Cover of book

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on food and inequality in the United States. Over the past eighteen months, we’ve witnessed alarming upticks in hunger, the widening of food insecurity disparities, and sweeping efforts by the federal government to address the impacts of economic hardship on families’ diets and nutrition.

But nutritional inequality was a pressing problem long before the pandemic. The nutritional gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has existed for decades and continues to grow: while the rich continue to make gains nutritionally, the diets of lower income families have largely stagnated.

Yet despite the widespread knowledge that nutritional inequality is a crisis helping to fuel broader health disparities, we still lack an in-depth understanding of this inequality’s root causes. Indeed, the most commonly-held culprit for dietary disparities, food deserts, have disappointingly turned out to be hardly any culprit at all.

For the past decade, the food desert narrative has held that families living in food deserts, or low-income neighborhoods with a dearth of supermarkets, don’t have access to healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables), and are left with no choice but to eat the less healthy foods they can access.

But mounting research on food access and food deserts actually tell a dramatically different story. This growing body of work suggests that differences in food access account for just 10 percent of the nutritional gap between rich and poor.

If food access disparities don’t drive nutritional inequality, then what does?

This question is at the heart of my new book, How the Other Half Eats. The book draws on years of field research I conducted with families across income levels, including one hundred sixty interviews with parents and kids, and hundreds of hours of observations of families’ dietary practices.

What I learned through my time with families was that the causes of nutritional inequality go far beyond food access. It isn’t just access to healthy food that shapes families’ diets, but also food’s meanings to families.

In my book, I show how and why food means something dramatically different to mothers raising their children in poverty compared to those doing the same in affluent contexts. These different – and generally overlooked – meanings are central to the story of why families with diverging resources eat so differently.

Across the income spectrum, the mothers I met understood that junk food was not an ideal choice for kids. Most moms would have preferred their kids skip the soda and Cheetos. But I also  observed that mothers’ feeding practices and food choices for their children weren’t solely based on nutritional value. Rather, these choices often related far more to food’s symbolic value to mothers.

For low-income mothers raising their children in poverty, ongoing financial scarcity often meant having to say no to a lot of children’s food requests: no to new clothes, water park tickets, and family vacations. Within this context of no, food was often one of the few things that low-income moms could actually say yes to their kids about in daily life. There was generally always a dollar lying around that could be put toward a can of Coke or a Twix bar. Saying yes offered low-income moms a chance to offer love and affection to their children – to show their kids they were heard and cared about, and that they would work to honor their preferences. Saying yes, in turn, helped bolster low-income moms’ sense of worth; it offered them proof, in a world that so often cast them as irresponsible caregivers, that they were still good moms.

In contrast, I observed higher-income moms saying no far more often to their kids’ junk food requests. These denials were similarly rooted in food’s symbolic meaning to moms. Raising kids in affluent contexts meant that these mothers often had more things that they could say yes to their kids about on a daily basis, whether it was a new pair of jeans or a replacement for a shattered phone screen. For these mothers, because there was so much to say yes to, saying no was far less emotionally distressing. What’s more, as much as saying yes reflected low-income moms’ commitments to doing right by their kids, the same was true for their more affluent counterparts. Saying no was how these moms showed themselves and others that they were committed to their children’s diets and health – that they were good moms.

Our conversations about – and proposed solutions – nutritional inequality in this country need to take these symbolic meanings into account.

Indeed, my research suggests that it’s time to move beyond conversations narrowly focused on food access. Certainly, ensuring that every family has geographic and financial access to healthy food is key to solving this crisis. But we should consider access a necessary but insufficient prerequisite to nutritional equity, rather than the entire solution.

Instead, to close the dietary gap, can we take collective steps to help shift the meaning of food to low-income families? How can we take societal responsibility to make it so that a bag of Cheetos isn’t one of the only things a mom can offer her child amidst a backdrop of scarcity?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one solution lies in addressing poverty itself. Elevating families out of poverty – and providing them with financial security and stability – can help reduce the symbolic weight of kids’ junk food requests.

Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted that we have the power to boost families’ economically. Over the past year, we’ve seen how increases in SNAP and unemployment benefits and the wide distribution of child tax credits and stimulus checks have significantly improved families’ economic conditions – even lifted millions of families out of poverty. The resources are there to solve nutritional inequality; now it’s up to us to use them. The health and well-being of American families depends on it.

Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh

Priya Fielding-Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, where she researches, teaches, and writes about families, health, and inequality in America. Her new book, How the Other Half Eats, will be published November 16th. You can find her on Twitter at @priyafsingh.

American masculinity has been in a slow-moving crisis for decades. This seems bizarre in a country where men have an uninterrupted 46 and 0 streak of winning the Presidency, control 73 percent of Congress, and 92 percent of Fortune 500 companies, to say nothing of earning (depending on how you calculate it) 10 to 22 percent more per hour than women for the same work. Women making up 8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, or 27 percent of Congress may not seem like anything to cheer about, but these figures represent high water points in the US, and movement like these has led an increasing number of men to believe that they are facing discrimination on the basis of their sex. When you’ve been on top for a few hundred years, movement towards equality feels like discrimination, and in the face of that perceived discrimination, men are acting out.

