Keeping the Family Together: How We Survived the Divorce

ABSTRACT - Stem families have received very little attention in consumer research, though they constitute one of the fastest growing household types. A phenomenological study of stem families was undertaken, with the following themes being found: increased importance of kinship networks (including in-laws) in socialization and family processes; increased influence of offspring in decision processes as they are given "adult status" earlier; and a sense of family both in trying to maintain continuity with the original nuclear family and in developing a new identity for the stem family.


Myra Jo Bates and James W. Gentry (1994) ,"Keeping the Family Together: How We Survived the Divorce", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 30-34.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 30-34


Myra Jo Bates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Stem families have received very little attention in consumer research, though they constitute one of the fastest growing household types. A phenomenological study of stem families was undertaken, with the following themes being found: increased importance of kinship networks (including in-laws) in socialization and family processes; increased influence of offspring in decision processes as they are given "adult status" earlier; and a sense of family both in trying to maintain continuity with the original nuclear family and in developing a new identity for the stem family.


Consumer research has focused little attention on single-parent households; Ajhuba and Stinson (1993) found five Marketing studies on the subject, indicating a gap in the literature. The growing number of single-parent households in the U.S. suggests a need for exploration of this topic. The purpose of this paper is to examine the themes discovered in a study of divorced mothers and to describe consumption-oriented ways in which they maintained a feeling of belongingness (family connectedness) with their children during the separation and divorce process. Factors relevant from a consumer behavior viewpoint include changes in consumption patterns, changes in consumer decision processes linked to the divorce process, family member role transformations, and altered standards of living.


The U.S. divorce rate is creating stem family households at an unprecedented pace. [We will use "stem family" in lieu of single-parent family reflecting the fact that, while there may be only one parent in the household, there is another who may influence the child(ren).] In 1992, nearly 1.2 million couples divorced. Of ever-married Americans, approximately 26% have divorced at some time, and about one-third of the civil cases in the U.S. Court System deal with family relations (DeWitt 1992). It is estimated that two-thirds of first marriages will end in divorce (Martin and Bumpass 1989). From 1960 to 1990, the proportion of children, at any given time, living in stem families rose from 9% to 25%; thus a majority of all children will spend some part of their childhood with an absent parent.

The percentage of single-parent households (the Census Bureau term) increased from 5.5% in 1970 to 9.3% in 1990. Divorce is a process affecting all family members (Bohannan 1970), and the presence of children may well complicate the parental transition from being married to being single. During the divorce process, custodial parents need to emphasize a feeling of family for their children as they make the transition from nuclear family to stem family.

The work of McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts (1993) is very insightful in terms of consumption and de-acquisition processes associated with divorce, but it focuses on the divorcing couple and omits the children. With an average of one child per divorcing couple (London and Wilson 1988), we assert that the McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts (1993) study comprises only part of the phenomenon as actually observed in our society.


Previous divorce research shows the importance of qualitative methods for discovering the intricacies of the divorce process (Buehler 1987; Kitson, Babri, and Roach 1985; Kitson and Raschke 1981; McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts 1993). In order to identify themes used by parents to aid children in coping with divorce, we organized a phenomenological study of divorce and how parents reassure and help their children realize that they still are a family, albeit a changed family. Use of the phenomenological method has been successful in past studies for eliciting ideas relevant to the subject of interest (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1990).

The Sample: Fourteen divorced, custodial mothers, were interviewed. These interviewees, located through the personal networks of the authors, reside in three medium-sized Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa cities. A diverse set of respondents was used to obtain as wide a range of circumstances as possible, resulting in a wide age range for the mothers and their children. Of the 14 mothers, 11 have been married and divorced once; two are currently remarried and 12 are still divorced; one has had three marriages, and another has had two marriages, both resulting in divorce. Two mothers are graduate students; one is of retirement age and has never worked outside the home; 13 are in the workforce; three are grandmothers. The children's ages range from four to 42. Marriage duration was from six to 44 years, with the modal range being nine and 16 years.

