First Children "Crowded Out" When Divorced Fathers Have New Kids

September 30, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Non-custodial fathers are less likely to maintain contact with children from a previous relationship if they have biological children with another partner, a new study shows.

However, fathers don’t seem to lessen contact with their original children if they only have stepchildren in their new relationship.

“It is the presence of biological children rather than stepchildren that reduces contact with children from a previous relationship,” said Elizabeth Cooksey, associate professor of sociology and researcher at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research.

The national study also found that fathers were more likely to stay in contact with children from a previous relationship if they remarried rather than stayed single or lived with another woman.

These results suggest there is no easy way to define the
relationship between non-custodial fathers and children after divorce, Cooksey said.

“On the one hand, men who are most linked to traditional family life -- those who are currently married -- are most likely to maintain ties with previous children,” she said.

“On the other hand, if these men in new marriages have additional biological children, their original children may be crowded out of their lives.”

Cooksey conducted the study with Patricia Craig of Harvard University. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Demography.

The researchers used data from the National Survey of Families and Households, which interviewed people in 1987-88 and again between 1992 and 1994. This study included 474 fathers who reported at least one child under the age of 18 with whom they were not currently living. All together, there were 719 children involved in the study. Men who participated in the study answered a variety of questions regarding contact with their children.

Cooksey said it is important to learn about the relationships between absent fathers and their children because more than one-third of all children in the United States live apart from their fathers.

“The number of fathers with custody of their children following divorce has increased in recent years, but most children still remain with their mothers,” she said. “We still don’t know that much about how children and their absent fathers interact.”

In other results, the study found that fathers were much more likely to talk on the phone with their daughters than with sons. “We don’t know for sure, but it may be that daughters are much more likely to call their fathers. It may be that boys don’t think about calling their fathers as often as girls do,” Cooksey said.

Fathers who live far away from their children -- more than 100 miles -- are not only less likely to visit, they are also less likely to talk on the phone with their kids as well. Cooksey said that men who live further away may be those who are relatively uninvolved in their children’s lives, so telephoning is as rare as visiting.

Cooksey said other researchers have suggested that the new norm for some men in the United States is “serial parenting,” in which their links to children begin and end along with the relationships with the children’s mothers.

"Our results are not that pessimistic, but there are reasons for concern,” she said. “Many fathers do keep contact with their children from previous relationships, but some don’t.”

Ohio State University

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