This matters because so much of the way men in the US construct their masculinity is based on economic and social dominance. So, when those ways of asserting their gender identity stop being available to them, they find other sometimes novel ways to demonstrate their masculinity. Many pre-modern societies had set ways for men to show their gender identities, rituals that marked the passage between boy and man. In the US today, we still have some notion of these rituals: being a man means being married, having children (or at least the capacity to do so), and providing for that family as the primary breadwinner. The problem is that these ways of asserting masculinity are increasingly outdated, forcing men to find new ways to assert their gender identities.  

Our new book, Gender Threat, looks at the ways men assert their masculinity under conditions of threat to their gender identities. Those threats can be specific, like starting to earn less money than a spouse, or more diffuse, like the possibility of a woman being elected President. Men who see such changes as being a threat to their gender identities – and not all men do – feel the need to assert their masculinity in some other way in order to compensate.

While assertions of masculinity have been a part of political campaigns throughout US history, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for President in 2016 seems to have served as a different kind of threat to many men’s gender identities. Especially given that her run for the Presidency was set in sharp relief by the gender-based appeals of her opponent, gender identity threat among men led them to support the Republican candidate, rather than Clinton. But this wasn’t a case of men becoming more conservative in the face of threats to their masculinity – although that happens as well – as threat did not make them less likely to support Clinton’s more liberal primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Nor did the political impacts of threatened gender identity stop there: even in the 2020 primary and general elections, the effects of masculinity, and threats to it, were evident.

Many of these compensatory behaviors are socially undesirable. For instance, threats to married men’s earnings relative to women are linked to increases in reports of workplace sexual harassment. When men feel like they have lost on avenue to assert their gender identities (e.g. breadwinner status), they find another (e.g. by demonstrating their gender to other men in their workplace).

Other compensatory behaviors seem to be tied to social norms. For instance, we demonstrate that economic threat to men leads to increases in gun purchases (as measured through background checks): but the effects are much larger in states where there are already many guns in circulation. Similarly, we show that threats to gender identity in the form of questioning a man’s sexuality lead to an increase in the number of men identifying as born again or evangelical Christians. But again, this seems concentrated in certain parts of the country. Having a firearm, or saying that you’re part of a more traditional religious group might be an effective way to demonstrate masculinity, but only in areas where those signals are common enough to be recognized by others.

Men’s gender identities, and their perceptions of threats to them, shape the way that men live their lives: what housework they do or refuse to do: how much pornography they consume and what kinds; the relationships they have with their partners and their children. While this has always been the case, recent Presidential elections and resistance to public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that these aren’t personal issues, but matters of public concern.

The good news is that masculinity is flexible. Men can and have found ways to assert their gender identities that are socially desirable: they can show mastery and risk-taking by cooking exotic or challenging foods; they can focus on being parents or preserving the health of their families; or even being leaders in their community. All of these behaviors are contextual, and societies can shape the way that men express their masculinity, pushing them towards ways that benefit everyone. Studying gender is often synonymous with studying women; but we think that understanding where our society is, and where it’s going necessarily means understanding men.

Dan Cassino is a professor of Government and Politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the Executive Director of the FDU Poll. You can follow them on Twitter @DanCassino

Yasemin Besen-Cassino is professor and Chair of Sociology at Montclair State University. She also currently serves as the editor of Contemporary Sociology. You can follow them on Twitter @besencassino

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Reposted with permission from Psychology Today