The common factor qualifying a respondent was custody of the children. The incidence of divorcing fathers gaining custody of their children is increasing as, in 1990, 14% of fathers and custody, up from 10% in 1980 (Bernstein 1992). The study was not intended to be limited to women only; an attempt to use fathers fitting the parameters failed as none were found. Thus, because of circumstances, this study focused on divorced mothers.

Data Collection: Data were collected during informal sessions in which respondents talked freely about their experiences. These interviews were conducted at the respondent's home, her place of work, or a neutral site agreed upon by both parties. Due to the exploratory nature of this study, it was felt that a single interview with each respondent would be sufficient for the discovery of parental themes. The interviewing author has been divorced and could empathize with respondents and identify with some of the issues presented. Early interviews were less structured than the later ones, and were intended to pinpoint themes used by parents in maintaining a feeling of family as the children progressed through the divorce process. Interviews later in the process were also loosely structured, while at the same time the interviewer was more aware of the nature of individual themes. This helped the interviewer remain focused while allowing respondents freedom to express their own ideas. No respondent was asked to reveal anything that would make her uncomfortable and what was discussed was freely given. Near the end of all interviews, each respondent was asked if she could think of anything of importance that was not dealt with during the session. All dialogues were taped for later transcription and analysis. To ascertain accuracy, copies of the paper in progress were distributed to interviewees for their comments and suggestions which were then incorporated into the final version of the study.

Data Evaluation: Input from colleagues not involved in data gathering has proven valuable in previous ethnographic research (Hill 1991; Mick and Buhl 1992). The interviewing author provided the co-author with partial transcripts and comprehensive notes of each interview for separate evaluation and analysis. If necessary, the co-author could listen to the taped recording of each interview. Written and verbal feedback was given the interviewer for evaluation and was used in subsequent interviews. The authors also communicated on a regular basis concerning the contents of the interviews, and ideas were exchanged throughout the process. This exchange occurred after each interview and was especially beneficial in the identification of themes. At all times, the respondents were given the liberty to express themselves freely. Questions addressed to respondents were very general in nature at the beginning of the interview, gradually becoming more specific. For example, the mothers were asked about people who helped them cope with the divorce process and, after the sources were identified, the mothers were then asked how specific people helped.

The fundamental purpose of the interviews was to uncover themes in family belongingness. After several interviews, the basis for some of the themes began appearing, and gradually these themes became apparent to the interviewer. When no new themes were forthcoming, the interviewing process was stopped. These themes represent increased levels of interaction between the stem family and their kinship networks, an age-related role transformation on the part of the children, and "sense of family" notions (activities involving parent and child with special attention to holidays and rituals). These themes will be discussed in the following section of this paper.


Each respondent used different activities to maintain a feeling of family belongingness for her children. These activities, while individualized along family lines, were quite similar thematically across the diversified sample. The ages of the children did not appear to be related to the general behavior of the mothers. At one time the nuclear family had been the source of togetherness and now the stem family had to become that source. The stem family replaced the nuclear family as the basic unit of togetherness in the child's life.

Kinship Networks

In this study, the mother's kinship networks are the people with whom she has regular or semi-regular contact. The network includes relatives, ex-in-laws, friends, and co-workers who become important in helping the mother and children cope with the divorce process. The children's kinship network includes the same people as the mother's network but also adds the father as a member.

Mother's Parents: For divorced mothers, the role of intergenerational influence tends to increase with the breakdown of the nuclear family. Women are under greater time pressures (Weiss 1975), being responsible for all aspects of maintaining a home, raising children, and, often, the family's sole financial support (Weitzman 1985). Child care appears to be the dominant consumer domain where kinship networks enter. The provision of babysitting, minding sick children, and checking on latch-key kids by others allows mothers to cope with their numerous responsibilities. Increased network interaction also provides opportunity for socialization in the extended family.

