Are stepparents always evil? Parental death, remarriage, and child survival in demographically saturated Krummhörn (1720-1859) and expanding Québec (1670-1750)

Willführ, K. P., Gagnon, A.

Biodemography & Social Biology, 59:2, 191-211 (2013)



Parental death precipitates a cascade of events leading to more or less detrimental exposures, from the sudden and dramatic interruption of parental care to cohabitation with step parents and siblings in a recomposed family. This paper compares the effect of early parental loss on child survival in the past in the Krummhörn region of East Frisia (Germany) and among the French Canadians settlers of the Saint-Lawrence Valley (Québec, Canada). The Krummhörn region was characterized by a saturated habitat, while the opportunities for establishing a new family were virtually unlimited for the French Canadian settlers. Early parental loss had quite different consequences in these dissimilar environments. Event history analyses with time-varying specification of family structure are used on a sample of 7,077 boys and 6,906 girls born between 1720 and 1859 in the Krummhörn region and 31,490 boys and 33,109 girls whose parents married between 1670 and 1750 in Québec. Results indicate that in both populations parental loss is associated with increased infant and child mortality. Maternal loss has a universal and consistent effect for both sexes, while the impact of paternal loss is less easy to establish and to interpret. On the other hand, the effect of the remarriage of the surviving spouse is population-specific: Mother’s remarriage has no effect in Krummhörn, while it is beneficial in Québec. In contrast, father’s remarriage in Krummhörn dramatically reduces the survival chances of the children born from his former marriage, while such effect is not seen for Québec. These population-specific effects appear to be driven by the availability of resources and call into question the universality of the “Cinderella” effect.