All in the Family

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine
This is a review of a paper published in Social Service Review.

For young single mothers, whether living with their parents is helpful or stressful may be influenced by race and ethnicity

New research suggests that grandparents’ involvement can cause stress for single mothers with young children. Whether they’re likely to do so depends on the circumstances of their involvement and, perhaps surprisingly, on the racial and ethnic characteristics of the family.

“There’s a kind of bias to think having grandparents involved in a child’s life is great,” says Emily Greenfield, author of the paper “Grandparent Involvement and Parenting Stress Among Nonmarried Mothers of Young Children.” “And in a lot of circumstances it’s true. But in other contexts it may be a problem.”

Greenfield, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, examined data from 1,118 single mothers who took part in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national survey that followed a sample of urban, unmarried women with children born between 1998 and 2000. The mothers’ average age was about 21, and most of the time the child in question was the first born.

About a third of the mothers lived with their parents. In Latino families, Greenfield discovered, this reduced parenting stress. But the opposite was true with African-American families.

When the mothers lived in separate households, greater contact between grandparents and grandchildren produced the opposite effect. Latina mothers felt greater stress, while African American mothers felt less. (The study found no significant differences in stress among white mothers.)

Greenfield’s study does not explain the causes of the increased stress, although it controls for obvious factors like education and employment. But she has some ideas. She says Latino families tend to value interdependence and frequent interaction between generations and tend to have clearly delineated roles. Latina mothers living with their parents may find that it gives them support without undermining their role as mothers.

Inter-generational dynamics in African- American families may differ, Greenfield says. Single mothers who live with their parents may experience greater stress because of role confusion or conflict over parenting strategies.

The findings are consistent with other studies of African-American families that find a link between poor parenting and adolescent mothers living with their parents. Indeed, parental stress affects more than just parents; it’s a risk factor for problems with children, including behavioral issues and poor cognitive development.

Grandparents are a growing presence in American family life. People are living longer, making multi-generational families more common, and the recession has led many family members to move in together. From 2000 to 2010, the number of children living with grandparents grew 40 percent or more in almost half the states.

Greenfield says social workers and policy makers need to keep in mind the complexities of extended families. Grandparents and other members may indeed be a source of family strength, but not under all circumstances. “It’s important to think about context,” she says.

Emily A. Greenfield, “Grandparent Involvement and Parenting Stress among Nonmarried Mothers of Young Children,” Social Service Review 85:1, March 2011, 135-157.