The women studied here used kinship networks to help with children as they progressed through the divorce process. For some, the mother's parents are prominent, frequently increasing their role in their daughters' lives after divorce. Janice [Names of respondents have been changed to preserve their privacy.], whose parents helped "a lot," noted that her parents stayed close in case she or her daughters needed anything. They waited three years after her divorce before taking their first vacation, and even then, they telephoned her at least twice a week. Barbara, divorced over 20 years, stated "My mother has been my pal. She's not just a mother, she's my buddy." She and her mother live in the same neighborhood. Deanna reported that her parents minded her children when they were too sick for day care or school.

Mother's Siblings: Siblings of the divorced mothers also assisted. Peggy told of the relationship between her bachelor brother and her teenage son. "He (the brother) would take him to basketball games . . . They would always go out to Denny's after the games." Jane's sister brought her children over so the cousins could play together.

Non-Family: Non-related people also provide support. A neighbor, new to the area, helped Lori, who stated, "for some reason we just clicked." Co-workers and other friends assisted. Janice received "a lot of support from the people I work with." Much non-family help was in the form of moral supportCanother adult to whom the mother could turn for conversation and time out from the children. Others gave more tangible aid. Jeri described two friends as "family . . . Somebody extra to call." She left her children in the care of these friends rather than with their father when she went on business trips.

Ex-In-Laws: The role of in-laws was not uniform. In some cases, they were distant from the original nuclear family and maintained this distance after the divorce. "His family never chose to become involved or have contact while we were married" (Jane). Her children are not close to their grandparents, so the divorce was not disruptive of any established interactions between them. Peggy noted that "they were not the Grandmotherly and Grandfatherly type" and she remarked that the grandparent/grandchild relationship "hasn't changed" since her divorce.

In Donna's family, the in-laws were connected to the mother only through the child's father. "I talk to them occasionally." This father sees his parents rarely, usually when taking his daughter on holiday visits, thus limiting the child's contact with her grandparents.

In contrast, some stem families had extensive contact with their in-laws. Cheryl's ex-mother-in-law was instrumental in helping to give her family a feeling of continuity through her divorce, as she included Cheryl and her sons in family get togethers. She, Cheryl, and the children regularly attended church together and, even now, since Cheryl has remarried, they continue to share coffee on Saturday mornings. Kelly talked of her daughter's relationship with her ex-in-laws, stating that "She is very close to them, and I am too . . . I don't call her `ex-mother-in-law'." Long-term ties with an ex-husband's family were also noted. Paula, divorced from her son's father for nearly 20 years, stated, "I am still friends with them. . . I still see them two times a year." Paula's son is also close to his father's parents and visits with them at least once a month. In these cases, the in-laws are clearly a part of the kinship network.

The Father: The father's role in the kinship network varies. Some fathers, who had good relationships with their children before the divorce, maintained this relationship afterwards. Jeri and her ex-husband had a joint custody arrangement, so both parents remained active in their children's lives. Kelly's daughter regularly sees her father and her half-siblings from his previous marriage. As noted above, Kelly remains close to her ex-in-laws and this closeness may help explain some of the father's close relationship with his daughter.

Some fathers had a minimal role in their children's lives prior to the divorce but the divorce acted as a catalyst in changing this role. Mindy's daughters received telephone calls from their father after going away to college. He had shown little interest in them before they moved away from their home. Erica described her ex-husband as a "workaholic" who had little time for his children during the marriage. He has since re-established contact with the three oldest children. The youngest is still "very, very bitter."

For some families, the father disappeared totally from the lives of the stem family. Barbara has not seen nor heard from her ex-husband in over 20 years. Her youngest daughter has no memory at all of her father.

In summary, expanded kinship networks appear to be the rule in the case of stem families. Clearly, the study of household decision making becomes more complicated when members of the extended family play a greater role than that found in nuclear families. The presence of children in the family of divorce creates a greater likelihood of continued contact with one's ex-in-laws. Several mothers noted the roles of in-laws in the socialization of their children. Some parental control or influence about consumer choices could be transferred to kinship members who may hold different views from the mother. The McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts (1993) study spoke little on the subject of ex-in-laws other than noting that some divorced people did get help from their ex-spouse's family. On the surface, one might assume that the study of stem families would be simplified due to the elimination of one adult from the household; instead, it appears that a thorough understanding of the consumer decision processes of stem families will be much more difficult to obtain due to the expanded kinship network associated with divorce. The stem mother may feel obligated to accept or accede to the advice and information given to her by kinship members about specific products or services. In the decision making process, the role of the ex-husband may be fulfilled by extended family members or friends adding a dimension not previously present before the divorce.

