Eric D. Widmer

Sapin,M. and Widmer,E. (2008).Social isolation or relational instability ? Family configurations of women at risk of child abandonment In: Widmer E. D. and Jallinoja R.(Eds). Beyond the Nuclear Family. Families in a Configurational Perspective.. Peter Lang, Berne, pp. 303-328.

A prominent tenet of life-course research holds that ill-timed and unexpected events, non-normative transitions, and disorderly status sequences have profound and lasting consequences for an individual’s success in later life. Young and unmarried mothers have played a prominent role in a debate that has been raging for years in the U.S. Facing social isolation and economic hardship, these young mothers have been first considered by some scholars as paramount of fully determined life trajectories. For instance, in a classical paper, the social demographer Arthur Campbell wrote in 1968, “The girl who has an illegitimate child at the age of 16 suddenly has 90% of her life’s script written for her. She will probably drop out of school…not be able to find a steady job…she may feel impelled to marry someone she might not have otherwise chosen. Her life choices are few and most of them are bad” (1968, p. 238). More recent work has emphasized that there are several occasions in which teenage mothers can compensate the cumulative disadvantage processes in which they are embedded by developing various strategies within their social context, including with their families. Paraphrasing Campbell's assertion and underlying the selection biases of studies showing the catastrophic impact of teen childbearing on future life chances, Furstenberg (2005) stressed that "if a women is poor, coming from an ethnic minority, and has been a low achiever in school, 70 percent of the life script may be written for her—whether or not she has a child as a teenager or in her early twenties”. With his collaborators, he highlighted that the level of resources and support offered by families (Furstenberg et al., 1987) in the way of time, money, guidance, etc., is a crucial factor to recovery from non-normative events like teen childbearing. Families are also unequally embedded in neighborhood and communities with different access to resources helping one cope with the transition to motherhood. Only few studies, however, exist on how family ties and life trajectories of young unwed and poor mothers intermingle in a configurational perspective.

Countries from Eastern Europe might be especially interesting in this regard, as they have faced a tremendous period of social change with much normative and institutional uncertainty about family roles and family solidarity (Ghergel, 2005; Blum, 2003) expressed notably by the tremendous increase of single parenthood and adolescent childrearing (UNICEF, 1999). This is the case in Romania, where the control of families was an instrument for the creation of a new social order during the communist period. The Code of the Family, established in 1953, laid the foundation of the so-called “socialist family model,” whose aim was to weaken family solidarity and replace it by a social solidarity controlled by the government. In the seventies, coercive pro-birth policies, established under the Ceaucescu’s government, had important consequences for family life; by decreasing living standards and health of the population, and by aggravating asymmetric relationships between spouses, women's overload of work in a patriarchal social context was common. The pronatalistic policy by the suspension of divorce and abortion brought about an important number of unwanted, neglected, abandoned, and institutionalized children (Ghergel, 2005 and 2006; Gal & Kligman, 2000a and 200b). The puritan conception of the family’s advocating sexuality for the sole purpose of biological reproduction, combined with the lack of contraceptive methods, led women to be valued for their fertility potential only, and conjugality became an instrument at the service of the State (Ghergel, 2005; Baban, 2000). Nevertheless, family solidarity did not disappear because of its function of resistance against state directives. Today, the family is a central point of reference in Romania and is often the only support for individuals (Marginean, 2004, p. 45).

Everyone still remembers the unbearable pictures from Romanian orphanages just after the fall of Ceaucescu. While the care of orphans has changed dramatically since then, the situation remains today very problematic in Romania, where 80,000 children live in institutions or with adoptive families1. Maternal centers have been created on a large scale to prevent child abandonment; in these centers, mothers and their children are taken care off for periods of time extending up to six months. Those centers have not, however, resolved many of the problems associated with outside-of-wedlock pregnancy and child birth in Romania, as the resources that they make available to mothers are scarce and limited in time in a social situation characterized by increasing mass poverty, where children are particularly at risk (Gherghel, 2006; Duma et al., 2005). Many women in contemporary Romania still resort today to child abandonment.

Why is that so? Beyond the harshness of the social context as a whole, what characterizes the life trajectories and the social integration of those women? According to the theory of the convoy (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980; Antonucci, & Akiyama, 1995), a rather stable set of close relationships accompanies individuals along their life, providing them with the necessary support to deal with key transitions such as the transition to parenthood. This chapter shows that family configurations and the resources provided by them are the results of long-term relational histories that are characterized by instability rather than by permanent social exclusion. Relational resources have a significant impact on women’s self-worth and life projects and, indirectly, on the mother–child bond. The first sections provide information about the sample and the study design. The chapter then proceeds to examining the composition of family configurations and the social capital that they provide to unwed women at risk of child abandonment, in comparison with a matched sample of mainstream Romanian mothers. It then exemplifies the instability of life trajectories and their impact on family resources that they make available by including two case studies of young and unwed women at risk of child abandonment.


Children Action2 is a Swiss charitable foundation, which set up a service unit called Kairos in Bucharest, to prevent mothers facing social and psychological hardship from abandoning their children. This unit assists young women in their maternal role, in helping them to reintegrate the larger society both socially and professionally, and when possible, in restoring relationships with their family of origin. Underlying this project is the idea that if the mother is allowed to stay with her baby during the first few months after the delivery, the resulting bond will prevent her from abandoning her child.

Within the framework of this project, twenty mothers aged 16 through 38 (average age = 24.4 years old, standard deviation = 5.5) were interviewed between 2005 and 2007. Mothers coming from disadvantaged social classes were overrepresented. Indeed, six of these women grew up in a family with no formal education, very instable housing facilities, and very little or no money available. Nine come from a lower social class background, their parents having low school achievement, dilapidated but secured housing, and low incomes but just enough for living. Five come from the middle class, with three of them presenting a story of precariousness starting during adolescence or at the beginning of adulthood due to loss of a job or money by their parents after the 1989 revolution. Overall, the educational level of the sample is low. In Romania, people from the middle class usually finish their formal education with a diploma, which allows them to find a legal job. Only five of the twenty women achieved a formal education. In almost all cases, women supervised by the Kairos center gave up schooling rather early to work on the black market to earn a low income, suffering frequent changes of employers and temporary to regular unemployment. It is also notable that six women are Roma or partners of Roma men, a national minority in Romania, which has been ostracized for centuries.

For further reading, refer to the publication.

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