Family Structure and Women’s Lives: A Life Course Perspective



A principal feature of the stress process paradigm is its distinctly sociological emphasis on understanding how social structure has a pervasive influence on individuals’ exposure to stressors and their responses to these experiences. In his definitive paper on the sociological study of stress, Leonard Pearlin (1989) describes how individuals’ locations in the social structure of society have consequences for their psychological well-being. His consideration of the social contexts in which stressful experiences occur, the resources with which they respond to stressors, and the manifestations of stress has provided sociologists with an agenda for research that has stimulated sociological inquiry for more than two decades. Pearlin’s explication of the stress process paradigm was soon followed by an outpouring of research papers that sought to explore the impact of various statuses and roles on stress and its manifestations. This work continues today at an ever-accelerating rate of scholarly production.

One of the themes that has emerged from research on the stress process has been a consideration of the ways in which family structure creates a social context for stressors and their outcomes. Of course, the study of families has been an important feature of sociological research (Stryker 2007) and it seems clear that family structure has always been viewed as one of the essential structural properties of the stress process paradigm. Indeed, some of the earliest work within this paradigm was Leonard Pearlin’s examination of the effects of marital dissolution on individuals’ mental health (Pearlin and Johnson 1977). Life within a family requires that individuals assume an array of role responsibilities, navigate through the rewards and challenges of intimate relationships, and respond to the often conflicting demands of other statuses and roles. The dynamics of family life contribute to individuals’ exposure to stressors and access to resources; thus, the experience of various health outcomes and these dynamics are greatly influenced by family structure.


Mental Health Intimate Partner Violence Psychological Distress Family Structure Single Mother 



Support for the preparation of this chapter was provided by grant funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (FRN-64175), the National Health Research and Development Program of Health Canada (6606-4262-64/2), the Ontario Mental Health Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (410-94-0604), and the Children’s Health Foundation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Sociology, Paediatrics, and Epidemiology & BiostatisticsChildren’s Health Research Institute; Lawson Health Research Institute, The University of Western OntarioLondonCanada

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