Dining table outside. “Untitled” by Skitterphoto licensed by Pixaby

The COVID-19 pandemic led many single adults to put a hold on dating, both for health concerns and social venue closures. For those who decided to keep dating, they were left with questions like, How could you meet someone if everything was shut down? Where would you go on a date if bars and restaurants were closed? How do you handle physical intimacy when even breathing the same air is dangerous? Single older adults faced additional concerns, not only because the virus was particularly deadly for this demographic, but because many in this group had not dated in decades and were trying to learn how to date in the middle of a pandemic. Would older adults continue dating, even when the health risks were higher?

Answering this question is not so straightforward. There are many layers to consider, including how older adults generally experience higher levels of loneliness and that these feelings may have increased because of pandemic isolation. Older adults who are single were at even greater risk of loneliness and isolation because they did not have a romantic partner with whom to isolate. The opportunity to meet other single adults also played a role, as older adults are using the internet frequently, and like many others, single older adults have increased their use of online dating. When older adults are feeling isolated and alone, they can connect with an endless number of peers to mitigate loneliness both in the immediate moment and in the long-term. Additionally, there is evidence that younger adults took safety precautions when dating during COVID, but it was not clear if older adults would do the same or limit their physical interactions with others.

In my recent research, I investigated how the context of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted single older adults’ dating experiences and desires. I recruited 100 single older adults, ages 60-83, from online dating websites to discuss their dating preferences and desires, and how they saw their experience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. All respondents were single, heterosexual, and interested in dating to some degree, but varied by race, education level, marital history, family structure, employment status, and location. Since interviews were conducted in the latter half of 2020, all interviews included some discussion about the pandemic and the impact on dating for single older adults.

This research found that many single older adults were still interested in dating during a pandemic, despite the potential threat to their health and lives. In fact, older daters used COVID-19 health regulations to justify dating, alleviate their concerns for contracting the virus on a date, and get more creative with date ideas.

First, respondents took safety precautions in their daily lives, including limiting indoor interactions and wearing a face covering during interactions, and used these behaviors as evidence that meeting up with a new person would be safe, since they had been so cautious to not contract COVID-19. Next, single older daters followed safety directives while on dates. Audrey (age 68) went on a date where they had lunch outside, walked around for a bit, and wore face masks when they went into a shop. Fred (age 66) met a woman in a parking lot for a date, where they both stayed at their cars and talked through face masks. Though they were meeting new people in person, single older adults felt that their dates were safe because they followed healthcare directions in their daily life and while on dates, allowing them to justify meeting new people at a time when doing so could be dangerous.

Though both men and women spoke about COVID-safe behaviors and dating practices, men and women approached the issue differently. Men seemed generally less adherent to COVID-safe dating measures on their own, but the women they dated requested it. More men stumbled over planning a date during a pandemic because the standard dates of going to the movies or a restaurant were unavailable. Women, however, more often spoke of COVID-safe dating practices and provided a range of COVID-safe date ideas, from video calls to kayaking.

We may imagine single older adults would retreat from dating during a pandemic, when meeting in person posed a significant health risk, particularly among that population. Though this may be the case for many single older adults, those I spoke with pointed to the impact the pandemic had on their lives as leading them to date. This speaks to how deeply people, including older adults, can value and desire a romantic relationship. Even in times when meeting in person was dangerous and the common dating venues were closed, older adults used online dating and safety precautions to continue (or begin!) their search for a romantic partner. (Take a look at the article for discussion on the role of loneliness and the proliferation of online dating in prompting older adults to date in a pandemic.)

This study includes early COVID dating experiences, as data were collected between June and December 2020. Future research should investigate how COVID may (or may not) have a lasting impact on dating norms, for both younger and older adults. Additionally, this study focuses on those who are seeking a partner, so still little is known about how the pandemic and isolation impacted those uninterested in dating or in burgeoning dating relationships. This study does uncover, however, how single older adults used COVID precautions to justify dating during a pandemic, despite health risks and the closure of public places. This study helps to dispel some myths and finds older adults do not always take health risks as seriously as younger adults would assume and that romantic relationships are important to older adults. Single older adults value romantic relationships just like everyone else, even to the point that they are willing to stand next to their car in a large parking lot to see if there is chemistry with the person they met online.

