Father absence is consistently associated with children's reproductive outcomes in industrialized countries. It has been suggested that father absence acts as a cue to particular environmental conditions that influence life history strategies. Much less is known, however, about the effects of father absence on such outcomes in lower-income countries. Using data from the 1988 Malaysian Family Life Survey (n = 567), we tested the effect of father absence on daughters' age at menarche, first marriage, and first birth; parity progression rates; and desired completed family size in Malaysia, a country undergoing an economic and fertility transition. Father absence during later childhood (ages 8 to 15), although not during earlier childhood, was associated with earlier progressions to first marriage and first birth, after controlling for other confounders. Father absence does not affect age at menarche, desired family size, or progression from first to second birth. The patterns found in this transitional population partly mirror those in developed societies, where father absence accelerates reproductive events. There is, however, a notable contrast between the acceleration in menarche for father-absent girls consistently found in developed societies and the lack of any association in our findings. The mechanisms through which father absence affects reproduction may differ in different ecological contexts. In lower-income contexts, direct paternal investment or influence may be of more importance in determining reproductive behavior than whether fathers act as a cue to environmental conditions.
Childhood family structure has been shown to play an important role in shaping a child's life course development, especially in industrialised societies. One hypothesis which could explain such findings is that parental investment is likely to be diluted in families without both natural parents. Most empirical studies have examined the influence of only one type of family disruption or composition (e.g. father absence) making it difficult to simultaneously compare the effects of different kinds of family structure on children's future outcomes. Here we use a large, rich data source (n=16,207) collected by Alfred Kinsey and colleagues in the United States from 1938 to 1963, to examine the effects of particular childhood family compositions and compare between them. The dataset further allows us to look at the effects of family structure on an array of traits relating to sexual maturity, reproduction, and risk-taking. Our results show that, for both sexes, living with a single mother or mother and stepfather during childhood was often associated with faster progression to life history events and greater propensity for risk-taking behaviours. However, living with a single father or father and stepmother was typically not significantly different to having both natural parents for these outcomes. Our results withstand adjustment for socioeconomic status, age, ethnicity, age at puberty (where applicable), and sibling configuration. While these results support the hypothesis that early family environment influences subsequent reproductive strategy, the different responses to the presence or absence of different parental figures in the household rearing environment suggests that particular family constructions exert independent influences on childhood outcomes. Our results suggest that father-absent households (i.e. single mothers or mothers and stepfathers) are most highly associated with subsequent fast life history progressions, compared with mother-absent households, and those with two natural parents.
Despite the widespread assumption that paternal investment is substantial in our species, previous studies have shown mixed results in relation to the impact of fathers on both offspring survival and reproductive outcomes. Using data from a large representative sample of British men, we tested whether father absence is associated with the timing of reproduction-related events among boys, while controlling for various cues denoting early childhood adversity. We further tested whether the loss of the father at different childhood stages matters, so as to assess whether early life is the most important period or if effects can be seen during later childhood. The results show that father absence before age seven is associated with early reproduction, while father absence between ages 11 and 16 only is associated with delayed voice-breaking (a proxy for puberty), even after adjusting for other factors denoting childhood adversity. We conclude that fathers do exert an influence on male reproductive outcomes, independently of other childhood adversities and that these effects are sensitive to the timing of father absence.
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