  1. Blaming the parent. While it’s potentially forgivable that the general populace doesn’t yet know that a decent and dedicated parent can become estranged, there’s no excuse for a therapist failing to know that. Many therapists, without evidence, assume that the parent is the primary cause of an estrangement and as a result, perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt.
  2. Not helping the parent acknowledge the legitimate complaints of the adult child. On the other hand, some therapists believe that it’s their job to support the parent no matter how problematic their behavior. In doing so, they fail to challenge the parent’s behavior that either led to the estrangement or continues to perpetuate it.
  3. Giving bad advice. It’s not uncommon for therapists to encourage estranged parents to be overly assertive or confrontive with their estranged adult children. This advice imagines that the parent has more power and influence than they commonly do once an estrangement is in place. Therapists with this orientation fail to recognize that being more assertive and confrontive with an estranged adult child typically worsens, rather than betters the parent’s situation. It causes the adult child to feel hurt or misunderstood and to further their resolve to keep their distance.
  4. Failing to understand the power of a letter of amends to the estranged adult child. The road to a potential reconciliation almost always starts with the parent’s acknowledgment of their past mistakes, however small. Therapists who don’t help their clients find the kernel of truth in the estranged child’s complaints miss a critical and often necessary opportunity for repair.
  5. Being too reassuring. It’s common that not only friends but therapists are overly reassuring about the chance for a future reconciliation: “They’ll be back;” “They’ll remember all that you’ve done for them;” “It’s just a phase.” While sometimes those predictions are accurate, no one knows for sure if or when an estrangement will end. False reassurance is no assurance at all. Better to help the client practice radical acceptance and self-compassion.
  6. Failing to take an adequate history of the parent and their estranged child. It’s inappropriate to give advice to an estranged parent without first getting a detailed developmental history of the parent and of the now-grown child. Otherwise, a therapist wouldn’t be able to determine the influence of parental mistakes or the influence of long-standing issues in the child such as learning disabilities, mental illness, addiction, or other challenges.
  7. Failing to understand the power of a motivated son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The troubled spouse of an adult child can create an estrangement where one wouldn’t ordinarily exist by saying, “Choose them or me.”
  8. Failing to understand the long-term impact and damage of parental alienation. Parental alienation often begins when children are young, though alienation can occur at any age. Either way, research shows that the damage may be lifelong to both the targeted parent and the alienated child. Therapists who are unfamiliar with these realities may damage the self-esteem of their clients and fail to provide them with an accurate understanding of the etiology of the problems. In addition, they may provide strategies and interventions that are counter to what is likely to increase the chance of a reconciliation.
  9. Being unwilling to interview people related to the estrangement. Sometimes a 360-degree view is required before the right intervention is discovered. This may mean interviewing aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even ex-spouses to determine what steps need to be put in place to maximize the chance of a potential reconciliation.
  10. Not being willing to reach out to the estranged adult child. While the estranged child may be unwilling to talk to the parent, they are often willing to provide the parent’s therapist with information about their perspective that can prove critical to a potential reconciliation.

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is a psychologist in San Francisco and Oakland. He is also a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His book, The Rules of Estrangement was published by Penguin/Random House in 2020.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation

Young gay couple lying on bed in bedroom. Enjoying in morning. Wearing pajamas. Caucasian ethnicity, blond hair.

Sexual identities and sexual behaviours don’t always match because sexuality is multidimensional. Many people recognize sexual fluidity, and some even identify as “mostly straight.”

Fewer people know that some men and women have same-sex encounters, yet nonetheless perceive themselves as exclusively straight. And these people are not necessarily “closeted” gays, lesbians or bisexuals.

When a closeted gay or bisexual man has sex with another man, he views that sex as reflecting his secret identity. He is not open about that identity, likely because he fears discrimination. When a straight man has sex with another man, however, he views himself as straight despite his sex with men.

In my book, Still Straight: Sexual Flexibility among White Men in Rural America, I investigate why some men who identify as straight have sex with other men. Large nationally representative surveys show that hundreds of thousands of straight American men — at least — have had sex with two or more other men. This finding represents a disconnect between identity and behaviour, and researchers from around the world – in the United States, Australia and the U.K. – have studied this topic.

Do experts have something to add to public debate?

It involves two related but separate issues: first, why men identify as straight if they have sex with other men, and second, why straight men would have sex with other men in the first place.

Skirting around cheating

As part of my research, I spoke with 60 straight men who have sex with other men, and specifically looked at men in rural areas and small towns. The majority of men I interviewed were primarily attracted to women, not men. So why would they have sex with other men?

My findings revealed several reasons as to why straight men have sex with other men. Several men explained that their marriages did not have as much sex as they wanted, and while they wanted to remain married, they also wanted to have more sex. Extramarital sex with men, to them, helped relieve their sexual needs without threatening their marriages.

Tom, a 59-year-old from Washington, explained: “I kind of think of it as, I’m married to a nun.” He continued: “For me, being romantic and emotional is more cheating than just having sex.” And Ryan, a 60-year-old from Illinois, felt similarly. He said: “Even when I have an encounter now, I’m not cheating on her. I wouldn’t give up her for that.”

These men felt as though extramarital sex with women would negatively affect their marriages, whereas extramarital sex with men was not as much of an issue. Most men had not told their wives about their extramarital sex, however.

Legs together in bed
Straight men who have sex with other men are not necessarily closeted, because they do genuinely see themselves as heterosexual. (Shutterstock)

Identities reflect sexual, nonsexual aspects of life

In order to answer why men would identify as straight despite having sex with other men, it’s important to know that sexual identities indicate how people perceive the sexual and nonsexual aspects of their lives. Connor, a 43-year-old from Oregon, noted:

“I think there’s a definite disconnect between gay and homosexual. There’s the homosexual community, which isn’t a community, there’s the homosexual proclivity, and then the gay community. It’s like you can be an athlete without being a jock. And you can be homosexual without being gay, or into all of it. It just becomes so politically charged now.”

The men I talked to identified as straight because they felt that this identity best reflected their romantic relationships with women, their connections to heterosexual communities or the way they understood their masculinity. Straight identification also, of course, meant that they avoided discrimination. They felt that sex with men was irrelevant to their identities given every other part of their lives.

