JC: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background and the contexts you work in currently?
RVA: My background is in marriage and family, social work and anthropology. I currently work and teach at the Institute for Family Services which is a free standing institute in Somerset, New Jersey that I founded in 1986. I am also the co-founder of the Liberation Based Healing Conference currently in its 14th year, co-hosted by universities across the country. This year we will be hosted by Edgar Mevers College, in NYC.
JC: Can you define “liberation based healing” and tell us how it differs from more traditional forms of diagnosis and psychotherapy?
RVA: Liberation based healing (LBH) seeks to highlight the challenges and opportunities that individuals face from either privilege or oppression. We strive to eschew diagnostic codes or therapeutic narratives and instead help the client see the powerful way that poverty, racism, or other forces impact well-being, mental health, or a vulnerability to mental illness. Our goal is to increase the dialogue and connection of people in groups so that they can learn from others’ experiences, see the commonality of their experiences, and thus feel less isolated, shamed or pathologized. Our approach differs from traditional group therapy in the sense that we believe that participants benefit from sharing the diversity of their lives and challenges, rather than the pursuit of some common shared goal such as the alleviation of depression, anxiety, etc.
JC: Is there a reason that your book is particularly relevant right now?
RVA: There couldn’t be a more relevant time for this book. We are in a time where basic values of decency are shattered on a daily basis; people are afraid of each other, resentful, and numb to the daily attacks they witness towards different groups. Social media not withstanding, they feel pulled to focus on themselves at the exclusion of others. It is a time when people are spending less and less time in communal spaces such as neighborhood gatherings, religious gatherings, or other social groups. Many are trapped in an endless cycle of work and family responsibilities. This book offers a small way to make a difference for many struggling individuals and communities.
JC: In the book you make the case for “redefining and expanding the therapeutic context” and you encourage community leaders to become more involved. Can you expand on that?
RVA: Psychotherapeutic practices historically focus on the mental health of the individual. In family therapy the focus extends to the wider system. However, I observe an increasing focus on individual problems even in family therapy. This sort of problematized specialization splits the family into a focus on the individual that doesn’t reveal the wider context of problems. Popular models today like “Emotionally focused Therapy” focus primarily on emotional processes devoid of context or a power analysis. Seeing families and couples who are increasingly isolated in their daily lives, except perhaps in the workplace begs the question “How are today’s individuals and families finding a sense of connection?”
I believe that increasing the connections within and outside of the family is essential to the mental health of our society. From that perspective, bringing together multiple families or couples into the same treatment environment can provide a way to build community while at the same time illustrating the common trials affecting so many families today. However, I believe that inviting educators and community leaders into the room to provide help, aid, and leadership is an additional component of healing. Redrawing the walls of therapy as we know it into healing circles offers therapists the freedom to shift complex problems into something more manageable and comprehensible.
JC: What problematic assumptions do you believe exist in contemporary family therapy theory and how do you recommend that those be addressed?
RVA: There is a common misconception that one should only address gender, race, sexuality or sexual orientation if the client raises it. I believe that this doesn’t offer an opportunity for a therapeutic dialogue to take place, and for the individual to gain the kind of insight and understanding that true community provides. Our approach moves these aspects of identity more into the foreground of discussion.
Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. He is the author of numerous articles, chapters and books. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, The BBC, NYU Psychiatry Radio as well as Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, America Online Coaches, and PBS. He is the co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.
This post originally appeared on the blog of Humanities Washington, a nonprofit based in Washington State.
What can a show about cleaning your house tell us about the state of society? A lot.
This winter, millions of viewers in nearly 200 countries watched the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo, a Japanese organizing expert, guides people in home makeover projects that require families to declutter and remove objects that do not, in her words, “spark joy.” As Kondo’s website states, the method is not just about doing the work of tidying up—it is about mindfulness and introspection. In other words, tidying up is not just a home project; it is a project of the self.
Kondo is on to something: the objects in our home each tell a personal story, one with a unique set of characters, plot twists, and emotional undertones. They might be saved love letters or childhood baseball gloves. They might be threadbare linens from a grandparent who immigrated with only one suitcase. They might be antique silverware that has been saved for a son or daughter, but involve a fear that the child may not want them. These objects feed into our sense of self, which can in turn tell us important things about society as a whole.
As a sociologist, I gather these stories and notice larger patterns, collecting and curating what are called home object stories in order to tell the story of our larger society. People are more united than they might think in their seemingly lonely quests for figuring out what to do with home possessions, and “Tidying Up” provides a surprisingly detailed window into our shared concerns about clutter.
So what do the possessions of ten American families say about contemporary families and society?
First, we are witnessing a large shift in what is considered a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to consumption and self-control. In the middle of the 20th century, material goods were seen as a crucial part of fulfilling the American Dream for those families who could afford it, from TV trays to new cars parked in the driveways of new suburbs. But later decades brought recessions, recognition of environmental degradation, and a fear that we were all buying too much stuff and ending up miserable anyway. Now, to deal with all our stuff, we are encouraged to boost our self-control (or perhaps the illusion of it). If, by changing how we manage our personal struggles, we can become healthier, it’s no accident that the improvement of self includes managing our home objects. The recurring theme is that our individual happiness is intimately tied to our acquisition and management of possessions. In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”
Throughout “Tidying Up,” viewers are guided through households with voiceovers and confessional moments that highlight the very thin line between what happens to objects and what happens to people. People thank their T-shirts before tossing them in the donation pile; they thank their family members for their willingness to work on their own stuff. People confess that they want to change their stuff because they want to change themselves. Not unusual were references to “taking control of one’s things” as an integral part of the project of “taking control of one’s life.” If a pair of shoes “sparks joy,” keep them and maybe joy will be sparked in your intimate family relationships, too.
In the past century, we’ve swung from “buying brings happiness” to “curating and purging certain bought items brings happiness.”