Lauren Harris is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her research focuses on the meanings, processes, and transitions associated with developing romantic relationships, currently among older adults. You can learn more about her work here, here, and here, and on twitter @lauren_e_harris.

On December 29 of last year, misogynistic social media influencer, Andrew Tate, was arrested in Romania on suspicion of rape and human trafficking. Later charged, and in ways that mirror former US President Trump’s present legal woes, the ‘controversy’ was very 2020s. First, anyone who had had the displeasure of viewing Tate’s online content would not have been in the least bit surprised by the news. Indeed, the charges were a natural extension of his oft-stated views on women, their role in society, and heterosexual relations. Before being banned from the platform, Tate had argued on Twitter that women ‘bear responsibility’ as victims of sexual assault, later describing in violent detail what he would do to a woman were she to accuse him of cheating (he’s OK with male infidelity, by the way). On his decision to relocate from Britain to Romania, he cited what he – ill-advisedly, it turns out – saw as being the country’s more lenient approach to rape, saying that it was “probably 40% of the reason… I like the idea of just being able to do what I want.” Perhaps most illustrative of his broader outlook, he once bemoaned the “decline of Western civilisation” after seeing an airport billboard “encouraging girls to go on holiday as opposed to… being a loving mother and a loyal wife.”

So, as far as arrests go, Tate was “hiding in plain sight” and it had always seemed more a case of “when” rather than “if” to anyone paying attention. However, reporting of the incident – and to a lesser extent of his banning from various social media platforms in the months leading up to it – also exposed to the wider public the astonishing extent of the influencer’s popularity among the heterosexual boys and men to whom his content is geared. As part of the broader online ‘manosphere’ – a loose network of antifeminist and reactionary YouTube and TikTok channels, and other social media accounts – Tate remains their Kardashian. Undented by recent events, he enjoys a profile that, were it not for his seemingly beyond-the-pale views, could only be described as mainstream. His videos have garnered countless millions of views, accompanied by all but uniformly supportive comment sections. His Twitter (or ‘X’) account, reinstated in late-2022 by Elon Musk, now has over 6 million followers. A recent YouGov poll found that approximately one quarter of British young men agree with his positions on women. These are just a few of the many metrics we could share.

What is going on here? How could someone like Tate, so blatantly offensive to some, resonate so powerfully with others? It’s particularly vexing given the numerous studies that show young people, including boys and men, moving decidedly towards more progressive outlooks. Scholarship up to this point – most notably the work of Debbie Ging at Dublin City University – has been very good at making sense of manosphere discourses and the logics of purveyors like Tate. To quote Ging, they represent a ‘preoccupation with male hegemony’ elicited by misdirected anxieties over “men’s position in the social hierarchy as a result of feminism.” The predominant explanation given for the spread of this phenomenon is a gendered form of zero-sum thinking: the idea that men, while still enjoying disproportionately better socioeconomic outcomes, experience the gains made by women over recent decades as losses. Baked into this theory of ‘aggrieved entitlement’ – however inadvertent – is an unhelpful dismissal of contemporary hetero-masculine anxieties as a sort of overprivileged ‘get over yourselves!’ whingeing. While the theory has ‘bigger picture’ validity, it leaves little scope for acknowledging the very real, and to some extent distinct, contemporary pressures faced by heterosexual boys and young men, and how they increasingly feel ignored by, and disenfranchised from, mainstream society.

We argue that it’s time to shift to a more empathetic investigation of what’s driving boys and men into the arms of the manosphere. For one, we need to be more cognisant of the way in which a concept like ‘male privilege’ renders invisible the wildly complicating dimensions of class and/or race. Indeed, try telling a young working-class man from the British Midlands or American ‘flyover country’, with no girlfriend and dubious job prospects, that he’s the beneficiary of undue ‘privilege’. The realities of male privilege remain true in an overarching systemic sense, as well as in the countless minute ways men experience the world differently from women. However, it is important to recognize the various socioeconomic factors that prevent many men from experiencing this privilege in any sort of life enhancing way.