Living in small towns and in more rural settings also shaped how the men perceived themselves. Larry, 37, from Wyoming explained: “I would say straight because that best suits our cultural norms around here.” Most of the men I talked to were happy with their lives and identities, and they did not want to identify as gay or bisexual — not when people asked them, and not to themselves.

It may come as a surprise, but internalized homophobia was not a major reason the men I spoke to identified as straight. Most supported equal legal rights for lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Other research also shows that, on average, straight men who have sex with men are not any more homophobic than other straight men. Additionally, while most men knew bisexual is a valid identity, they felt that bisexual did not describe their identity because they were only romantically interested in women.

Many factors beyond sexual attractions or behaviours shape sexual identification, including social contexts, romantic relationships and beliefs about masculinity and femininity, among others. Straight men who have sex with other men are not necessarily closeted, because they do genuinely see themselves as heterosexual.

Sexual encounters with men simply do not affect how they perceive their identity.

Tony Silva received funding from the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN) in the form of a postdoctoral fellowship that allowed him to turn this project into a book.

Tony Silva is an assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia. You can find him on Twitter @Sociology_Silva

Pregnant Lady Crying Covering Face With Hands Sitting On Sofa At Home.

The expansion of contraception over the last several decades has made it possible for more people to avoid having a child, or another child, when they don’t want one.

But, contraceptive access is far from universal, and contraceptives—and the humans who use them—aren’t perfect, so unintended pregnancies still make up almost half of all pregnancies worldwide. Barriers to abortion—in many parts of the world, strict legal barriers—mean that pregnant people have no option but to keep the pregnancy.

So, what happens when someone becomes pregnant unintentionally and must carry it to term? Does it harm their health? It’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer in a scientifically sound way because it takes both a significant amount of time and specific types of data that are not typically collected. Given these constraints, a few studies have tried creative approaches; for example, one compared the health of women who were denied an abortion in the U.S. to that of women who were able to obtain one just under the gestational limit.

Rather than focus on the extreme case of carrying a pregnancy after having sought an abortion, we opted to study a general population of women to develop a broader sense of the implications of unintended pregnancies for those who give birth. This allowed us to study not only the diverse group of women who had an unintended birth, but also women who had an intended birth, as well as the many women who were able to avoid getting pregnant all together.

We focused our study on Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa where fertility is high and abortion is heavily restricted. We followed women ages 15 to 25 over six years, interviewing them frequently about their fertility desires, offering them pregnancy tests, and studying their health over time.

What did we find? Unintended pregnancies were common among women in our study. Importantly, and consistent with other research, not all women responded negatively to these pregnancies. When we asked women how they felt about their unintended pregnancy soon after they learned of it, we found that although many women were distressed, others were okay—and even happy—with the unexpected outcome.

Women’s distinct responses to their unintended pregnancies proved to be more than just offhand reactions. Negative feelings helped distinguish the women whose health declined in the 3 to 5 years after they gave birth. But what about the women who had a positive reaction to the pregnancy? These women didn’t fare any worse than comparison groups (see Figure).

Encouragingly, our study suggests that—even in a part of the world with high maternal morbidity and widespread poverty—certain unintended births are not harmful for women’s health. Women who welcome an unintended pregnancy exhibit resiliency and the ability to cope with the unanticipated development.

Also good news is that asking people how they feel about their unintended pregnancy is a simple piece of information that clinicians can easily collect and use in their efforts to counsel pregnant women on their options going forward. For those who feel bad about an unintended pregnancy, ensuring they have the option to terminate their pregnancy would allow them to protect their own health, and by extension, their family’s health. Unfortunately, many people around the globe, as well as increasing numbers in the U.S., lack access to safe and accessible abortion care, meaning that they will have little choice but to continue the unintended pregnancies that are most likely to do them harm.

Finally, when women continue their pregnancies—whether through choice or necessity—healthcare professionals should also ask them their feelings about the pregnancy in pre- and post-natal care. These feelings are important harbingers of the pregnancy’s consequences and, when necessary, should trigger additional counseling and resources to support women and their children.

Acknowledgements: This research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R03-HD097360, R01-HD058366, R01-HD077873) and by the NICHD-funded University of Colorado Population Center (P2C HD066613).

Sara Yeatman (sara.yeatman@ucdenver.edu) is Professor of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver. She researches the causes and consequences of unintended fertility in the United States and Malawi. You can find them at Twitter @sarayeatman

Emily Smith-Greenaway (smithgre@usc.edu) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California. Her research centers on understanding social and health inequality.  You can find them on Twitter @smithgreenaway

Reposted with Permission from USA Today.

Imagine spending decades trying to unlock doors to secure your loved ones’ survival. You pull at frozen doorknobs, bang on doors, camp out waiting for them to open, try charming the bouncer to let you in. Finding the door often requires navigating a maze of dim corridors. You hit detours and dead ends. Sometimes you succeed and pass through. But inevitably, you encounter another locked door.

Then one day, imagine your incredible fortune. You receive a magical key that unlocks every door. The only catch – this golden period lasts one brief week. And the beloved person you are trying to save will die at the end of those seven days.

