Study reveals effect of men’s incarceration on the mother of their children
When men are incarcerated, there is an often-overlooked group that suffers negative effects as well — the mothers of their children, according to a landmark new study led by Christopher Wildeman, Yale professor of sociology.
The research, titled “Despair by Association? The Mental Health of Mothers with Children by Recently Incarcerated Fathers,” appeared in February in the online American Sociological Review. Co-authors of the paper were Jason Schnittker of the University of Pennsylvania and Kirstin Turney of the University of California–Irvine.
“When we think about the men who spend time behind bars, a whole host of images spring to mind, few of which are positive, and almost none of which involve their families,” notes Wildeman. “And when their families do come to mind, moreover, the images are almost uniformly negative: a mother disappointed in her wayward son; a lover relieved to be rid a partner who has long struggled with addiction and been prone to violence; a daughter who learned of her father’s incarceration weeks after the fact because the ties between them have grown weak as his broken promises mount.”
While these images may ring true to many, says Wildeman, they are — at least for the most part — inaccurate.
In their study, Wildeman and his collaborators found that mothers of the children of men in prison were most likely to be affected by the fathers’ incarceration. “Although many would assume that relief would be the dominant response to having the fathers of their children — many of whom had turned out to be disappointing partners and fathers — locked up, exactly the opposite is the case,” says Wildeman.
In fact, for most of these women, there is upwards of a 25 percent increase in their risk of being depressed and a comparably substantial decline in their happiness, note the researchers.
The study shows that this effect is not driven by the antisocial behaviors that the fathers engaged in — the same sorts of behaviors that led to them being locked up. Rather, these effects are driven by the fact that the fathers’ incarceration increases the mother’s financial instability: leads to disruptions in their romantic union for those who were still together; causes a decline in the quality of the relationship for even those who weren’t still together; and increases the mothers’ parenting stress — all of which make these women “less up and more down,” notes Wildeman.
“These results call us to rethink not only our own perceptions of what criminally active men are like, but also what the consequences of mass imprisonment might be for the American women and children left behind, as locking these men up seems to do them demonstrable harm,” says Wildeman.