As a cohort, heterosexual men in countries like Britain and America are also significantly more likely to be isolated and friendless, as well as involuntarily single and celibate. Along with the rest of youth, they are also entering adulthood in the context of an economy that is offering fewer secure and meaningful jobs. All of this is exacerbated by a set of enduring traditional expectations that measure a man’s worth precisely against these increasingly unattainable sexual and financial markers of success, while also inhibiting boys’ and men’s ability to talk about their failures. Of course, the gender scholarship we’re respectfully critiquing here has long highlighted the link between unattainable masculine ideals, on the one hand, and antisocial behaviours and negative mental wellbeing outcomes, on the other. However, this can often veer into an implicit victim-blaming in which boys and men are their own worst enemies and need only shed their ‘toxic’ attitudes to live healthier, more integrated lives. In the context of the abovementioned realities, it’s easier said than done, and somewhat puts the cart before the horse.

Indeed, heterosexual boys and men seem stuck between a mainstream conversation largely (and not unjustifiably) focused on their historical privilege and toxic practices, and manosphere figures like Tate who sell misogynistic delusions of grandeur while painting the world as hostile to their interests. However self-detrimental, it’s not surprising that some choose the latter. Responding to this, a nascent body of scholarship is treading a different path by investigating the vulnerabilities on which the manosphere feeds, as a way of better understanding its disturbing end-product. To give some examples, a recent study of the notorious manosphere breeding ground, 4chan, coauthored by the first author here, found that many boys and men yet to exhibit reactionary views are drawn into these spaces more for a sense of community and because, alarmingly, they feel safer expressing vulnerabilities here than via conventional support channels. This is presently being followed up by the same team’s study of the similarly notorious Reddit platform, with data suggesting comparable

patterns. In their groundbreaking 2023 study, Daly and Reed interviewed members of the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) subculture – a subset of the manosphere motivated by abject failure in the sexual marketplace – and found that they were being driven deeper into this misogynistic community by the misunderstanding and persecution they felt emanating from mainstream society. Echoing this work, the second author here is presently undertaking a study investigating the ways in which men’s engagement with these subcultures can be considered a form of digital self-harm. Vulnerable men actively engage in toxic online environments that pull them deeper into self-loathing and isolation, and they find curious ‘solace’ in forums where their peers continuously belittle and insult them.

More work needs to be done to understand the causes, contexts and narratives underpinning the manosphere’s appeal, and it needs to be empathetic as well as critical. If we continue to dismiss the anxieties of heterosexual boys and men as little more than entitled special pleading, we will be guilty of exacerbating the sense of disenfranchisement on which figures like Tate successfully prey. No one wants this. Loneliness, the psychologist, Carl Jung, observed, “does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.”

Marcus Maloney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures.

Kate Babin is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures.

A healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby are the primary goals of most parents choosing to have a child. While parents may take many steps, such as using prenatal vitamins or quitting drinking alcohol or smoking, some factors influence pregnancy outcomes beyond their control.

I was awarded a large NIH grant to study how structural stigma, that is, the way that stigma and discrimination are codified into laws and policies, and influence the maternal and infant health of sexual minority women (e.g., women who identify as bisexual/lesbian/queer or have same-sex attractions or relationships [SMW]). Sexual minority populations are more likely to experience discrimination at multiple levels compared to heterosexual populations, and several studies have linked stress to adverse maternal and fetal health. Little research, however, has examined how stress and the social environment may impact the obstetrical and perinatal health of SMW.

Much of the prior research focused on women in same-sex relationships accessing assisted reproductive technologies to conceive. While important, these studies systematically exclude SMW in romantic relationships with men (i.e. bisexual women partnered with men), SMW who are single, and SMW who become pregnant through sex with a male partner. In fact, my research has found that SMW, including lesbian-identified women, are more likely to describe their pregnancies as “unwanted” than heterosexual women.