This may sound like a cruel fairy tale or an impossible video game. But this scenario reflects reality for millions of Americans like me trying to obtain lifesaving health care for ourselves and those we love. When my father was dying from metastatic lung cancer in May, the ease of accessing end-of-life care, services and medical equipment through a home hospice program felt like receiving a magical key that unlocked doors we had tried to break down for years.

Complexity fuels health inequities

Why does the most accessible health care of my father’s life come only at the end? It doesn’t have to be this hard. My father’s one week in hospice pried my eyes open to how much better our fragmented American health care system could function if we eased the “administrative burdens” that stymie patients, families and their health care providers.

In their powerful treatise, professors Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan define administrative burdens as “onerous” experiences people face when trying to access government benefits and social services. People struggle with learning, compliance and psychological costs when attempting to determine their eligibility, keep their benefits and endure the stigma of using them, a shame unique to the United States with its meritocracy myth and threadbare social safety net. These burdens disproportionately harm those with less money and education and lower cognitive reserves.

U.S. health care is riddled with these burdens. Policy experts point to ballooning administrative costs as one reason our system falters when compared with other countries that deliver better, cheaper, more expansive care.

In upcoming negotiations on a Democratic spending bill, as we press for increased funding for proposed home care expansions and Medicare coverage for vision, hearing and dental services, we must also ease the administrative burdens that inflict so much misery on American families and fuel racial, ethnic and income inequality in health outcomes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. life expectancy plunged 1.5 years last year, the largest decrease since World War II. Racial and ethnic minorities experienced steeper declines, with African Americans and Latinos losing about three years of life expectancy. The pandemic widened this gulf, but such disparities stem from accumulated lifetime disadvantage, including disproportionate burdens accessing health services. Economic deprivation, racial discrimination and persistent health inequities result in reduced life expectancy, more years of disability and poorer health for minorities.

Hospice demonstrates we can reduce health care administrative burdens while improving care for patients and family caregivers and saving money by keeping patients out of hospitals. Medicare covered my father’s hospice care with zero co-pays. I’ve never applied “easy” to anything health care-related, but freed from bureaucratic hurdles for my father’s care, the Staples tagline (“Wow, that was easy”) played on repeat in my head.

Hospice provides unexpected relief

As if all the declines of old age compressed into a month, Dad went from walking to a wheelchair in a week. We raced to keep up with his changing needs and faced egregious barriers in this sprint before his hospice admission. As my father struggled into taxis for numerous appointments, we sought paratransit services from Access-A-Ride. He would have had to travel to an in-person assessment to prove he couldn’t walk and wait weeks for a decision. I wisely held off on filling out a ream of eligibility paperwork. He died six weeks before the evaluation I knew he would never make.

Accessing virtual medical care required downloading an NYU Langone Health app on a smartphone that neither I nor my father owned. Unable to attend the appointment on my laptop, a receptionist informed me that my father, with tumors eating at his lungs, brain, liver and bones, had to come in. He canceled.

Death shouldn’t offer the only escape from these burdens. Hospice provided us with prompt consultation from a 24-hour number; house calls from nurses, a doctor and a social worker; medications delivered. After weeks trying to secure my father’s wheelchair, a hospice-ordered walker, hospital chair and bed, cane, adjustable bedside table, oxygen tank and assorted medical supplies arrived within a day.

Days before, we had poured hours into comparison shopping for a commode, urinal, toilet seat lift and underpads we bought ourselves. Had my father lived longer, we’d have used the weekly 15-hour allotment for home care services, ordinarily not covered by Medicare without meeting convoluted eligibility requirements. Dad’s hospice admission entitled me and my sisters to a year of bereavement counseling, which I’ve begun. Easy.

Administrative burdens harm patients and families forced to navigate a system unnecessarily complex by design. Detours and dead ends rob us of precious time and energy drained hunting down care. How many give up from exhaustion and forced exits?

Accumulated burdens undermine trust in key institutions and drive growing health inequality. They undergird negative interactions with our health care system that feed the avoidable crises we face now, such as vaccine hesitancy hardening into resistance for some. Easing our burdens doesn’t require magic but political will. Inertia is a policy choice we could never afford, but never more so than now.

Stacy Torres, is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco.

Good paid leave policies can help reduce the chaos associated with trying to balance work and family life

Paid leave is an increasingly popular and important issue in the United States. The problems associated with not having a national paid leave policy in the U.S. were clearly evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. As congressional leaders currently debate implementing a federal paid parental leave policy, it is important to reflect on the benefits of paid leave for society and how to design paid parental leave policies that will work for American workers.

The benefits of paid parental leave are well-known. Paid leave is associated with better health for parents and children, greater father involvement, and stronger coparenting relationships. Paid leave also helps businesses attract and retain productive employees. Paid leave may also facilitate greater gender equality within the U.S. Despite these benefits, workers are often discouraged from using leave due to our work-first culture. Specifically, taking leave signals that workers are less committed to their jobs, resulting in workers being stigmatized and penalized for taking leave.

