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Moms raising kids by multiple partners more apt to be stressed, depressed

Posted May 16

Mothers who have had children by different partners are more apt to be depressed and stressed than those whose children have the same father — and they might receive less social support, too, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Issues.

"If she has a child with a new partner, is her depression and her parenting stress impacted?" is the question that Paula Fomby, an associate research scientist at University of Michigan, set out to answer with the help of data collected on more than 3,300 children born between 1998 and 2000 who were part of the Fragile Families Child and Wellbeing Study.

That initial child was the "focal" child; she then considered at three years and five years later how moms who had gone on to have at least another child with a different father fared in terms of depression and parenting stress compared to those who didn't have another child or who had another with the same partner.

Both depression and parenting stress — defined as feeling "especially challenged or exhausted by parenting" — increased. But increased depression is where Fomby found the strongest association — both over three years and over five years.

But the causes appeared to change somewhat over time, indicating that attempts to intervene and treat depression or psychological distress must change, too, even though the symptoms over time seemed the same, she said.

Depression within the first three years was more likely to be due to having "diminished relationship quality" with the father of the focal child. While the depression level at five years was also higher for those moms who'd had children by different partners, the complexity of the relationships within the family seemed a bigger factor.

"It gets into relationships and who's involved with kids and negotiating relationships between the current partner and the former partner and the half-siblings and the current child. Early on, when we looked at depression, it was elevated because of the changes in the dyadic relationships with the former partner. Over time, it was managing the complexity of these many relationships," Fomby said.

"Addressing the relationship quality with the former partner may help to some extent, but over time the complexities are compounding, so there may be other things that need to be addressed to treat the same apparent symptoms," she added.

Depressed, stressed mothers

Depression is strongly associated with "hostile, negative parenting, and with more disengaged, withdrawn parenting," especially among mothers, according to research published by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (Committee on Depression, Parenting Practices, and the Healthy Development of Children.) And those effects are seen across the ages of the children.

Those researchers also note that "adverse health outcomes of accidents, childhood asthma, child maltreatment, and adolescent tobacco and substance use occur more often when a parent is depressed."

Fomby said her study did not directly look at how mom's depression may influence her parenting. But other studies have shown that mothers experiencing depression are less warm and engaged, which in turn can negatively affect a child's cognitive and emotional wellbeing.

That's why maternal depression and complex family structures are important, Fomby said.

Children of depressed mothers are more likely than others to exhibit problems. There’s an association with cognitive and motor-development delays in toddlers. Children who are raised by a mother who has long-term, severe depression may be more prone to behavioral problems and may not be as likely to flourish academically, according to a 2014 Child Trends report.

Links vs. causes

Showing a link and finding what triggered the stress or depression are two different things, however. Fomby found parenting stress and depression were both elevated when the focal child was age 5 for moms who had children with different partners, but said while "those findings say something about how parents in complex families perceive the parenting experience, they don't tell us anything about actual parenting style."

The study found that the quality of the relationship between the woman and the father of her children "was a better predictor of her depression and parenting stress than were other more objective indicators of his involvement, such as child support payments and frequency of contact."

But interpreting that is more complicated, she said. "It could be that relationship quality is better where fathers regularly pay child support and see their kids, or it could be that fathers are more consistent with child support and contact when they already have good relationship quality with their children's mother," she told the Deseret News.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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