Equalization Of Roles

Frequently, with the death of a parent, children are told that they are expected to fill the vacated role (most commonly, a young man or boy is told that he is now "the man of the family"). We find such role impositions to be less prominent in the case of divorce, no doubt due to the existence of the estranged spouse. However, we do find a tendency to elevate the status of older (teenage or adolescent) children to that of friend and peer.

For mothers of younger children, the transformation of the child into a more adult-like person was not an issue. Donna thinks that her relationship with her ten year old daughter, Becky, would not be any different if she were still married to Becky's father. "Her father didn't ever have enough to do with her, so from the time she was a baby, I was the one who raised her. . . Maybe we've grown closer." Becky is still quite young and Donna considers herself to be a mother more than a friend. The transition for Deanna's two boys also has not occurred because she thinks they are still too young (eight and four). Kelly feels that the divorce may have slowed this process for her daughter. "I'd say she's been slower . . . She's not in a hurry."

The mothers with grown or nearly grown children speak of them as friends. Margaret's youngest son is now her "very best friend," the transition occurring when she started listening to what he had to say. "The clue is you listen. Even if you don't agree or you don't understand what he's talking about, you listen." For Erica, "This process was accelerated by the divorce . . . We did become more friends," and the process was fastest with her youngest son, the child most affected by the divorce.

As children mature, they gradually acquire adult status. This happens in all families, but our belief is that this process is more rapid in stem families than in nuclear families. [We have no comparable information on nuclear families, so our belief is somewhat inferential in nature.] We found that single parents seek adult companionship and may fill the void left by a spouse with relationships with older offspring (teenagers and adolescents, as opposed to adult children). Mindy and her children chat informally and talk about anything and everything. She doesn't think that this would be happening if she were still married; she would chat with her husband instead. In her mind, these sessions are an adult way of communicating and getting in touch with her children.

The subtle encouragement of children to become more peer-like may operate in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in the adult-like behaviors being observable earlier in children of stem families. Of her twin sons, now 10, Lori notes, "The thing that has really changed is that they are on their own so much that they have to be responsible for themselves . . . If they don't want hot lunch, they have to pack their own lunch." She thinks that they are more mature from being on their own so much and responsible for their behavior. She expects more out of them as far as chores, etc. as they grow older. "I've never talked down to them, even when they were two."

Just as divorce may result in more reliance on kinship networks, there appears to be greater reliance on offspring in consumer decision making in the stem family. While family decision-making research has paid some attention to intergenerational influence (Berey and Pollay 1968; Childers and Rao 1992), and reverse socialization processes (Ekstrom, Tansuhaj, and Foxman 1987), the standard perception of household decision making (based on nuclear families) is one dominated by fathers and mothers. As attention shifts to stem families, awareness of more joint parent-child decision making is critical (Roberts, Voli, and Johnson 1992). Attempts to market solely to the parent may well result in opportunities missed.

Sense of Family

The third theme to emerge from this study was sense of family. The mothers endeavored to give their children a feeling that, no matter what had happened to the parents' marriage, the children still belonged to a family. Their particular family may have a different structure, but it is a family nonetheless.

Sense of family appeared in three ways. First, there was an attempt to hold on to vestiges of the past and preserve family structure. Second was a need to go forward and seek a new family identity. Finally, holidays provided a bridge between the past and the future.

Holding On To The Past: There were different ways in which the mothers held on to the past and maintained family structure. Continuing some of the nuclear family rituals helped bridge the transition to stem family. In general, some everyday activities were not changed drastically. Peggy continued sharing evening prayers with her son. Kelly stated that family rituals between her and her daughter are the same as when she was married.

