Young mothers' marital status not age, linked to later depression

November 20, 2002

The age a mother first gives birth may be less relevant to her chance of later-life depression than her marital status, according to new research showing that unmarried teenage mothers and unmarried adult mothers have similar levels of depressive symptoms in their late 20s.

The study also found that living in a female-headed family at age 14, living with a stepfather at age 14, having low self-esteem in mid-adolescence and having poor verbal and math skills predicted depressive symptoms in young adulthood.

The study was conducted by Ariel Kalil, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago's Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and James Kunz, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland's School of Social Work and published in the November-December issue of Child Development.

They looked at data gathered in interviews with 990 women who took part in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth between 1979 and 1992. Each woman answered questions that measured depressive symptoms, such as feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, loneliness, loss of appetite, restless sleep and concentration problems.

The researchers also assessed the women's pre-childbearing background characteristics, including family structure and socioeconomic background, self-esteem, control, academic motivation, academic achievement, school attitudes and problem behavior.

The average teenage mother in the study gave birth just before her 18th birthday. Compared to married mothers, unmarried mothers in the study were more likely to be black and to live in a family whose income was below the poverty line.

The study highlights both the importance of pre-childbearing factors in psychological well-being later in life and the need to disentangle women's marital status and age at first birth, the researchers say.

"We see this as a pressing issue for future research, especially as American social welfare policy maintains its strong focus on rates of non-marital childbearing and continues to implement new policies to decrease these rates," they conclude.

"Perhaps as non-marital childbearing becomes more 'normative' over time, the relationship between it and later-life depressive symptomatology will change in nature and strength," they add.

The authors note that the 1996 welfare reform act requires states that receive federal funds to submit a plan describing the special emphasis they will give to teenage pregnancy as part of their effort to prevent childbearing outside of marriage.

The research was supported in part by a National Research Service Award to Ariel Kalil from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Jamie Rosman at 773-702-2287 or
Child Development: Contact Angela Dahm Mackay at 734-998-7310 or

Center for Advancing Health

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