Although increased attention has been placed on the potential deleterious consequences of paternal incarceration on maternal health, little empirical research has attempted to understand the physiological processes that might underlie this relationship. Moreover, exposure to incarceration and access to resources that shape family incarceration patterns are unequally distributed across racial and ethnic lines, yet few studies utilize analytic frameworks that account for this social reality. Using a within race/ethnicity analytic framework, the present study addresses these gaps by examining relationships between paternal incarceration and telomere length for Black, Latina/o, and White mothers.
Data were drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal, stratified multistage probability sample of couples and children in 20 large U.S. cities. The final analytic sample consisted of 2174 mothers that were followed from pregnancy to age 9 of the focal child.
Findings revealed exposure to paternal incarceration was negatively associated with telomere length for Black mothers, but not for Latina/o and White mothers. Mediation analysis also showed paternal incarceration-telomere length relationships did not operate through secondary stressors, such as economic instability, poor mental health, and parenting stress.
Overall, results demonstrated that the detrimental physiological consequences of paternal incarceration for mothers depended on racial and ethnic background. Findings from this study can provide a foundation upon which health scholars and criminal justice stakeholders may better understand whether and how paternal incarceration shapes deleterious health patterns for the mothers who remain to care for the children of those incarcerated.