The Council on Contemporary Families just released the 5th edition of Unconventional Wisdom. This collection of plain-English research abstracts and ideas has pieces you’ll want to know more about, some you’ll argue with, and many that will, as the title suggests, surprise you. This is a heads up to you: don’t miss this nice work, a volume edited by Stephanie Coontz and Joshua Coleman.

Two pieces grabbed my attention. Sociologist Wendy Manning from Bowling Green State University wrote about premarital cohabitation and divorce risk. Old news = cohabitation was associated with higher odds of divorce. New news = that stuff about cohabitation and divorce is old news. In particular, writes Manning, “when we looked at couples married since 1996, we found that this older association no longer prevails. For couples married since the mid-1990s, cohabitation before marriage is not associated with an elevated risk of marital dissolution. In fact, among a subgroup of women facing the greatest risk of divorce, cohabitation with definite plans to marry at the outset was tied to lower levels of marital instability.” Check it out. 

Meanwhile, in a grounded, empirical, and de-facto retort to recent much-ado about mothers and the dignity (or not) of work, demographer Suzanne Bianchi (UCLA) reports that “Mothers today work during pregnancy more often and return to work much sooner after the birth of a child than did mothers half a century ago…. More dramatic [is] the change in the speed at which women returned to work after the birth of their child…. By 2001-03, 42 percent of such mothers were back at work three months after the child’s birth. The majority of first-time moms (55 percent) were back at work six months after the birth, and almost two-thirds (64 percent) had returned to the job by the child’s first birthday.”

You see, the “dignity of work” that Mitt Romney talked about a few years back is beside the point. So is the notion that we need to honor women’s choices. Work and family are about all of us, and not special category for women, or women who are mothers, or whatever. It is just not that optional nor is it about character or values nearly so much as about culture. If there are puzzles about work and family, they aren’t about women, the puzzles are about how we structure work, and how we support families. Keep looking for the evidence, like that provided by Bianchi and Manning, and you’ll see that unconventional wisdom gives us the new conventions.

-Virginia Rutter