Second, the social group you identify with impacts the likelihood you’ll participate in the decluttering movement. Our home spaces and stuff, and televised renditions of decluttering practices, are not just about dividing those whose personalities lead them to minimalism and those whose personalities lead them to hoarding. Projects surrounding home stuff are also about group differences and inequalities. For example, there are real and troubling racial and socioeconomic inequalities between those who can afford to own a home in a desirable neighborhood (and maybe a storage unit to house extra stuff) and those who cannot. Within homes, we still see a division of household labor such that women disproportionately bear the burden of household tidiness and management of the entire tidying project. We know that what objects matter in a family depend on that family’s geographic location, racial-ethnic identity, immigrant status, and social class.
In the show, Kondo assists a family that moves to Los Angeles and downsizes into a small apartment. The mother in the family experiences the emotional toll of being held responsible for the organization and tidying of all family members’ objects. By the end of the episode, not only have family members taken a larger role in their own tidying, but the narrative explicitly notes the likelihood of this burden falling too much on women, who perform a “second shift” of unpaid domestic labor even if they still work outside the home. In my research on love letters and photo albums, I found that women were more likely than men to feel responsible for organizing, storing, and saving kinship mementos. And they were more likely than men to curate these items in decorated boxes and in places where they would be kept safe. In other words, the project of “tidying up” is still a gendered project, whether it’s about laundry or love letters.
Finally, family life is changing in the U.S., both in terms of what families look like and in terms of what families do. The definition of “family” is increasingly diverse: gay marriage is legal, couples are having children later, aging populations are staying healthier longer, and the proportion of American families headed by a married couple has declined to less than 50%. In other words, it is safe to say there is no longer a “typical” American family. As all of these shifts happen, the role of home objects necessarily shifts, too.
While the show was criticized for showing relatively affluent families from a similar geographic area, and for espousing ideals of minimalism that are more likely to be held by those who can afford to get rid of stuff, “Tidying Up” does portray a more diverse set of family forms than televised families from even a decade ago did. One cohabiting couple, for example, seeks the help of Kondo to tidy up in order to show one partner’s parents that they have more concretely moved into an “adult” stage. The pair aligns the “adultification” of their home décor and organization with their goal of displaying their relationship as more permanent and committed. This matters in particular for this couple because, as gay men, they feel the need to demonstrate relationship seriousness in the absence of marriage, and in a social context where the legitimacy of gay relationships may still be questioned. Having a tidy linen closet, then, not only contains a blending of the partners’ mismatched towel collection as a symbol of their commitment to each other, it also signifies to parents that they are no longer children.
If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person who’s had a hard time figuring out what to do with your stuff, and that if you were only able to get rid of more things you’d feel so much happier, you are not alone. We have come to culturally define home curation as an individual project. But the project does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs amidst a set of cultural shifts that include: changing family diversity (who counts as “family” when we decide who gets Grandma’s table?), geographic mobility (how do we transport Grandma’s table across five states?), family roles (who is in charge of the labor of figuring out what to do with the table?), changing ideals about the role of consumption in our lives (Grandma’s table does not fit with my minimalist aesthetic), and even a reinforcement of the value that we are supposed to tackle this stuff on our own (I need to figure out what to do with Grandma’s table on my own).
Our individual stories matter, but we are richer for understanding how these personal stories are part of a larger story. So, the next time you winnow a shoe collection or sift through a deceased relative’s power tools, remember that shoes and tools bear the stories of their individual possessors, but they also bear the stories of the social world in which they were bought, worn, used, stored, lost, held dear, and thrown away. It is that social world, in fact, that shapes how we come to view shoes and tools as desirable, cherishable, or disposable in the first place.
One of the most robust findings in industrialized societies is that children no longer confer an advantage in life satisfaction or happiness to their parents relative to those who do not have children. While the extent of the gap varies by country, life stage, and other characteristics of parents, there does not seem to be a time or place where parenthood positively affects well-being after industrialization strips children of their direct economic value to parents (and creates long periods of dependency and educational spending instead).
In a 2016 study, authors Chris Herbst and John Ifcher show a different trend, however. Using U.S. data over the past 30 years and comparing parents actively parenting children under 18 in their household to those without children in their household, they show this happiness gap slowly closing and disappearing completely after 1997. They discussed these findings in a 2017 blog post for the Institute for Family Studies, believing that the gap has closed because non-parents have become increasingly vulnerable to loneliness, social distrust, and economic insecurity.
Looking carefully at their analysis, however, it seems like a different story could also be told. First, Herbst and Ifcher exclude two important categories of parents whose prevalence and distress have presumably grown over time: non-custodial parents and parents of children over 17. These groups are instead considered “non-parents” in the Herbst and Ifcher trend analysis. Non-custodial parents as a percentage of all biological parents have increased since 1986, and research shows this group of parents to be particularly distressed (see Simon and Caputo), since separation or divorce decrease daily contact with their children and increase expenses for non-custodial parents. While single parents are more distressed than married parents, non-custodial parents are more distressed than both groups.
Parents of children over 18 have also both grown as a proportion of all parents since 1986 and seen both their financial and care obligations for their adult children increase over this period. Indeed, developmental scientists now speak about “emerging adulthood” to describe this post-18 to late twenties period of time in which young people are still partially dependent upon their parents for support and guidance. Paying for college has become a major burden for many parents of emerging adults, while the proportion still living with their parents or moving in and out of their parents’ household has grown to post-war highs. The number of young adults with developmental disorders (autism spectrum or ADHD diagnoses) has also increased over time. As the ACA has acknowledged this dependency by allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, so too must data analysts wanting to understand contemporary parenting and its financial and social stressors. While most analyses find that so-called “empty-nest” parents are happier than parents actively parenting younger children, fewer and fewer parents of children over 18 actually have an empty nest!
When these two groups are combined with respondents who have never had children, they easily swamp the truly child-free in analyses of parental happiness. After all, about 80% of people in the U.S. still eventually have children, and those children will eventually turn 18. So comparing parents of children 17 and younger to everyone else really confounds parenthood with life stage and marital status. Rather than seeing the parental happiness gap converging and disappearing post 1997, what may really be going on is a shift in the responsibilities of parenting both spilling out across non-married households and extending into young adulthood, pulling down the happiness of those mistakenly categorized as “child-free.”