While implementing a national paid parental leave policy is essential and long overdue, such a policy will only be useful if workers actually use paid leave and are not penalized for doing so. In a recent study published in Social Science Research, we sought to identify aspects of leave policy design and workplace culture that reduce the stigma associated with leave-taking. We conducted a survey experiment involving approximately 1,700 participants. We presented participants with an HR form detailing an employee’s inquiry about taking paid leave for the birth of a new child, and manipulated various aspects of the leave policy that the worker had had access to (length of leave offered, amount of wage replacement, whether the policy is a “parental” or gender-specific leave policy, and whether the policy is a state or company policy) and whether the workplace culture was supportive of leave-taking. Participants then reported on their perceptions of the leave-taking employee’s commitment to their job.

We find that both mothers and fathers experience a commitment penalty for taking paid parental leave, and penalties are higher when parents take longer leave. But, we find that perceived commitment varies by context. When paid leave is taken in a more supportive context – specifically when parents receive longer periods of paid leave and higher pay while on leave – perceived commitment is higher. Favorable leave policies may signal that organizations are willing to support their employees, which may in turn increase employee commitment. We find that perceived commitment is higher in organizations with favorable leave policies for all workers, regardless of workers’ leave-taking behaviors. As such, implementing better paid leave policies could help change our perceptions of workers.

We also find that perceived commitment is higher for fathers when there is a specific paternity leave policy and workplaces support leave-taking. Because fathers are less likely to take leave and may be uniquely penalized for valuing family over work, organizational context is particularly key for increasing the acceptance of fathers’ leave-taking. However, because favorable leave policies have a larger effect on perceived commitment for fathers than mothers, these policies actually exacerbate gender gaps in perceived commitment. That is, the gender gap in perceived commitment is greater within organizations with better leave policies than in organizations with less favorable leave policies. While this unintended consequence is concerning, more favorable leave policies may still help facilitate greater gender equality over the long-term if these policies encourage and enable more fathers to take leave and be engaged in their family life.

Passing a national paid leave policy is essential for providing needed support to millions of Americans who have caregiving responsibilities yet currently lack access to leave. Based on our experiment, relatively low wage replacement for some workers (as low as 66%) in the national proposal may affect perceived commitment. The lack of leave specific for fathers may also have the unintended consequence of perpetuating the idea that leave policies are for women and not men. As such, we must continue to not only increase access to leave, but to design policies and change the culture surrounding leave to enable more workers to take leave when needed and without penalty. By doing so, the benefits of paid leave for families, companies, and society can be better realized.

Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.

Trenton D. Mize is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. You can read more about his research at www.trentonmize.com and can follow him on Twitter @MizeTrenton.

Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College. You can read more about their research at www.gaylekaufman.com and can follow them on Twitter @gakaufman22.

Photo credit: Avery Walker

I am thrilled to announce that Dr. Alicia Walker has take over as the new editor of this blog. Dr. Walker is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University, and author of two books: The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity (Rowman & Littlefield,  2017) and Chasing Masculinity: Men, Validation and Infidelity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). More broadly her research focuses on concealed sexual practices, and I have been lucky enough to coauthor two articles with her – one on self-described heterosexual college students who hookup with same sex partners, and a forthcoming article on patterns of entry into BDSM. Below I interview Dr. Walker:

AK: Your research has been discussed widely in the media, and you have worked to help CCF in various capacities before now. Can you tell us about your experience with and commitment to Public Sociology?

AM: In order for our research to have a wider impact, it must reach a wider audience. We don’t just research for the benefit of other scholars. Yes, we research to answer our own questions, but we hope others have those questions as well. Having other scholars read and engage with your work is terrific. But I hope to produce scholarship that helps folks outside the academy as well.

Because I’ve been lucky enough to have my work discussed in the media, people sometimes reach out to let me know that they saw themselves in my work, or that my findings helped them make sense of their situation. Nothing moves me more than knowing that my work has touched someone, made their life easier, or helped them process their feelings. And that cannot happen if my work is only ever read by other scholars doing similar work.

When I published my first book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife: Power, Pragmatism, and Pleasure in Women’s Infidelity, I was just a couple years out of graduate school. But thankfully, someone involved with CCF took an interest in me and my work, which helped me engage with a wider audience. I have even written some blog posts for CCF about previous research.

I later entered the Twitterverse, which has also connected me with a wider audience as well. I’ve met such amazing people on Twitter.

Publication can’t be the final step in our research. We have to make sure our work reaches beyond other scholars in our field. Writing about it for blogs, tweeting about it, sharing our findings with journalists are all ways we can reach out and share what we’ve learned.

AK: What are your favorite sociology blogs and/or twitters to follow?

AM: There are so many terrific scholars on Twitter. I follow lists of nonbinary scholars, female scholars, and academic moms. I also maintain lists of scholars: sociologists, sex researchers, and other researchers. Twitter is a terrific place to meet new scholars and find out about newly published work. I follow a variety of scholars who study a wide range of topics and disciplines. As a result, I get exposed to research I wouldn’t otherwise see.

