The University Record, June 18, 2001

Many fathers juggling multiple families, according to study

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

About half of U.S. fathers who don’t live with their biological children also have family ties to another set of children, and 24 percent have three or more groups of children in their lives, according to a U-M researcher.

These children may include nonresident biological children of former mates, biological children and stepchildren who live with the men, and stepchildren who live elsewhere.

“Many nonresident fathers have quite complex parenting responsibilities,” says Pamela J. Smock, associate professor of sociology and associate research scientist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Smock is a co-author of the study, with sociologists Wendy Manning of Bowling Green State University and Susan Stewart of the University of Richmond.

Their analysis of 649 fathers with nonresident biological children younger than 18, drawn from the National Survey of Families and Households, was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

About 24 percent of nonresident fathers have three or more groups of children in their lives, the researchers found, including about 8 percent who have two or more sets of biological children who are not living with them.

About 8 percent of all nonresident fathers are living with biological children fathered prior to their current union, the study found, while about 26 percent are living with stepchildren. About 14 percent of nonresident fathers are living with women who are also nonresident parents. And about 42 percent have biological children with their current spouse or partner.

“These estimates are likely to be conservative,” the researchers note, “because some men may be reluctant to count other children when answering survey questions. But recent rates of nonmarital childbearing, divorce, cohabitation and remarriage suggest that highly complex family configurations are quite common.”

The researchers examined how the complexity of parenting ties was linked to visitation and child support that fathers paid to nonresident children. Overall, they found that 78 percent of the fathers paid child support and about 30 percent of the fathers visited their children at least once a week.

But after controlling for paternal education and income, the income of the father’s spouse or partner, and other factors, Manning, Stewart and Smock also found that nonresident dads with just one set of children visited those children more often and were more likely to pay child support.

They also found that the spouses or partners of nonresident fathers were influential. “The higher the incomes of spouses or partners, the easier it is for men both to visit and financially support their children,” the researchers note. “These women are all nonresident stepmothers and possibly other types of parents as well. But they are often treated as being invisible parents, when in fact, they appear to matter a great deal.”

According to Smock, the findings suggest that policies designed to engage men in the lives of nonresident children should pay particular attention to those men who have potentially competing parenting responsibilities.

“Perhaps child support policies should somehow account for the reality that a substantial share of nonresident fathers face complex parenting roles,” Smock says. “At times, current policies may pit the interests of one group of children against another. Effective policies require that the full array of nonresident parenting roles be acknowledged rather than overlooked.”