Multiple Partner Families: More Common Than You Think

A new study finds that a quarter of American women — with multiple children — conceived their children with more than one man. The study also found the trend is more common among African American women. Host Michel Martin discusses these findings with lead researcher Cassandra Dorius of the University of Michigan. Martin also speaks with social welfare and policy expert Maria Cancian about the negative social implications of multiple partner families.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our money coach conversation about the financial challenges that can surface when two different families become one, whether through marriage, the birth of a child.

But first, we deal with another side of blended families - a social trend that has been the subject of scrutiny in this country publicly, but more often behind closed doors. That's women having multiple children by different men. A first of its kind study addresses just how prevalent this has become. It turns out that a quarter of American women with children of various ages conceive their children with more than one man.

The study is titled "A Portrait of Multiple Partner Fertility." And among other findings, it shows that these mothers are actually found in significant numbers across all income and education levels. To talk about the findings, I'm joined now by the demographer who led the study, Cassandra Dorius. She's a post- doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CASSANDRA DORIUS: Thanks, Michel. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: First of all, what's unique about this study, it's the first national study looking at women at or near the end of their child-bearing years. And one of the things that that captured is the whole of the woman's life story, at least as far as child bearing was concerned.

DORIUS: Absolutely. So these women were followed for nearly 30 years and they're now in their 40s. And they're done having children. And so we're able to look back and say, what was their experience like since the '70s and what's happened to them during this time, and chart the different pathways and trajectories that they took.

MARTIN: Well, let's go to the findings then. Here's what you found. Twenty percent of American women had children with multiple partners by midlife. Of African-American women with two or more children, 59 percent of those women have had children by more than one partner. That compares to 35 percent of Hispanic mothers and 22 percent of non-Hispanic white mothers. What do you know about why those racial disparities exist? Or did this study illuminate that?

DORIUS: One of the reasons this might be the case is we know that in communities with disadvantaged women and disadvantaged men, among the African- American community, there is a much higher incarceration rate for black men than there are for any other racial or ethnic minority group. And so there might not be as many eligible men out there because of high unemployment and high incarceration rates.

MARTIN: But the numbers among white and Hispanic women are not small either. The numbers for Hispanic women are 35 percent and the number for white women, 22 percent, or non-Hispanic white women. Those numbers aren't small either.

DORIUS: Right. This really is tied to poverty and not just race. It's really about women's experiences and often poor women's experiences. These women from the outset are more likely to go on through their life and have children with more than one man. And when you look at their life histories over time, we see that women who have children with more than one man spend about six additional years in poverty than women who have all their children with the same man.

MARTIN: But what I'm asking you is, are women who have children by more than one partner, do they have children by more than one partner because they are poor, or are they poor because they have children by more than one partner?

DORIUS: That is a fabulous question and it's one that a lot of people are trying to tease out of the data right now. This is actually a relatively new area of study. There are quite a few publications in that area, but the first ones came out about five or six years ago. So we don't know a lot, but we are racing to try and find out these types of answers.

One of the reasons that this is - also could be tied to disadvantage over time - is that when mothers and fathers and children are spread across households, there is a dilution of resources. Men frequently swap families. They give all of their resources, or most of their resources, to the children that they are currently living with.

And also, if women go on to have partners with someone new, the man quits paying as much time and money to the first set of children. They get kind of pushed out.

MARTIN: What type of feedback have you received on this study? I mean, the fact is we're talking about this in very academic terms. But this is one of those things that literally hits people where they live. It's discussed sometimes in a very harsh way in some circles and some publications have raised concern that this will lead, you know, to further stigma of these women and families. And so I'm just interested in what you've heard, what you've received, and you want to respond to any of what you've heard so far.

DORIUS: I've gotten feedback both individually and then because this has been in the popular press, and at the individual level it's been very positive and people send me emails or stop me in the hall and say, this happened to my sister and this is the way it affected her and this is why it's really important and I'm so glad someone's doing this.

