Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mothers vs Parents

Mitt Romney has told us how very important having a parent at home with small children is, in his opinion:

At NBC News’ Education Nation Summit on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said it was preferable for one parent stay home when kids are young.

I guess even a Republican presidential candidate must say "parent" now instead of "mother."  But it's mothers, of course, that these opinions apply to.  Even the quoted item continues:

In 2011, 63.9 percent of the mothers with children under 6 years old held jobs outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  
What about fathers of children under 6 years old?  They are not mentioned.

 All this reminded me of something from a long-ago era,  year 2000, to be specific, when Anne Case and Christina Paxson (now the president of Brown University) came up with an article about the effect of various family types on children's health. 

Their study concerned the question whether stepmothers are good substitutes for birth mothers as parents, and they argued that it was not the case.  Yup.  One summary of the study:

"Children living with stepmothers are significantly less likely to have routine doctor and dentist visits or to receive regular medical care, are less likely to wear seatbelts."
Roughly half of all children in the United States grow up with at least one of their birth parents absent. Research has shown that these children tend to have more behavioral, academic, and social problems than other children. In Mothers and Others: Who Invests in Children's Health? (NBER Working Paper No. 7691), NBER Research Associates Anne Case and Christina Paxson investigate whether part of the reason these children face poorer outcomes is because parents invest less in them. They find that children living with stepmothers are significantly less likely to have routine doctor and dentist visits or to receive regular medical care, are less likely to wear seatbelts, and are significantly more likely to be living with a cigarette smoker in the household than other children.
The authors use data from the 1988 Child Health Supplement to the National Health Interview Survey to analyze family composition and investments in children's healthcare. Children living with foster or adoptive mothers generally have similar experiences in these areas to children living with birth mothers. Also, the nature of the relationship of the child to the father has little effect on the health care investments made in the children. As a rule, fathers appear to know very little about their children's health or health investments.
Bolds are mine.  As an even shorter summary, the researchers state:

We cannot reject that investments for children living with birth fathers and step mothers are the same as those made by birth fathers living alone with their children. 

In other words, by marrying or partnering again the birth fathers appear not to have hired  a substitute mother for their children!   Hmm.   It looks like the stepmothers are acting pretty much the same way as stepfathers would in the reverse type of a mixed family.

I write about this old study because it was one of the first cases which set me on my way of studying how research is popularized when it's about women or about gender roles.  

Newspapers wrote it up starting with the evil stepmothers of Snow-White and Cinderella, and none of the write-ups had anything about the role of the fathers.  Even the idea that custodial fathers should probably be the ones who know about their children's health care decisions (given that they are the custodial parents) went unmentioned. 

Instead, the focus was on which kind of mothers were good and which kind were bad, and the implicit assumption all this was based on was that women are to take care of children.