My favorite sociology blogs include Sociological Images and the Sociologist’s Dojo.


AK: What topics are you hoping to feature more on the CCF blog?

AM: I am excited to showcase researchers doing interesting work on topics of family, relationships, sexuality, childhood, race, non-heterosexual families and relationships, and the ways that gender comes to bear on those dynamics.

I’d love to showcase junior scholars as well as more senior researchers. I’m excited to connect with more scholars.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the chair of the Council of Contemporary Families and was editor of this blog from  2017-2021. Follow her on Twitter at @ATKuperberg.

Photo by author

A few days before Father’s Day in June 2021, I found myself in the greeting card aisle leafing through the rows of cards capitalizing on the celebration of men’s parenting. One in particular caught my attention. On the front was a pale-yellow image of a modern living room scene with an open pizza box on the coffee table and books and a stuffed teddy bear lying on the floor. The caption read: “Thanks for being the kind of dad who never refers to watching our kids as ‘babysitting’,” and upon opening, “You’re a good one. Happy Father’s Day.” Did the card represent progress by implying that “good” dads take for granted that caring for their own children is parenting, not babysitting? Or did it reflect the ever-low bar for fathering and the idea that men deserve appreciation when they do the bare minimum of carework?

My card conundrum took on special meaning given that 2021 marked the 111th annual Father’s Day, a holiday that can be traced back to Sonora Smart Dodd’s efforts to honor her father, a widower who single-handedly raised six children. It also marked 15 months – well over a full year – that many families had been working and learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a country where the vast majority of fathers take less than 10 days of paternity leave from paid work after the birth or adoption of a child, the pandemic was the first time many men spent most of their awake hours in the vicinity of their children. Historically, moms have done the bulk of childcare, homework help, and housework necessary to keep kids clean, educated, fed, and clothed. Has the pandemic changed that?

Photo by author

Much like with that Father’s Day card, the answer depends on how you look at it. The pandemic compelled many families to reevaluate the starkly lopsided gendered division of household and parenting labor. Early in the pandemic, both mothers and fathers reported that they were sharing housework and childcare more equitably. Lost jobs, income, and work hours meant more economic stress for families, while closed workplaces, schools, and daycares forced more paid and unpaid labor into the home. Fathers picked up some of the slack. But mothers picked up even more. And they didn’t always agree about who was doing how much. The pandemic certainly hasn’t closed the persistent gap between our cultural views of fatherhood that have long included expectations for men to be involved dads who provide care and time, not just money, and men’s actual parenting behaviors. The lag separating the culture and conduct of fatherhood that historian Ralph LaRossa described over three decades ago endures.

Yet, now over a year and a half into the pandemic, evidence suggests that we have reasons to celebrate. Fathers have spent more time with and felt closer to their children. They’ve gotten to know their children more and discovered new shared interests. Some laud more paternal playtime as a “gift of the pandemic.” Many became more involved in their children’s education and stepped up in other ways around the house that became workplace, schoolroom, and daycare facility all wrapped into one.

But the pandemic didn’t upend deeply entrenched gender inequities in carework – the devalued, often invisible, and less playful aspects of parenting that include cleaning, cooking, and cognitive burdens such as grocery list-making and tracking homework due dates. A huge gap remains between our cultural ideas of “involved” dads and the reality that the labor burdens of parenthood still fall much more heavily on women. A major reason for that is that American fathers tend to fall back on their breadwinner responsibilities in times of economic crisis. It didn’t help that women lost more paid jobs during the height of COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, nor that governmental responses to the crisis were slow and uneven across different states and communities.

In our work-first culture, we still hold men accountable for families’ financial well-being, despite how women have long been primary or co-breadwinners in most families. This was especially evident in my research on fatherhood programs for low-income fathers of color who worked hard to cast off the “deadbeat dad” label so often applied to marginalized men who struggle to live up the masculine breadwinner norm. Directly challenging racist stereotypes that fathers of color are more likely to be absent and less involved with children, Black fathers are actually more likely than white dads to feed, eat meals with, bathe, diaper, dress, play with, and read to their children. Provider expectations, especially for men who face limited job prospects, can undermine a personal sense of parental value and worth.

We saw this too during the pandemic. During a social and economic crisis when mothers were more likely to lose their jobs and governments and employers did little overall to help them manage the unprecedented COVID care burdens, it’s no wonder that traditionally gendered roles of parental responsibility shaped how much dads stepped up – and then stepped out. We still give dads more credit for paid work and breadwinning than for unpaid care and breadmaking.

I’m still not sure how I feel about that Father’s Day card and whether it reflects how far we’ve come in creating equitable conditions of parenting – or rather just how far we have left to go. One thing is certain. Regardless of gender, parents in the United States lack adequate public support for the labors of parenting as the pandemic continues to unfold. Maybe next year there will be a Father’s Day card that honors the work, both paid and unpaid, that it really takes to raise children. Perhaps I’ll find one that harkens back to the original vision of Sonora Smart Dodd who wanted to celebrate her father stepping up to the role of primary parent – not babysitter – when a crisis demanded it.