Second, the Herbst and Ifcher analysis does not explicitly consider the fall in fertility and increasing selectivity of parenting. While still high in comparative perspective, teen and unplanned pregnancies have been declining in the U.S. since 1997, and overall fertility rates have declined in all racial and ethnic groups. Some of that decline has been involuntary — some adults may feel “freer” to not become parents because they cannot find suitable partners, have inadequate or unstable incomes, or jobs that demand too many hours to consider adding children to their lives. These are not exogenous forces affecting fertility– they are in themselves endogenous to social forces that have made the stressors of parenting increase over time to the point that many young adults sadly forego parenthood.
Herbst and Ifcher’s trend analysis is consistent with this explanation. First, they do not find that parental happiness is actually increasing over time. Rather parental happiness has been constant over time while those they characterize as non-parents have become less happy over time. If parenthood is becoming more selective yet happiness is not increasing, this in itself demonstrates that contemporary parenting of minor children has become increasingly stressful over time. And if “non-parents” increasingly consist of non-custodial parents financially supporting minor children, older parents still supporting adult children, and involuntarily childless people unable to find the partners or jobs that would accommodate their desires for parenthood, it’s not surprising that non-parents’ unhappiness has grown over time.
However, none of their findings comport with the belief that children protect parents against loneliness, social isolation, or financial distress. If anything, the trend over time suggests that the forces that reduce happiness among parents of minor children now extend beyond that group to non-custodial parents, “empty-nest” parents, and involuntarily child-free adults. Herbst concludes, correctly, that his results are probably affected by these factors: “…we cannot discount the possibility that compositional shifts among parents and non-parents have driven the change in parental happiness.”
What seems clear across studies is that contemporary industrialized societies are struggling to avoid below replacement fertility, and understand how to integrate production and reproduction in a way that respects the sacrifices that parents are routinely expected to undertake to raise healthy educated citizens. When the costs of children are privatized but the benefits are socialized, we see a parental happiness penalty that persists across a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, as well as increasing selectivity in who becomes parents. The challenge is to create public support systems that encourage responsible parenthood among those who want to become parents without coercing those who do not. Ending the extraordinary financial and opportunity costs of parenthood is certainly a good place to start.
Jennifer Glass is Centennial Commission Professor in the Department of Sociology and Population Research Center of the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent projects explore whether governmental work-family policies improve parents’ and children’s health and well-being, whether women’s jobs really have better work-family amenities than men’s, why women’s retention in STEM occupations remains so low, and how the economic costs of motherhood have changed over time.
Familial conflict is a profoundly intimate and emotional experience. Historically, courts have taken a hands-off approach when dealing with familial conflict, but recent years have seen an increased use of the judicial system to resolve domestic issues.
Ample research notes damaging effects of traditional court models. In fact, the adversarial proceedings associated with traditional court settings can escalate family conflict through revictimization and threats or use of violence. A separate line of research long-ago established that family conflict negatively influences psychological and relational well-being of the adults and children involved in the conflict.
The collective conclusions of these studies prompted scholars and practitioners to advocate for alternative processes that deal with familial conflict in ways that minimize harm and maximize healing. One such alternative has been the development of specialty family courts.
The goals and mission of family courts reflect notions of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ). TJ is a framework that encourages integration of judicial and treatment services. Proponents of this perspective argue that agents of law have therapeutic potential. Judges, attorneys, and other legal personnel are encouraged to work collaboratively with psychologists, social workers, and other social scientists to focus on fundamental causes of conflict and possible resolutions. TJ encounters are commonly said to share 3 primary components:
(1) Respectful interaction between legal actors and litigants,
(2) Allowing Parties to Express and Explain Their Standpoint, and
(3) Transparent Judicial Decision Making.
Research examining whether and how TJ is practiced in family court settings is scarce. This is important from an evaluative point of view, especially since there is reason to suspect disjuncture between intended and actual practice. Indeed, some of my prior research in other forms of specialty courts suggest that courts fall short of idealized principles and stated missions. In a study recently published by Criminal Justice Policy Review, I report on observations of over 100 hearings, including 8 trials presided over by 5 judges to investigate the presence of therapeutic jurisprudence in a family court setting.
I found that therapeutically just interactions were not uncommon in the court. Court personnel regularly treated the parties with dignity and respect. For example, judges directly communicated with the litigants even when the parties have legal representation. In addition, judges commonly used the litigants’ first and last name rather than the impersonal “plaintiff” and “defendant.” In fact, judges relied heavily on “natural” language and gesturing throughout court proceedings, forgoing legal jargon and the formalities often used in traditional court settings.
My observations further indicate that judges encouraged parties to express and explain their standpoint. One judge, who presided over the majority of the cases, always asked litigants if they wanted to speak even if they had hired attorneys to represent their interests. This same judge consistently reiterated the presented evidence in the case before providing her ruling, citing that she did so to keep “a clean record.” As a part of the judge’s reiteration, she commented on the case content and the litigants’ emotional responses to the content.
Despite the common use of TJ, I also observed some anti-therapeutic encounters. These interactions often included one litigant revealing distressing information about the “opposing” litigant and their relationship. For example, in some rare case parties were prompted – usually by their own counsel – to recount instances of rape, neglect, and other forms of maltreatment. Even when the litigant demonstrated extreme discomfort giving such testimony (i.e., keeping the gaze low and unblinking, answering questions with silence, answering questions by shaking their head side-to-side or stating “I don’t want to say”), attorneys would persistently probe the litigant for details.
