (by two different measures) and to have involvement from Child Protective Services. Mothers who became partnered usually became less likely to neglect their children (those forming cohabiting unions with stepfathers were the only group for which re-partnering did not decrease the risk of neglect; forming a cohabiting union with the biological father of a child, and marrying either the biological father or a stepfather reduced children’s risk of maltreatment by the mother).
Children of divorced mothers aren’t at higher risk because of the stress of poverty—they are at higher risk of maltreatment because of the divorce as well.
Even with these qualifications, I am still struck by the idea that something fairly commonplace in American family life increases the risk of something we consider beyond the pale. Maybe I am a little more open to the idea that union transitions can negatively impact mothering because I have been divorced and remarried, and my own criminal record for child maltreatment has been thankfully expunged. On a very hot day about a year after I remarried and just six weeks after the birth of my daughter, I took my 11-year-old son from my first marriage over to the house of his friend who attended the same publicly-funded therapeutic school. The task of driving automatically fell to me because my new husband and son were still not comfortable alone together.
My son’s friend wanted to go swimming, and I balked at the idea of running back home for a swimsuit (since they lived so far apart), but I did offer to take them to Target for one. I dropped them off to shop, and as I parked the car, I remember thinking about how odd it was that even though I would never have let my son shop alone because of his lack of social skills, I was still trusting him with the support of his bipolar friend. So, I rushed through my own errand of picking up infant formula to rejoin my son quickly, but on my way back, I realized in a panic that I had left my 6-week-old daughter in the car! I ran to the car—which was now surrounded by police and spectators—quickly unlocked it, and pulled my baby into my arms. She was still cool to the touch, but abandoning your baby for even five minutes is criminal, especially on a 100-plus degree day! Police intervention was more than warranted in my case. And even though I know I was fully responsible, I also know it wouldn’t have happened without all of the stress involved with parenting sons who had suffered from the divorce and remarriage themselves, plus my own anxiety from trying to meet the many competing needs in a blended family, including caring for a newborn.
In other words, it makes sense to me that union transitions would increase the risk of child maltreatment. I don’t believe it is useful to think that only certain kinds of people mistreat their children, or that most parents who go through union transitions do not experience an increased risk of harming or neglecting their kids. Thankfully, higher risk does not always translate into actual maltreatment in the same way that a family history of breast cancer does not always predict an eventual diagnosis. But Schneider’s work highlights that mothers can fail to be maternal when coping with union transitions.