Panel Paper: “Othermothering” Romantic Partners' Children in Multiple Partner Fertility Unions: A Comparison of Low-Income Rural and Urban Mothers

Friday, November 8, 2013 : 10:05 AM
Georgetown I (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Linda M. Burton, Duke University
In this study I investigated low-income mothers’ involvement in multiple partner fertility (MPF) relationships and their experiences as “othermothers” to their romantic partners’ children from previous and concurrent intimate unions.  Othermothering, as somewhat distinct from stepmothering, involves culturally-scripted practices of sharing parenting responsibilities with children’s biological parents.  I framed this investigation using this concept because previous research suggests that many low-income women practice this form of coparenting in their social networks. What is not apparent in this literature, however, is whether women unilaterally othermother their romantic partners’ children from different women.  How often and under what circumstances do women in nonmarital MPF intimate unions with men coparent their partners’ children from other relationships? 

I explored this question using a modified grounded theory approach and secondary longitudinal ethnographic data on 256 urban Latino, African American, and White low-income, mostly unmarried, mothers from the Three-City Study (TCS), and a comparable sample of 101 rural mothers from the Family Life Project (FLP). The TCS ethnography was carried out over a six-year period in poor neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio to monitor the consequences of welfare reform on families and children.  The FLP ethnography was conducted over five years, and assessed the lives of low-income families residing in small cities and remote areas in six rural counties in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  Families were recruited into both ethnographies at formal childcare settings (e.g., Head Start), neighborhood community centers, local welfare offices, churches, and other public assistance agencies.  At the time of enrollment in the ethnographies, all families had household incomes at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Line.

            Guided by symbolic interaction theory, findings were coded and derived by comparing what mothers said and did relative to othermothering their romantic partners’ children and interacting with members of their partners’ broader multiple partner fertility networks (e.g., children’s biological mothers).  Results indicated that 78% of the TCS mothers and 69% of the FLP mothers had been or were involved in MPF unions, and that while most had othermothered the children of their friends and relatives, 89% of the TCS mothers indicated that they did not coparent their partners’ children from any MPF relationship with 39% of the FLP mothers rendering comparable responses.  Overall, urban mothers appeared less favorable in their words and deeds about caring for their romantic partners’ children with other women than did rural mothers.  Mothers’ reasons for not taking on the role were embedded in:  (a) gendered scripts around second families or casa chicas; (b) the tenuous nature of pass-through MPF relationships; and, (c) mothers’ own desires for their romantic partners to child-swap.  And, respondents who chose to othermother these children were distinctly less experienced in their romantic careers than those who did.  Several  respondents referred to them as “young’uns”- - women who had not yet spent enough time in MPF relationships to understand or reconcile their reasoning for taking on their partners’ children with different women.  Implications of these findings for policies and programs are discussed.