In a first-of-its-kind study using nationally representative data, we documented that SMW were more likely to have preterm and low birthweight infants. We were unable, however, to identify the mechanisms that led to these worse outcomes among SMW. This finding led us to use the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a longitudinal, probability-based US survey of middle and high school students that began in 1993 and 1994 and has followed the same students for over twenty years. Using this longitudinal data, we were able to document several disparities in perinatal and obstetrical risk factors by sexual orientation, including preconception health behaviors. These differences, however, did not explain why SMW were more likely to report preterm and lower birthweight infants.

 One factor, however, proved to be critical to pregnant SMW and their babies: the number of state policies that provide protections for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) persons. The policies we examined included same-sex marriage or civil union protections, anti-LGB discrimination policies, legal same-sex adoption, and banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Indeed, state policies were so powerful in shaping SMW’s birth outcomes that in states with three or more of these policies, SMW had even better birth outcomes than their heterosexual peers despite higher rates of reporting key risk factors for adverse birth outcomes. The policies we examined included same-sex marriage or civil union protections, anti-LGB discrimination policies, legal same-sex adoption, and banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. We found that these policies also were associated with a lower risk of maternal hypertension, particularly for Black SMW. This finding is in line with other research that has suggested that policies that ensure equal protection for persons based on their sexual orientation may disproportionately benefit sexual minorities of color.

The results from these studies come at a critical time when the rights of women and LGBTQ populations are under attack. A record number of laws have been introduced to undermine the progress made by LGBTQ activists and introduce new forms of discrimination that ban or reduce access to health care and multiple other forms of social and economic resources. Similarly, the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons is also under unprecedented attack; the 50-year precedent of Roe v Wade was repealed in June 2022, and many bills have been introduced to restrict access in states where abortion remains legal. With colleagues, I have argued that attacks on LGTBQ populations and reproductive rights are rooted in the same ideology that seeks to maintain a system that privileges men and heterosexuality and punishes those who challenge traditional gender and sexuality-based norms. We created a measure incorporating these two forms of discrimination (structural sexism and structural LGB stigma) into a single construct called “structural heteropatriarchy.” We showed that women who live in states and counties with higher levels of structural heteropatriarchy were more likely to have preterm and low birthweight infants, even if they identified as heterosexual.

In sum, this set of studies shows that the political and social environment in which an individual lives can undermine many of the efforts pregnant people may take to ensure a healthy pregnancy. However, the results also show that policy changes can dramatically improve maternal and infant health. Moreover, these policies do not necessarily need to target pregnant people per se, but increasing the number of civil rights and social resources individuals can access may improve maternal and infant health while also likely benefitting non-pregnant citizens. That is, living in environments that foster safety and inclusion, and support an individual’s right to choose if, when, and how they become a parent, can lead to improved population health, improved maternal and infant health, and ultimately healthier future generations.

Bethany Everett is Associate Professor of Sociology and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah and an affiliate of the Center for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research at Columbia University. She completed her PhD at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an NIH Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Fellowship while she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago from 2012-2015. She has published over 75 peer-reviewed articles and is currently PI of an NICHD-funded R01 study on sexual orientation disparities in maternal, infant, and child health and her work focuses on the social determinants of health, particularly in the area of orientation and sexual and reproductive health. Follow her on Twitter @bethanygeverett

Father sleeps with infant; “Untitled” by PublicDomainPictures Licensed by Pixaby

Many of the issues facing families today touch on parental gender: high childhood poverty rates, mass incarceration, battles over same-sex marriage, transgender rights, assisted reproductive technologies, and access to abortion. Due to these issues and more, questions of parental gender remain at the forefront of cultural commentary and political debates in the United States. Do kids “need” a mother and a father, or are two parents of any gender sufficient? Do fathers contribute something unique, just for being men? Are there contributions to families that mothers provide that fathers cannot possibly replicate (and vice versa)? What do kids lose–resources, opportunities, crucial socialization, social acceptance–when they don’t have both a mother and a father?    