In other cases, litigants were confrontationally questioned at length about matters seemingly unrelated to the case facts. For instance, one litigant, who was a non-native English speaker, was questioned at length about his citizenship, work status, and legal certification to drive a motor vehicle. Although these issues were not raised as part of the case complaint, the litigant was questioned about them for over 3 hours. Like traditional court, family court takes place in a public forum, so it was not uncommon for persons unrelated to the case at hand to be present at trials and hearings. As such, these interactions seemed antitherapeutic in that attorneys were seemingly relentless in their queries and/or were antagonistic in their questioning about highly personal and potentially traumatic events in a space that was open to public scrutiny.
Although I am unable to generalize these findings to other courts and jurisdictions, the study highlights the potential to confront conflict with therapeutic means. Although our traditional legal system traditionally encourages adversarial, fact-finding processes as normative, alternative practices are conceivable. Still, the antitherapeutic encounters remind us that practicing therapeutic jurisprudence can be challenging in a broader legal context that is largely built on principles that divide rather than reconcile and seek to find fault rather than heal.
Compelling critiques of the “justice” system are numerous, and a growing body of literature indicates that problem-solving courts do not eradicate inequities. Perhaps it is time for specialty courts to distance their practices from traditional court models. Or better yet, perhaps therapeutic encounters should become more engrained in our routine, everyday life. What if we were to encourage respectful interaction, empowerment to express one’s standpoint, and honest discussions about our decision making across all of our social encounters? Naysayers may dismiss the prospect as utopian or, at least, unrealistic, but being willing to imagine such possibilities could arguably spark a commitment to therapeutic living that we would all benefit from – in and out of the courtroom.
Cindy Brooks Dollar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on inequalities, nonconformity, and social control.
Since 2011, I’ve interviewed 135 middle-class employed mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy and the United States to understand their work-family conflict. I spoke to mothers specifically because in wealthy nations, mothers have historically been the focus of work-family policies and they’re still responsible for most housework and child care. They report greater work-family conflict and they use work-family policies more often than men. I had a personal interest: I’d watched my own mother struggle to navigate her work and family obligations — a decade-long juggling act that involved occasionally toting my sister and me to boardroom meetings to nap in sleeping bags when babysitters fell ill or schools closed. Years later, it seemed as though the conflict hadn’t eased for many of my peers.
In the United States, almost every woman I interviewed had reached the same conclusion: It was her — or her and her partner’s — responsibility to figure out child care, cobble together a leave of absence (often unpaid), get on a preschool waiting list, find a babysitter, seek advice from friends and acquaintances, and engineer any number of other highly improvised coping techniques. In the lawyer’s case, this meant, among other things, joining a less-prestigious firm that demanded fewer hours and finding the right hands-free breast pump to multitask in her cubicle. The common thread in every conversation was that the parents had to solve their problem themselves, no matter how piecemeal the solutions.
That all makes perfect, if outrageous, sense: The United States has the least generous benefits, the lowest public commitment to caregiving, one of the highest wage gaps between employed men and women, and among the highest maternal and child poverty rates of any Western industrialized nation.
In my interviews I discovered that American working mothers generally blame themselves for how hard their lives are. They take personal responsibility for problems that European mothers recognize as having external causes. The lesson here isn’t for overwhelmed American parents to look longingly across the Atlantic; it’s to emulate the Swedes, Germans and Italians by harboring the reasonable expectation that the state will help.
All the American mothers I interviewed said they felt enormous guilt and tension between their work and family commitments. So did the Italians. But Italian women tended to blame the government for their problems: “Social benefits? Zero. Less than zero. Nobody helps me,” laughed one woman I met, a single mother working at a hospital in Rome. “Does the government help me? No,” she said, “but they should think about helping you a little bit.”
In Sweden, working mothers I spoke with wanted full gender equality and expected to seamlessly combine paid work and child rearing. Mothers there also anticipated that the government would support them in these endeavors — and that’s exactly what the Swedish state, its work-family policy, and the country’s cultural ideals about work and motherhood do. When Swedish mothers feel stressed, they tend to blame the country’s lofty expectations of what parenting should be. German mothers ascribed their work-family juggling act, with its emphasis on traditional home life, to outdated cultural ideals.
American women who worked for companies that provided flexible schedules and paid maternity leave described themselves as “being very lucky” or “feeling privileged.” This privatized approach taken by the United States government and employers exacerbates inequalities among workers. Some elite employers elect to offer helpful work-family policies, meaning only certain workers — typically highly educated, salaried employees — receive these supports. The employees most in need of support, however — vulnerable hourly-wage workers — are the ones least likely to enjoy any work-family benefits. The highest-income earners in the United States are 3.5 times as likely to have access to paid family leave as those at the bottom of the pay scale.
After three months of interviews with mothers in Sweden, I was heartened to discover that the country in many ways lives up to its image as the place where women come closest to having successful careers and fulfilling family lives. But consider the national policy focus responsible for that lifestyle: Sweden prizes gender equality, universal child care and a “dual earner-carer” model that features women and men sharing breadwinning and child-rearing roles.
Women in Stockholm seemed confused or laughed out loud when I used the term “working mother.” “I don’t think that expression exists in Swedish,” an urban planner and mother of two told me. “It’s not like there’s a ‘nonworking mother,’” she said. “I mean, what else would she do?”
We can’t simply import social policies and hope they’ll have the same effect in a different context. For instance, American parents tend to marvel at Germany’s comparatively luxurious-sounding three-year parental leave, which was available to new parents for decades. So, I was taken aback when many working mothers in Germany told me they despised the policy because of the cultural stigma it heaped on their shoulders to not return to work until they absolutely had to. A teacher who went back to work before the end of the allowable parental leave described people telling her: “You cannot do this. You are selfish, you’re a career whore.”
“Balance” is a term that came up relentlessly in my conversations with women in the United States. But framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is merely an individualized way to justify a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. It fails to recognize how institutions contribute to this anxiety.
The stress that American parents feel is an urgent political issue, so the solution must be political as well. We have a social responsibility to solve work-family conflict. Let’s start with paid parental leave and high-quality, affordable child care as national priorities.
