Family instability refers to alterations in the family structure as a result of constant changes in the biological parent’s romantic partners and the consequent psychosocial effects on children (Osborne & McLanahan, 2007). The past 50 years have seen an unprecedented increase in divorce (Carlson & England, 2011) rates as well as tendencies towards cohabitative relationships without marital commitments, (Bumpass and Lu 2000).
These trends are responsible for the instability of family structures in the United States and have traditionally been believed to pose adverse effects on children. According to Andersson (2002), a relation high proportion of American children have experienced changes in their family structure into stepfamilies or single-parent families. A growing body of literature attributes adverse effects on child development to changes and disruptions in the family structure. This calls for an urgent need to re-examine the relationship between children’s wellbeing and the effect of family structure.
The trends toward cohabitation and divorce also bring to the fore the concept of family complexity. It essentially adds the aspect of sibling composition to the concept of family structure such that a family can be classified as complex in a scenario where step-parents, single parents, stepsiblings, and half-siblings exist. Family complexity, therefore, accounts for child-child relationships in addition to parent-child relations.
In such a family, biological parents have separated, remarried (or cohabiting), and siblings who do not share the same biological parents reside together. Cherlin, (1978) characterized married stepfamilies as incomplete institutions due to a lack of clearly defined expectations in such arrangements. This speaks to the conceptual challenges in complex families where biological ties and/or marital roles cannot be relied upon as the basis for defining responsibilities within the family, (Stewart 2005).
The last half-century has seen growth in family complexity on account of children being born outside marriage (Carlson and Furstenberg, 2006), cohabitative relationships, multiple-partner relationships, high divorce rates (Manning, 2010). This development requires that the measurement of children’s family relationships not only considers the family structure and parent-child relations, but also take into account relationships among family members and stability (Bjorklund, Ginther, & Sundstrom, 2007).
Gerson, (2010) paints a picture of the changes in American family structures and the resulting gender revolution. She takes on the long-held assertion that non-traditional families have a detrimental effect on child happiness and the erosion of family norms. She posits that the coping mechanisms parents engage in response to work-family conflicts are more of a determining factor in the overall family wellbeing than the type of family structure. She defines psychosocial resources such as gender flexibility in parental roles (whether home-making or breadwinning) and expanded support structures within the family as more fundamental in equipping the family members to overcome obstacles and uplift their spirits.
Complex family relationships and family instability pose a challenge for families and governments due to increased poverty risks as well as insufficient care for old adults due to a lack of spousal ties. State intervention is therefore imperative in defining policy and legal positions on marriage, inheritance, child education & nutrition obligations, etc. The US government outlines policies to uphold socially desirable behaviors and expectations regarding fertility, gender roles in households, and more. The state is motivated to intervene in family matters through policies that have changed over time to address issues such as reproductive health, contraception and abortion, and family poverty.
On U.S. family policy, Berger & Carlson (20202), outline broad family policy conceptualizations that have either explicit or implicit impact on families. Explicit policy developments have been developed in areas such as marriage equality, contraception, and early childhood education and care. At the state level, for instance, family leave policies have been enacted in states such as California with the resulting benefits of increasing the uptake of maternity and paternity leave, increased wages and work hours for working mothers of young children and even declines in infant hospitalizations caused be improved care (Pihl & Basso, 2019).
On marriage equality, all states (following the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage) are required to offer same-sex couples the legal protections enjoyed by heterogeneous couples. This has come with the benefit of increased same-sex marriages, improved life satisfaction, and greater access to health insurance and healthcare. Additionally, child wellbeing in same-sex couple families has been shown not differ from those raised by heterogeneous parents except when those differences are occasioned by socioeconomic status and family stability (Manning, Fettro, & Lamidi, 2014).
The federal government has also invested heavily in maternal, infant, and early childhood home visiting programs to take care of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has been done by allocating funds towards the same under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). The act also addresses the availability and choice of contraceptives by mandating health insurance coverage of approved contraceptive methods such as long‐acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs). Moreover, through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, the federal government promotes healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood.
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