Jennifer Randles is Professor and Chair of Sociology, California State University, Fresno

Image by Chuck Underwood from Pixabay

Quick Summary: New study shows that couples justified relying on mothers as the “default” parent during the pandemic, seeing those arrangements as “practical” and “natural” because of longstanding gendered norms about caregiving and inequalities in parents’ work roles.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many mothers stepped into the “default” parent role. They took on more of the parenting, even when they were working for pay. And they often did so without any real discussion or negotiation over who would do more of the care.

Given the toll these arrangements took on mothers – undermining their mental health, causing stress in their relationships, forcing them to scale back their work hours, or even pushing them out of their careers – it’s important to ask: how did couples justify having mothers do so much more?

My coauthors Emily Meanwell, Elizabeth M. Anderson, Amelia S. Knopf and I answer this question in a new study, recently published in the open access journal Socius, and supported in part with funding from the NIH through the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

Drawing on two waves of in-depth interviews with 55 mothers and 14 fathers in different-sex dual-earner couples, we found that cultural and structural inequalities made it seem practical and natural for couples to rely on mothers as the “default” parent for care. Justifying these arrangements, mothers and fathers pointed to fathers’ status as primary breadwinners, mothers’ disproportionate availability at home, and gendered ideas about who would be more patient with the kids.

In couples where fathers were the primary breadwinners, both mothers and fathers described mothers’ work as “less valuable” than fathers’ and thus more easily sacrificed during the pandemic. Because dads earned more and usually worked more hours, they were allowed to “hole up” during the workday while moms had to simultaneously managing working and caring for the kids. As a Latina mother told us, explaining why she did her part-time data analysis job while caring for her two children, while her husband worked from their bedroom all day: “whatever pays the most wins.”

In other couples, particularly where moms had higher levels of education than dads, moms were able to work from home while dads had to work outside the home. This led moms to do more of the caregiving at home, even when they were the primary earner and working from home full-time. As a Black mother told us, explaining why she was the one caring for her three children during the day while also working full-time as a customer service representative: “[My husband] works in construction. I work from home.”

Gendered caregiving norms allowed couples to justify these arrangements as natural and desirable. Some mothers even described themselves as fortunate to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, because it allowed them to give their undivided attention to their kids. That included a white mother who lost her job in food service and told us: “With my older kids being out of school… I realize how fortunate I am that I got to be home. So I didn’t get faced with daycares being closed and schools being closed but still having to go to work…. I got the easy option.”

At the same time, gendered caregiving norms also limited mothers’ sense of entitlement to support with childcare from partners and other potential caregivers. A white mother we interviewed, who we call Candice, continued working full-time from home as a nonprofit administrator. When her husband lost his job in food service, they planned to have him provide full-time care. Yet, because their toddler gravitated toward Candice, she remained highly involved in care, saying: “It’s mostly [my husband]’s responsibility, I guess, to watch her, but I’m definitely involved throughout the day, as well. I sit on the couch with her playing in her toys. So I’m there and interacting with her but also still doing work…. So it’s not the same quality of work, but it’ll pay.”

Those norms also made mothers feel guilty and selfish for sending their children back to in-person school and childcare. As a white mother we interviewed explained, “[My daughter has] really struggled with in-person kindergarten…. And then [sending my toddler back to childcare] just broke my heart. I was so scared for her because she had no recollection of being in daycare because she’d been out for almost a year.” Similarly, a Black mother we interviewed called herself “selfish” for choosing in-person school and childcare, saying “without it I wouldn’t be able to do what I need to do from a work aspect.”

Of course, there were some couples that divided care more equally during the pandemic, and a few where fathers did more. Over time, though, many of those couples abandoned their more egalitarian arrangements. Particularly when fathers who were working from home had the chance to go back to work in the office. Or when couples perceived mothers as more suited for care. Fathers in these couples told us things like: “How she does it, I don’t know. Like, where she finds the time. Days I’m home with the boys by myself, all I can do is focus on keeping ’em alive, and she’s doing it all.”

In sum, we found that many mothers and fathers in dual-earner different-sex couples perceived traditional parenting arrangements as justified and desirable even when those arrangements damaged mothers’ careers, relationships, and well-being.

These findings help explain why many women have remained out of the workforce even as hiring signs have returned. They help explain why early increases in father involvement declined over the pandemic. And they help explain why opinion polls show growing preference in the United States for traditionally gendered divisions of parenting and paid work.

We conclude that structural changes—things like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and higher minimum wages–are needed to keep women from becoming the “default” parent when care arrangements break down. And yet, we also acknowledge that because current structural and cultural inequalities allow couples to justify mothers’ default status, those same couples may not advocate for policies that would support a more egalitarian division of care. Essentially, some mothers may reject the need for big structural and cultural changes, even if they would benefit the most.