The mothers felt that it was important for the family to get together sometime during the day. Eating meals together was very common. "We always have dinner together . . . There's been a few occasions when that hasn't happened and my children say, `What, we're not having dinner together?'" (Jane). She feels that sharing mealtime is important for a cohesive environment and nothing is allowed to intrude (TV, etc.) during dinner. It is family sharing time. For Erica, eating together was also important, but in her case it became eating out. "Oddly, one of the things we started doing was eating out." For Jeri the family meal was breakfast, as this was the best time of the day for the family to gather.

The mother's religious beliefs were important in maintaining a sense of family. Cheryl, as reported above, continued in the same church, attending with her ex-mother-in-law. Barbara would make "adventurous trips out of walking to church." Six mothers noted that regular attendance in church was important to them and they tried to instill this same feeling into their children with mixed results. Those with older children (Barbara and Mindy) reported that their children's attendance dropped as they approached and reached adulthood.

Pets have become part of that which is sacred (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Tuan 1984), and can be linked to the past. Kelly's daughter "always had an animal wherever we moved," not necessarily the traditional dog or cat, but a bird, a mouse, or some other animal. Deanna and her sons kept the family dog and she associated this animal with the divorce. Erica added a dog after her divorce.

For some, living in the same house is important. Mindy is distressed because she must sell her home once monetary child support ceases. This house is where her children grew up and, now that they are almost grown, she can no longer afford to remain there. Conversely, Margaret is looking forward to selling her home. She finances her youngest son's college education, with no aid from his father, and upon his graduation, she plans to travel and tend to her own needs.

In cases where the family had to move, the mother provided some type of continuity for the children. Peggy sees to it that her son has a basketball hoop wherever they live. She also enrolls him in parochial school so "no matter where we lived he always, at least, went to the same school. I always felt that that was one plus." She felt that the same school, the same car pool, and the same set of friends give him a sense of security. When Donna changed homes, she set up her daughter's room right away with many of the same furnishings, except for a new bedspread and a more "grown up" dresser. The important thing for her was to establish the child's private space.

Going Forward: Building a new family identity was also accomplished in different ways. Erica's account of eating out is an example. She maintained the old sense of family through eating together, but in a different setting. Donna had a portrait of her and her daughter taken shortly after the divorce which she hung in her home telling her daughter, "That's our family now."

Trips and vacations are another way to cement a new family identity. Day trips are common for the stem families. Donna noted, "During the summer we go out to Chalco Hills Lake and . . . she usually rides her bike and I walk." Cheryl and Mindy rented cabins at a state park for summer retreats with their children. Deanna vacationed with her sons to prove that they could manage a long trip on their own. "Against everybody's suggestions, I took the kids on a vacation to Colorado Springs . . . We had a ball. It was fun." She would repeat the experience if finances allowed. Janice takes her daughters west where they try always to attend a rodeo, ride horses, and sit for a family portrait posing, in costume, as characters of the Old West. "I decided that maybe what we needed was to completely get away and just really be on our own, so that's what we did . . . We discovered it really pulled us together a lot more."

Being the most visible parent, these mothers interact a great deal with their children. They play Nintendo together (Kelly and Donna); they shop together (Kelly); they attend children's functions (Barbara, Kelly, Paula, Peggy, Janice, and Jane); they share quiet conversation (Mindy); and they have bedtime sharing (Peggy). Time together helped both mother and child make the transition from nuclear family to stem family.

Holidays: Rook (1985) called attention to the role of ritual(s) in consumer behavior. From a marketing perspective, holidays are a period of ritual consumption, from a Christmas tree, to special menus (Wallendorf and Arnould 1990), to birthday cards and gifts. For the stem families, holidays acted as a bridge between holding on to the past and going forward to develop new family identities. Children generally have contact with both parents, individually, thus reminding them of their "old" family. Stem mothers may incorporate both old and new rituals during a holiday season, giving the children a chance to look forward.