On the other hand, because I focus on women, I have been attacked for being sexist. But you know, that's a data limitation. The data only allow me to look at women, not men. Similarly, because we find these rates that are higher for African-American women, there have been accusations of being racist. But I'm not making a judgment call on whether this is good or bad for families, and I'm not saying that this is a decline in family values.

MARTIN: OK.

DORIUS: I think maybe that's something that people are misinterpreting with this data.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Cassandra Dorius is a demographer and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. She was with us from Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Professor Dorius, thank you so much for joining us.

DORIUS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about what these numbers mean, so we turn now to Maria Cancian. She focuses on ethnicity, social policy, welfare and gender- related issues as a professor of public affairs and social work at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Cancian, thank you for joining us.

MARIA CANCIAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you were telling us that, from your own research, that you think it is not fair to look only at women, if you're looking at the question of multiple partner fertility. You feel very strongly that you really have to look at both mothers and fathers.

CANCIAN: Absolutely. We often don't look at moms and dads because we don't have the data to do so, which is unfortunate. But we also sometimes don't look at moms and dads because we have a lot more judgment about moms having children with more than one dad than we do the other way around. What we have found with data that looks equally at moms and dads is that when a mom has had children with only one father, four times out of five that father has also only had children with her.

But on the flipside, if you look, for example, at moms that have had children with three fathers or more, in four out of five cases, at least one of those fathers has also had children with three or more mothers. So when you get complications on one side, you also get complications on the other.

MARTIN: In Wisconsin, you followed for many years a sample group of children who are were born to single unmarried mothers. In each case they were the mother's firstborn. What did you find?

CANCIAN: We found that about two-thirds to three-quarters of these children were in complicated families by the time they were 10 years old, which is to say either their mom had gone on to have children with another father, the father had gone on to have children with another mother, or both. So the big story, if you want to try to understand these disparities, I think, are big differences in how likely someone is to be married, and then big differences in how likely children are to be born inside or outside of marriage.

MARTIN: Your research also says that there is an association with poverty. Is that right?

CANCIAN: Complicated families are more common among low income families. But again, I would say that that has a lot to do with how likely people are to get married and how likely people are to have children outside of marriage. Traditionally, we used to think people would get a job, especially the dad, then they'd get married and then they'd have children. And that kind of staging was very common. And deviating from that was very uncommon. And that's just not the case anymore. There are many more people who are having children before they get married. So we see a lot more kind of mixing up of those transitions than we used to.

MARTIN: One of the reasons why people outside of these relationships are interested in it, right - I mean you could say, well, why is this anybody's business? Well, the reason people outside of these particular relationships are interested in it is that of a concern that these families are inherently fragile, they are inherently stressed, and that at some point they may call upon public resources. So that's why people feel that they have a right to be in it. What's your perspective on that?

CANCIAN: When I think about policy in this context, I think about improving child support policy. To make sure that if fathers aren't in the home, they're at least helping to contribute to the rearing of that child and to the expenses associated.

MARTIN: I guess the final question I would have for you is the same question I asked Professor Dorius earlier, which is: Are the families poor because they are in these complex relationships or are they in these complex relationships because they're poor?

CANCIAN: There is certainly some of both. But I would argue that we have more evidence for families entering into complex relationships because they bring disadvantage to the table. So for example, even with father involvement, it's hard to disentangle whether a mom goes on to have a new relationship because the father she had her first child with is not involved or whether that father reduces his involvement because she's moved on to another relationship. It's always pretty hard to disentangle those. But I think we have pretty strong evidence that both of those are the case.

MARTIN: Maria Cancian is associate dean for social sciences in the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin. Her research focuses on welfare and social policy, race, ethnicity and gender. And she was kind enough to join us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Professor Cancian, thank you so much for joining us.

CANCIAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now we'd like to hear from you. Do you have children by more than one man or woman? And when you hear the term baby mama or baby daddy, how does that make you feel? Do you think it's insulting or meant to be demeaning or do you think it just captures the reality that you live? To tell us more you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name. You can also share your thoughts by going to our blog. There you'll also find a personal essay on multiple partner fertility by our regular contributor Jimi Izrael. Log on to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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