Women — again, on this side of the Atlantic — routinely assume it’s their duty to stitch together time off after childbirth. Those fortunate to qualify for parental-leave benefits — even two months at full pay, or six weeks at partial pay — feel real gratitude for such slim provisions. And in a country where most women (too often the poor and racial-ethnic minorities) receive no paid leave at all, that gratitude makes sense. But being able to work and raise the next generation of taxpayers and employees should never be deemed a matter of mere “luck.”
Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman on March 5, 2019
Although many older Americans have had long marriages, the proportions of Americans over age 50 who have been divorced and remarried have increased substantively over the past 25 years. In fact, individuals in the early ‘baby boomer’ cohort (born between 1946 and 1955) have divorced and remarried more often than any other age cohorts. It is not surprising, therefore, that many multi-generational American families include stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. This is relevant to multi-generational relationships and perhaps to the future care of these stepgrandparents.
In our studies, we have identified four distinct pathways to becoming a stepgrandparent, and we have conducted a series of investigations designed to uncover how these different pathways affect the formation of stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. In a recent study we interviewed 48 young adult stepgrandchildren, comparing their perceptions of 44 long-term stepgrandparents who joined the stepfamily before these stepgrandchildren were born, with their perceptions of 28 later-life stepgrandparents who joined their stepfamilies when the stepgrandchildren were late adolescents or young adults). A number of these adult stepgrandchildren had more than one stepgrandparent, and we asked about all of them.
The differences between each pathway have been theorized to result in relationship differences. Long-term stepgrandparents’ are in relationships with stepgrandchildren because they became stepparents when their stepchildren were young – years before those stepchildren reproduced and made them a stepgrandparent. In this figure, Jay is a stepgrandfather to Meg. Jay married Laura in 1994, and Colin became his 8-year-old stepson. As an adult, Colin married Kayla in 2014, and Kayla gave birth to Meg two years later. Jay is a long-term stepgrandfather. As Meg grows up, she will always have had Ian, Laura, and Jay as grandparents on her father’s side of the family (for simplicity, we ignore Kayla’s family tree in this illustration). Jay was a member of Meg’s family long before she was born.
Comparatively, later-life stepgrandparents acquire adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren following their remarriage to a grandparent; the new stepchildren are often middle-aged parents, and stepgrandchildren are often adolescents or older. The figure is an example of a later-life stepfamily. Cal married Sue in 2016. Sue has a daughter, Denise, who was 48 when her mom remarried. Denise had three children, ranging in age from 17 to 32 when Sue remarried. Those children are now Cal’s stepgrandchildren. Therefore, Cal is a later-life stepgrandfather to Jannie, Alex, and Fred.
The structural factors matter in how multi-generational stepfamilies interact and may affect the quality of stepfamily relationships. We discovered from our interviews that long-term stepgrandparents (like Jay) much more closely resemble biological grandparents in their relationships with stepgrandchildren than do later-life stepgrandparents, and they generally are called by family names (e.g., Grandpa, Nana). In large part this is because of conditions associated with the timing of remarriages and the subsequent personal histories that stepgrandchildren have with biological and stepgrandparents. Although the middle-generation influences how the stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren bond in both long-term and later-life stepfamilies, parents in long-term stepfamilies control the amount of interactions between the older and younger generations more. Both later life stepgrandchildren and the middle generation adults, because they experience the remarriage of grandparents at the same time, concurrently are grieving the past (i.e., after the death of a grandparent) and trying to make sense of the family transitions. Perhaps not surprisingly, In long-term stepfamilies, relationships and kin connections usually have been defined long ago when the middle generation parents were quite young. The stepgrandchildren did not enter the family until long after remarriage transitions. These long-term stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships and their multigenerational families generally functioned like grandparent-grandchild relationships in first-marriage multigenerational families; later-life families and relationships did not.
The stepgrandchildren did not remember a time when their stepgrandparent had not been a part of the family. Similar to findings from previous research, our results suggest that contextual factors, namely the timing of life events and transitions, duration of key family relationships, and opportunities for intergenerational interaction (e.g., co-residence, affinity-building), matter tremendously for if, how, and to what extent, intergenerational steprelationships are developed, maintained, and associated with caregiving and support exchanges, particularly in later-life.
Results from our study suggest that later-life stepgrandparents may be especially at risk for diminished social support, particularly from adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. These relationships often did not have enough time to develop before the older stepgrandparent needed care or other help. The later-life stepgrandparent had not had time to do things that bond people together – hanging out, giving gifts and sharing resources, having fun together. As a result, younger generations did not feel a sense of obligation or a need to reciprocate past gifts of the later-life stepgrandparent. The stepgrandchildren and their parents often referred to the later-life stepgrandparent as “grandma’s new husband” or “grandpa’s new wife.” Although stepgrandchildren’s thoughts and feelings about long-term and later-life stepgrandparents are worth exploring and shed light on complex family processes, we are unable to draw conclusions about the experiences of middle-generation parents or stepgrandparents. Because individuals experience family transitions differently, and these transitions, in turn, inform kinship ideologies and family interactions, more research is needed to glean the perspectives of family members from multiple family roles. Analyses of qualitative data garnered from multiple perspectives (e.g., biological grandparents, biological parents, stepgrandparents) would offer additional insights about family transitions and relationship trajectories. Data from more diverse multigenerational stepfamilies would also add to our knowledge base, as most of our respondents self-identified as White and ‘middle-class.’ Moreover, some stepgrandchildren were reporting on relationships with deceased stepgrandparents. Although the degree to which the death of stepgrandparents influenced stepgrandchildren’s narratives about their family relationships remains an empirical question, it is possible that interviews about dead relatives may differ in important ways from interviews about living relatives. Finally, family relationships and dynamics, including roles/rules, symbols, and language, are likely to vary across cultures, yet we are unable to speak to the influence of culture on intergenerational steprelationships given the cultural homogeneity of our sample.
