Moving On: The Expansion of the Family Network After Parents Separate



This third phase of research into the impact of parents' transitions on children's family environment and economic well-being has focussed on the aftermath of separation. We looked first at the expansion of children's family networks as parents continue their conjugal and parental pathways after separation, entering new unions and starting new families. Then, using data gathered from children themselves, we attempted to evaluate the impact of family change on children's perception of their relationship with their biological parents and with their stepfather.

Analyses in the first section are based on the family histories of children born during the late 1980s. Although most of these children had not even reached their teens at the time of the survey, many of them had already experienced the arrival of new parent figures, stepsiblings and half-siblings in their family environment. These complex family pathways are likely to become even more common among children born in the 1990s, who were exposed to even higher rates of parental separation. Other trends, such as the growing number of families established outside marriage and growing proportions of out-of-union births, suggest that this type of family life course may become more mainstream.

The picture of the child's family life course that emerges is full of contrasts—between children born into two-parent rather than one-parent families, for example, or to married rather than cohabiting parents—in terms of the different levels of complexity of their family life pathways. The series of events initiated by separation alters the child's family landscape, multiplying the number of parents, siblings and other relatives whom children relate to in the course of their childhood. This creates another contrast: between children who spend their entire childhood within an "intact" family, with no parents other than biological ones and no siblings other than their full siblings, and those who do not. The latter group includes an ever-increasing group of youngsters with an entirely different experience of what family life and membership is all about.

As a relatively new phenomenon, this family expansion is not "completely institutionalized," to borrow Cherlin's term (Cherlin, 1978). There are few hard-and-fast rules as to how these transitions should be made, how rights and responsibilities towards children should be divided between parents in different households, and how parents should share resources among children who do not all live in the same household.

Families face these types of challenges all the time, and generally do so with very little guidance. The frequency and rapidity with which separated parents form new unions is on the rise, and this means that these questions are not going to go away. As increasing numbers of parents become responsible for children from two or more unions, more families will struggle with the competing demands of different children in a parent's life.

Similarly, the rising number of adults and children in step-relationships raises issues relating to the rights and responsibilities of stepparents. Whereas stepparents readily accrue obligations to children, such as the obligation to pay child support,[11] the opposite is not true: the law does not permit stepparents to readily obtain rights in relation to stepchildren. For example, the biological parent normally possesses parental authority over a child, and this authority would have to be taken away by court order in favour of the stepparent, by an order of custody of the child, adoption etc.

Stepparents have no legal authority in relation to the children, except in cases where an order, as noted above, is in place that bestows custodial or adoptive rights on the stepparent. However, the biological parent is in a preferred position when determining parental responsibility and custody (the best interests test looks to biological relations, in most if not all statutes). Adoption requires the informed, written consent of the biological parents.

To many stepparents and children, the current situation is unacceptable. The reality in Canada is that many children have multiple parental figures. This is not reflected in the application of the law, which continues to be largely based on the "nuclear family" model, with rights and responsibilities generally defined in relation to the biological ties to the child. Adoption may be the most prominent example, in which case a biological parent's rights must be fully extinguished in order for the child to be placed for adoption with a stepparent.

Structures, laws and institutions fail to reflect this diversity of family—this should be a first priority. How will these experiences affect children? Will their impact be negative in the long term, or will these children be better prepared than those with more "stable" childhoods?

Much has been written about the impact of family transitions on children's well-being, and apart from economic well-being which tends to decline, there is little agreement about these effects. However, it is generally agreed that the more straightforward and harmonious these transitions are, the more successful and speedy the adjustment to them is, on the part of both parents and children. Developing guidelines that "institutionalize" and facilitate this constantly changing process should be a priority.

Finally, a positive conclusion that can be drawn from the statements made by children about their parents: it takes more than separation to destroy the relationship between parents and children. Children appear to have less difficulty coping with multiple parent figures than parents do themselves. Although living with parents after separation facilitates closeness, as long as non-resident parents stay involved with their children, they remain important and close figures in their lives.