Relationship Churning and Parenting Stress among Mothers

Sarah Halpern-Meekin, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kristin Turney, University of California, Irvine

Research documents the consequences of relationship instability for mothers’ parenting stress, but has given little attention to within-partner relationship instability. In this article, we use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to estimate the association between within-partner relationship instability (known as churning or on-again/off-again relationships) and mothers’ parenting stress. First, we find that by the focal child’s fifth birthday about 16% of mothers experience churning with the child’s biological father. Second, compared to being in a stable relationship with the child’s father, churning is associated with greater parenting stress. But those who experience churning have similar levels of parenting stress as their counterparts who separate from their children’s fathers, suggesting that relationship instability, more than a change in partner, is tied to parenting stress. Third, the difference in parenting stress among relationship churners and those in stable relationships is explained almost entirely by relationship status and quality.

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Presented in Session 229: Nonmarital and Diverse Families