This study has moved beyond describing stepgrandparenthood pathways to exploring underlying processes in intergenerational relationship building. Relationship quality among stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren may vary widely, regardless of pathway. We have illuminated here the dynamics by which these distinct types of intergenerational stepfamilies diverge. Researchers and practitioners who work with older stepfamilies can utilize this knowledge to better think about, work with, and support stepgrandparents in later life. For researchers, knowing about pathways to stepfamily status (i.e., “How did they get here?”) provides hypotheses or assumptions to explore. In future studies of stepgrandparents, we encourage researchers to consider and attend to structural pathways, as the variability of stepgrandparent “types” is often an overlooked, yet important, distinction. For practitioners, understanding if, how, and to what extent stepgrandchildren’s relationships with stepgrandparents impact both upward and downward exchanges of social support, particularly as stepgrandparents age, can be useful in working with families to create care plans for older adults in later-life. Issues of who will care for frail stepgrandparents can only be addressed effectively by an understanding of the diversity of multigenerational stepkin relationships. Moreover, understanding pathway implications to stepgrandparenthood can enhance science and practice with older step-couples. Our findings illuminate expectations about new partner involvement in family life following transitions such as death, divorce, and remarriage.
Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica Troilo, Jonathon Beckmeyer, and Melinda Markham on February 26, 2019
When we began the research for our article on divorced coparenting and parent-youth relationships (to be published in the Journal of Family Issues), our expectation was the common sense notion that children will experience fewer negative effects when their parents can cooperatively share parenting responsibilities following divorce. That was not what we found, however.
In our survey of almost 400 divorced individuals with at least one child between the ages of 10 and 18, we asked about their current coparenting experiences with former spouses and their relationships with one of their children (a so-called “target” child).
Types of Coparenting Relationships between Former Spouses
We expected that positive and cooperative coparental relationships would result in more positive parent-child relationships. Clustering coparenting participants into distinct groups based on their communication, cooperation, and conflict, we identified three types of coparenting: (1) Cooperative, (2) Moderately Engaged, and (3) Conflictual and Disengaged. Cooperative parents (41% of the parents in our sample) had the highest scores on communication and cooperation and the lowest scores on conflict. The Conflictual and Disengaged (16% of parents) had the lowest communication and cooperation scores and the highest levels of conflict. Moderately Engaged (43% of parents) were in the middle. These groups were similar to groups of parents identified in other studies (for example, Amato and colleagues, 2011; Beckmeyer and colleagues, 2014).
We expected to find significant differences between the three coparenting types in parental warmth and closeness, parents’ knowledge about their children’s daily lives, and inconsistent discipline, but we did not. Our results may indicate that divorced parents can compartmentalize their relationships with former spouses from their relationships with their children. If true, then perhaps higher conflict relationships with former spouses may have minimal effects on their relationships with their children. This can be viewed as both positive and negative. It may be that divorced parents that have conflictual or disengaged coparenting partners can keep those feelings separate from how they interact with and parent their children. On the other hand, parent-child relationships seem to not benefit when former spouses are able to establish cooperative coparenting.
Most states require divorcing parents to attend divorce education programs. The content, length, and delivery of these programs can vastly differ from state-to-state, but these programs are often based on the same assumption as our study; that cooperative coparenting between former spouses will support positive outcomes in the children. Others, though, provide some evidence that cooperation is difficult to sustain among divorced parents. Our results provide some support that children may not be impacted by disengaged or conflictual coparenting and call for a deeper look into how different types of coparenting (i.e., cooperative, parallel) may be beneficial. Divorce education programs should also ensure that they are addressing contact between parents and children.
Obviously, more research is needed on the effects of coparenting “styles” and children’s wellbeing. We call for researchers and parent educators to explore how angry and uncooperative parents manage to raise children as effectively as coparents who seem to be working together well. Maybe it is the quality of the coparents’ relationships with their children that matters the most after divorce, and not their relationships with each other.
Beckmeyer, J. J., Coleman, M., & Ganong, L. H. (2014). Postdivorce coparenting typologies and children’s adjustment. Family Relations, 63, 526-537.
Ganong, L. H., Coleman, M., Jamison, T., Feistman, R., & Markham, M. S. (2012). Communication technology and post-divorce coparenting. Family Relations, 61, 397-409.
Markham, M. S., Hartenstein, J. L., Mitchell, Y. T., & Aljayyousi-Khalil, G. (2017). Communication among parents who share physical custody after divorce or separation. Journal of Family Issues, 38, 1414-1442.
Troilo, J. (2016). Conceptualizations of divorced fathers and interventions to support involvement. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 5, 299 – 316.
Jessica Troilo is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator of Child Development and Family Studies in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development at West Virginia University. Jonathon Beckmeyer is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the School of Public Health, Indiana University. Melinda Markham is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Kansas State University.
So we set out to find out what was really going on. We particularly wanted to know about generational changes in attitudes. Are young people still the beacon of new and progressive ideas, or do Millennials, having watched their parents struggle with two-paycheck families, now yearn for the simplicity of a Fathers Knows Best world where men go to work and mothers bake after-school cookies? To that end, we analyzed responses from over 27,000 people surveyed by the General Social Survey from 1977 through 2016 to examine how gender attitudes have changed over the past 40 years, and whether each generation is more liberal, or if younger people yearn for the less harried past.
What we found is that truly traditional people, those who do not believe in equal rights for women at home or at work, have nearly disappeared. In 1977, less than a quarter of the population felt women and men should be equal. Back then, the majority of Americans supported very traditional roles for women and men. They felt that women were unsuited for politics and that they should focus on raising children and not participate in the labor force. By 2016 these traditional views were virtually non-existent, with only 7% of the population holding such beliefs. The proportion of those with egalitarian beliefs has tripled to 69% of the population. In forty years we have gone from just a quarter to more than two-thirds of Americans believing in gender equality at both work and home. Given that men have ruled the public sphere throughout human history, the pace of change has actually been quite startling. While there have been ebbs and flows, particularly at the turn of this century, egalitarian beliefs have increased over the years, and recent trends indicate that they will only continue to become more common.