Peggy emphasized both Christmas and Thanksgiving. "We always went and cut a live Christmas tree . . . always made Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners even though I thought at the time it would be easier to go out to eat." Paula and her son, too, made a special trip to get a Christmas tree. "He and I would always go get the Christmas tree." Upon bringing it home, they would decorate it together. Janice stated, "I always take the girls' picture in the fall for the Christmas cards." Cheryl celebrates Christmas with her family a week early and then observes the actual holidays with her ex-mother-in-law and her family. Margaret did not remember any holiday not associated with her ex-mother-in-law. "Holidays and birthdays were almost a mandatory family attendance." One result of this is, now that her children are grown, they do not "make so much of birthdays."

Mindy keeps only a few presents under her tree and hides the rest. Every year before attending Christmas Eve services, she excuses herself, returns to the house, and places the rest of the gifts under the tree, making it look as if someone had delivered more while the family was out. One year she did not "have to go to the bathroom" and her kids kept asking if she had something to do inside. Arranging for a neighbor to bring out the presents was her way of "keeping ahead of them." Mindy's children are all high school age and above, and this incident, occurring with older children, demonstrates an enduring aspect of some rituals. Even as old as the children were, Mindy perceived their discomfort when she deviated from expected behavior.

Jeri describes Christmas as time for her family to gather, but "that can take several forms." She is flexible timewise, and the holiday schedule varies from year to year. Donna has difficulty in establishing holiday rituals because her daughter's visitation schedule changes yearly. Lori has never planned a holiday celebration. "Holidays have always been a mess because I work holidays."

Birthdays followed Christmas and Thanksgiving as the most celebrated time. In Jane's family the birthday person chooses the dinner menu "within reason," and they share the birthday dinner. "We always share birthdays together. No one makes any plans for birthdays." Mindy's family celebrates for two days. "We open a present the night before . . . A couple of years ago, it was my birthday and the day before when I got home from work in the garage door they had put streamers that said Happy Birthday." For her children, Mindy's birthday is as important as their own. Barbara's family extended birthday celebrations to include two parish priests. They made homemade gifts for these men and had a birthday picnic in their backyard. Barbara described the priests as part of the family and "the kids thought that was just great."

Holidays logically fall under the "sense of family" category. Menus (Margaret, Jane, Patsy), gift giving (Barbara, Mindy), and rituals (Mindy, Paula, Patsy, Jane) serve as a bridge between the nuclear family and the stem family. In this study, more attempts to hold on to the past during the holiday season were found than trying to create a new identity. This result differs somewhat from the findings of McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts (1993), who found more evidence for the disposition to break free and for development of new individual identities. The presence of children in the stem families seemed to place more emphasis on the maintenance of family continuity, though in a reconstituted manner.


This study does not attempt to identify all themes or processes experienced by the stem family as it re-establishes itself as a family unit with a new structure, but it does provide some ideas as to how single mothers proceed through the process. The interviews revealed that mothers from different backgrounds appear to have common themes used to maintain a sense of family for their children.

This paper is an exploration into the behavior of stem families. It is an attempt to identify themes that can be examined from a marketing perspective. The 14 interviews provide a first step in developing a body of knowledge applicable to this segment of the population. The themes identified provide a foundation on which to base future study.

Future research is needed in the area of consumer decision making in the stem family. Two areas may be of particular interest. First, the process itself is affected by all the people involved. The extent of the influence of the kinship system needs to be examined. In appearance the stem mother may be solely responsible for the family, but for practical purposes some of this responsibility may be shifted to her kinship network. Second, product categories of stem family purchases are of interest to marketers. Stem family trips, eating out more often, and changes in residence indicate consumption patterns which may have different meanings for the stem family as opposed to the nuclear family.

This study was limited to mother-headed families, but as more fathers are granted custody of their children as a result of divorce, they too should be examined. There is also a need for intrafamily data gathering to gain insight into shared experience (Mick and Buhl 1992). As the number of stem families increases, marketers need to understand the behavior of this segment of the population. Some of this understanding may come with increased comparison to nuclear families.


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Myra Jo Bates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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