When Parents Separate: Further Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth



This is the second of three reports examining the impact of parents' family transitions on children's family environment and economic well-being based on longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), a panel survey conducted jointly by Human Resources and Development Canada (HRDC) and Statistics Canada.[3] The first report focused particularly on how changes in the conjugal situation of parents affect the economic circumstances within which children are raised (Juby, Le Bourdais and Marcil-Gratton, 2003). The next two reports examine in greater depth how parents' conjugal behaviour shapes the family life course of their children. This report focuses specifically on aspects of the most common family transition for Canadian children, and the first for most of them—their parents' separation. The third report will explore what happens next as mothers and fathers go their separate ways.

Two themes, often absent from research on family change, are central to this report. Together they guide the analyses and provide a backdrop for social policy formulation:

What is a family transition?

Family transitions are the building blocks of the family life course. In this study, a family transition is considered to occur when parents change their conjugal status (i.e. they create or dissolve a marriage or common-law union). In addition, certain "parental status" changes are also considered as transitions: when the mother or father becomes a "stepparent" at the formation of a new union with a partner who has children from an earlier union; or when they have a child with a new partner, providing their children with a half-sibling. Some of these changes have a direct impact on the child's residential family group, triggering a transition from one family type to another: from intact to lone-parent family when parents separate, for example. Others, such as the arrival of a new partner in the non-custodial parent's life will not prompt a transition, but will have an impact on the child's extended family environment.

In this report, we focus on the beginning of the life course, situating the child's birth within the family life course of the parents, and looking at the first and most common transition experienced by children: their parents' separation. The report is divided into four sections:

  • Section I sets the scene, updating and expanding earlier analyses of how the context within which children born during the last two decades of the 20th century has evolved (see Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999). Specifically, we examine the evolution of births within or outside of a union, within marital or common-law unions, and within a first or subsequent family unit, comparing different cohorts of children and different regions of Canada. This section also looks briefly at how these factors influence children's subsequent family life course transitions.
  • Section II updates and expands information relating to parental separation, tracing the relationship between the context at birth and the likelihood that parents separate, and showing how this relationship varies through time and for different regions of Canada.
  • Section III focuses on the way in which parents divide responsibilities for children when they separate, with a particular emphasis on shared custody. The different types of shared living arrangements and the evolution of these arrangements through time are considered.
  • Section IV examines the new information collected for the first time at Cycle 3 concerning custody issues (e.g. whether children are consulted; whether parents keep to the visiting arrangements agreed upon) and child support arrangements (e.g. whether support agreements are adhered to; whether support agreements mean that support payments are expected) made for children when parents separate.

Family and Custody History Data

The retrospective "Family and Custody History" section of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth provides complete conjugal and parental histories of each child's biological parents up to the time of the first survey, in the winter of 1994-95, and is brought up to date at each subsequent survey. The family history data gathered in this survey provide a new insight into the extent to which decisions parents make with regard to their conjugal and parental life affect their children's family life course, by making it possible to reconstruct the complex family networks created by both biological parents after they separate.

However, the wealth of information about the conjugal and parental behaviour of both biological parents, on which the analyses in this section are based, brings its own problems. Linking such complex information from one cycle to another is a time-consuming process, made more so by problems of inconsistency between information reported or recorded at successive surveys. For example, several separated mothers, who were recorded in the Cycle 1 data file as not living with a new partner, reported at Cycle 2 that they were not only living with a new partner, but that this partner had also been present two years earlier (when Cycle 1 data was collected). Verifying other data revealed that, in most cases, the new partner had arrived in the household shortly before the Cycle 1 survey, and mothers probably failed to report a new relationship whose durability was still uncertain at that time. Before starting the research itself, therefore, the first step involved creating the child samples at Cycles 1 and 2, and validating the data to ensure consistency between the family information collected at the two cycles.

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