The second big finding, not so surprising, is that those traditional people didn’t all become enthusiastic feminists. Those who held traditional views were replaced by individuals who support gender equality at work but not at home. We call these people ambivalent, because they embrace some but not all aspects of equality. The majority of these ambivalent people support women’s equal participation in the public sphere, but hold on to traditional beliefs about women’s responsibility for childrearing and family labor. A quarter of the population still hold such ambivalent views, but this shouldn’t overshadow the biggest finding, that more than two-thirds of Americans now fully endorse egalitarian beliefs.
What did we learn about generational change? Millennials are the generation most likely to hold egalitarian views. More than three-quarters of Millennials felt women and men should be equal in both the public sphere of work and the private sphere of the family. Indeed every generation is more liberal than the one before. The biggest jump in attitudes was between Baby-boomers and those that came before them. There was just a little change between Baby-boomers and Generation-X, but then Millennials are considerably more egalitarian then GenXers. So much for the myth that younger generations are tired of the struggle for equality!
So this is all good news. And we feel very lucky that our study has received a great deal of attention in the press in the last week. The New York Times kicked off the coverage of our new research with a very accurate, quite wonderful article by Claire Cain Miller. While that article was spot on, many others that have followed are somewhat misleading, at least the headlines. Now, we know journalists don’t write the headlines. But people do read them, and many people may only read them! And many of the titles about this research suggest that Americans value equality only at work, and not at home. There seems to be a strong cultural belief guiding press coverage, or at least headline writing, that suggests nothing gets better and denies that feminism has changed the world. Headlines in such places as the Economist, Working Mother and CNBC implied that our research highlighted the sad story of women’s continued oppression.
That’s not what we found at all. In fact, our data suggest that most Americans support equality at both work and home, while a minority of Americans, likely to be older, male, white, and less educated, are ambivalent about equality, supporting women’s rights at work, but wanting them to continue to shoulder the responsibilities at home. Every generation has become more liberal, and we have made amazing strides in just forty years.
We are honored that our research is being covered, and is now available for conversation among people who don’t take our classes! We are concerned, however, that this story about the failure of feminism has become so strong a narrative, that even data can’t move it. Let us be clear: our research suggests that after the second wave of feminism, attitudes have radically changed in support of gender equality. Yes, there are old white uneducated men out there who are still ambivalent, but most of us are not. Most Americans support gender equality, and the Millennials are the most egalitarian generation yet.
Of course, despite progress on attitudes toward gender equality, we continue to see much sexism all around us. The #meetoo movement has revealed how deeply male privilege to women’s bodies is embedded in our culture, in men’s attitudes and behaviors. The 2016 presidential election proved that open hostility to women’s rights was no impediment to election to the highest office in the land. And the pace of change for women’s equality at work, from wage-gaps to sex segregation of the labor force, has indeed stalled.
Gender discrimination exists but what our research shows is that norms that justify it are changing. Now it’s time to make sure the laws, policies and regulations that shape our everyday experiences change too. As norms change, as more women are elected to political office, and as fathers take a more active part in parenting, we need our political institutions, and our workplaces to change. Mothers need to breastfeed on the Senate floor, fathers need paternity leave to do their share of infant care. Imagine the progress we’d see if there were family policies for egalitarian parents who want to live their values without having to contend with societal impediments that stand in the way of the gender equality. Most Americans want public policy that supports employed parents and women’s rights.
For now, let’s be pleased at how far we have come changing American attitudes. Let’s honor the incredible successes of the 2nd wave of feminism. We can do that even as we acknowledge how much more work needs to be done to continue to push our society toward a future where men and women, mothers and fathers, actually have equal opportunities at work and at home.
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families. William Scarborough is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Starting in fall, 2019, he will be an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. Ray Sin is a Behavioral Scientist at Morningstar. He holds a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago.His research draws from psychology, economics and sociology to better understand economic behavior.
In the absence of clear pathways to citizenship, undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants who came to the United States as children, commonly known as “Dreamers,” tend to live in more complex and less stable households than their documented or native-born counterparts, according to a new study.
Prior research has shown the widespread impact that lack of legal status has on immigrants’ economic and social well-being, including reduced likelihood of finishing high school, concentration in dangerous jobs, and lower pay for their labor. Combined with the constant threat of deportation, these vulnerabilities undercut the health and well-being of undocumented Latinos. In “Living Arrangements and Household Complexity among Undocumented Latino Immigrants,” Matthew Hall, Kelly Musick, and I provide the first national estimates of the living arrangements of this group and compare their experiences to those of other racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups.
Our study compared the composition, size, and stability of the households of unauthorized immigrants, documented immigrants, and U.S.-born groups, and examined the extent of these groups’ shared family and residential ties. It used nationally representative data from the 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which include sufficiently large samples of Latino immigrants, information about legal status, and measures of all relationships among household members.
Results show that undocumented migrants are less likely than other groups at similar life stages to live in simple arrangements, exclusively with partners and/or children, and much more likely to co-reside with extended family and non-family members. Their households are also characterized by higher levels of instability, as they change membership, size, and form more frequently than other Latino families.
Undocumented Latinos who were living in the U.S. before age 15 are significantly less likely than documented Latinos and U.S.-born Latinos to be living with just a partner or a partner and children, at 47 percent compared with 55 and 52 percent, respectively.
They are also twice as likely to live with nonrelatives as other groups (including documented Latinos), at 14 percent compared to about 7 percent.
Undocumented migrants are less likely to live with immediate family members, and highly likely to live with extended family members. As many as one-quarter share a household with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and more distant extended kin, compared with just 12 percent of documented Latinos.
The average undocumented Latino lives in households with more people, on average 3.1 adults and 2 children, compared with 2.7 adults for similarly-aged documented Latinos.
Undocumented migrants’ household size and composition, along with counts of adults, children, and families, exhibit substantially (and significantly) higher rates of change across waves than all other legal/racial groups, including documented Latinos.
