PATTERNS, PREDICTORS, AND CONSEQUENCES OF INTERGENERATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN MOTHERS AND ADULT CHILDREN IN LATER LIFE
The life course perspective, especially the theme of linked lives, posits that human lives are embedded in social relationships with family across the life course. Inspired by this framework, the purpose of this dissertation is to extend understanding of the impact of intergenerational relationships on psychological and relational well-being by examining a more complex network of family relationships than has been considered in previous research. Guided by stress theories and spillover theory, this dissertation addresses two research questions that emphasize the complexity and interconnectedness of later-life families: 1) Does the tension with other family relationships—specifically those with siblings and spouses—mediate the association between maternal differential treatment and psychological well-being in adulthood? 2) How does the quality of the ties between mothers and their adult children shape the quality of the ties between mothers and their children-in-law? To address these research questions, I use data collected as part of the Within-Family Differences Study. For the first question, I use data collected from adult children as part of the WFDS-II. For the second research question, I use data collected from mothers as part of the WFDS-I & II.
Past research used equity theory and social comparison theory to explain the direct effect of maternal differential treatment (MDT) on psychological well-being. However, this focus on psychological pathways ignores possible social pathways, such as indirect effects of MDT on well-being through disrupting other family relationships. Using the life course perspective and stress proliferation theory, the first study found that sibling tension mediates the association between adult children’s perceptions of maternal disfavoritism and their psychological well-being—a process I call the stress proliferation of maternal disfavoritism. In contrast, adult children’s perceptions of maternal favoritism cannot trigger this stress proliferation process of producing marital tension nor sibling tension.
In line with the life course perspective, principles of classic theories of social interaction in both sociology and psychology suggest that the mother-child tie would be affected by the introduction of the child’s spouse into the original dyad. However, only a small number of qualitative studies have investigated the association between mother-child-in-law relationships and mother-child relationships. To fill this knowledge gap, the second study used spillover effect theory and found that older mothers’ tension with adult children predicted change in mothers’ tension with children-in-law across 7 years, whereas older mothers’ tension with children-in-law did not predict change in mothers’ tension with children across 7 years. This study suggests that the association between mother-child relations and mother-child-in-law relations may be the result of the unidirectional effect of mother-child relations on mother-child-in-law relations rather than the reciprocal association found in the previous qualitative studies. In other words, mothers’ evaluation of mother-child-in-law relations is dependent on their evaluation of mother-child relations, whereas the reverse is not true. In addition, I did not find gender differences in the association between mother-child tension and mother-child-in-law tension over time.Taken together, this dissertation sheds new light on the ways in which mothers’ intergenerational relationships with their adult children and their children-in-law shape the relational and psychological well-being of members of both generations. A deeper understanding the implications of dynamics among mother-child relationship and other family relationships for health could aid in developing interventions aimed at improving health and family relationships. More broadly, this dissertation contributes to the literature on social relationships as social determinants of health by showing how intergenerational relationships are connected to other family relationships to affect family members’ health.