Other research finds that undocumented immigrants are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, less likely to be homeowners (Hall and Greenman 2014), and more likely to be making residential decisions within contexts of significant economic and social constraint (Asad and Rosen 2018). Taken together, these findings illustrate the volatility that distinguishes the daily lives of those who lack authorization status in the U.S. The uncertainty associated with the absence of legal authorization destabilizes the family life of undocumented immigrants and others – including U.S.-born citizen children who may be living in their households.
Our study, as well as the other work cited here, sheds much-needed light on some aspects of the lives of those affected by their documentation disadvantage. However, it is critical to note that our analysis cannot speak to the heightened precariousness of Dreamers’ lives due to uncertainty about the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Our analyses are also unable to reflect the experiences of the thousands of people who are not included in household data because they are being detained and placed in foster arrangements as part of U.S. family separation and immigrant detention policies. Other research indicates that the looming threat of deportation and detention has consequences for the living arrangements of even U.S.-born citizen children living in households, so there is reason to believe that the current social and political climate may already be compounding the household and family instability and complexity of those who are undocumented (Amuedo-Dorantes and Arenas-Arroyo 2018).
Providing Dreamers with pathways toward permanent residence and the cessation of family separation and institutionalization policies could stabilize and strengthen family life and promote the wellbeing of future generations of immigrant families.
Child support enforcement aims to increase child well-being by ensuring that noncustodial parents contribute to children’s material well-being. Yet owing child support debt puts nonresident parents at risk for going to jail, triggering potentially negative collateral consequences, particularly on children. Understanding more about jail for child support nonpayment, therefore, is important for child well-being.
Enforcing child support orders is connected to both the welfare and criminal justice systems. When a parent with a child support order receives public assistance, some of the child support goes to the state rather than all of it going directly to the parent. In fact, about one quarter of the approximately $144 billion in child support debt is owed to the state to reimburse welfare payments.
About 70 percent of the 15 million open child support cases owe debt. Noncustodial parents who fail to make their court-ordered child support payments can be found in contempt of court and incarcerated for their failure to pay. Being jailed for child support debt is a multistep process. Noncustodial parents must first live apart from their children; next, they need to have a formal child support order; next, they need to accrue child support debt. Only this last group is at risk of going to jail for not paying their child support debt.
Both the state—because it can recoup some of the costs of public assistance—and custodial parents who are owed child support have incentives to pursue child support debt. Jailing for child support nonpayment is just one of many mechanisms of child support enforcement, but little is known about how frequently this tactic is used or against whom.
The quality of the relationship between the mother and father of the child could shape a parent’s progress into becoming at risk for jail for child support debt. Many custodial parents are owed child support debt, but not all pursue this debt. A mother might seek to enforce a child support order against the father of their child when the relationship between them is poor or when either parent has moved on with a new partner or new children.
Similarly, conflict and mistrust between parents is one reason fathers give for their hesitation to pay child support. Also, when a father has a new partner and children, he often “starts over” with this new family, which could result in a lower investment in the first partner and children. This family complexity may also affect his ability to pay, as new residential children must compete with his other nonresidential children for family resources.
This brief describes a study of who goes to jail for nonpayment of child support, focusing on the factors that make it more likely for someone to be sent to jail for child support debt. Data come from four waves of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), a sample of nearly 5,000 families, when focal children were ages one, three, five, and nine years.
53% of children in the FFCW sample had a nonresident father by the time they were 9 years old (most noncustodial parents in the FFCW sample were male; the number of noncustodial mothers in the FFCW sample was too small for analysis).
52% of nonresident fathers had a formal child support order
60% of fathers with child support orders had child support debt
14% of fathers with child support debt – 1 in 7– were jailed for that debt (see figure)
Two main factors increase the risk to go to jail for unpaid child support.
Amount of money owed: Dads owing more than $10,000 in child support debt are more than three times as likely to go to jail for unpaid child support, compared to those owing less than $500.
Children with other women: Dads who have children by more than one mother have 60% higher odds of going to jail for unpaid child support, compared to those with children by only one mother.
In addition, fathers are more likely to have a formal child support order and accrue child support debt if the moms have received public assistance and there is conflict in their relationship with the mom.
This figure shows the multistep process of being in the pool of noncustodial fathers1 at risk of being jailed for child support debt and who among child support debtors are more likely to go to jail.
1 Findings focus exclusively on noncustodial fathers; noncustodial mothers in the FFCW is too small for analysis.
The child support enforcement system is a civil entity which may refer noncustodial parents for nonpayment of child support to the courts. Most frequently, these are civil courts, which may not provide the same due process protections as criminal courts, such as the right to a court-appointed attorney. This study estimated that 14% of child support debtors were jailed for nonpayment of child support. Extrapolating this figure to the full population of child support debtors (11 million individuals in 2014), this means as many as 1.5 million parents could be getting sent to jail for unpaid child support. These incarcerations could constitute a huge financial cost to the state.
Parental incarceration could also have negative impacts on children. Child support policy aims to increase the wellbeing of children by ensuring that both parents contribute to their upbringing. However, incarcerating parents for nonpayment of child support could be triggering negative consequences for children—contrary to the child support system’s stated goal.
Cozzolino, E. (2018). Who goes to jail for child support debt? PRC Research Brief 3(6). DOI: 10.15781/T21834K7X.
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF DDRIG 1628128) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development training grant T32HD007081. Infrastructure support for the Population Research Center at The University of Texas was provided by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD042849). The paper on which this brief is based was awarded the 2018 Parker Frisbie Graduate Student Paper Competition for the best graduate student paper addressing pressing issues in demographic research and population science. This award was founded in honor of the many contributions Dr. Frisbie made in establishing the PRC as one the most highly-esteemed NICHD-supported population centers in the U.S., and in recognition of his contributions as a teacher and mentor.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. CCF seeks to enhance the national understanding of how and why families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.