Social science has established a consensus on these questions, indicating that parental gender is not important for children’s development and success. Instead, economic resources and social factors, like positive parent-child interactions, are stronger predictors of children’s well-being. Despite the evidence suggesting parental gender is not essential for children’s development, we continue to see these “parental essentialist” ideologies–ideas that parental gender offers unique qualities to childrearing–permeate the public sphere. Parental essentialism is especially salient in the panic over same-sex families, as well as manufactured crises of “fatherlessness.”

We are two sociologists who conducted separate studies on fatherhood that provide unique insight into questions about parental essentialism from the perspectives of two groups of fathers with specific stakes in these debates: poor men of color at the center of controversies over children without residential dads and gay men raising children without women. Through this work (recently published in Men & Masculinities), we found patterns that help explain the persistence–as well as the harms–of parental essentialist discourse. 

Jennifer Randles spent two years studying “responsible fatherhood” policy and programs by doing ethnography and interviews with very low-income fathers of color enrolled in a fathering program intended to help marginalized dads improve their job prospects, co-parenting relationships, and fathering skills. Megan Carroll did an ethnography of gay fatherhood groups, interviewing gay men raising children, most of whom were white and economically advantaged. In comparing our findings about these two socially dissimilar groups of fathers, we noticed that the men we studied had very different responses to parental essentialist ideas. 

For poor fathers of color, Randles found, parental essentialism was valorizing. Many of these fathers did not have a diploma, were unemployed, had a criminal record or incarceration history, or were not with children’s mothers. Yet the idea that they could still contribute something unique and valuable to childrearing by virtue of being men made marginalized fathers feel as though they were essential for their kids and their social and economic opportunities. As one dad said, “I teach [my kids] responsibility and give them motivation and the confidence they need to survive in school. It’s something about being a man. It’s in our DNA, I guess.”  

On the other hand, as Carroll discovered, for mostly white, wealthy gay fathers, parental essentialism was marginalizing. The idea that their children were deprived of something by not having a mother was threaded through their lives in ways that limited their access to parental opportunities and legitimacy. One married gay father in Texas, for example, expressed frustration with parental essentialism, arguing that parents of any gender play a mixture of masculine and feminine roles: “The thing that really gets me sometimes, this assumption that kids have to have a mom and a dad, and if they don’t … you’re somehow depriving them. … If you’re only thinking that you’re gonna be maternal and you’re never gonna have to do something that is dad-like, it’s ridiculous. Same goes for dads. That day has come and gone.”

Understood collectively, we realized that fathers’ social positions at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality fundamentally shaped how they responded to parental essentialist ideas. Studying these two differentially situated groups of fathers in tandem taught us valuable lessons about the persistent salience and harms of parental essentialism. The idea that fathering is essential – as in, important, unique, and innate – is especially powerful in the absence of viable economic and social support for disadvantaged families and especially for marginalized men still beholden to white middle-class norms of “responsible” fatherhood. On the other hand, the notion that families are somehow incomplete without mothers perpetuates dangerous and demoralizing views of gay fathers raising children as essentially lacking.  

Understood as both valorizing and stigmatizing, men’s views of parental essentialism urge us to consider other crucial questions in social and political debates over why parents’ gender matters and how. Why do essentialist views of fathering persist and influence men’s identities and experiences of fatherhood? How does social position shape how fathers grapple with and make sense of ideas that they are both necessary and insufficient for children’s well-being? What can and should we do to promote ideas that fathers matter because they love and care for their children, not because they are men? These are the questions that get us closer to sustaining families and understanding how parents of all genders and sexual orientations can make essential – rather than essentialist – contributions to children.  

Jennifer Randles (she/her) is Professor of Sociology and interim Associate Dean in the College of Social Sciences at California State University, Fresno. A scholar of families, policy, and gender/race/class inequalities, she is the author of Proposing Prosperity and Essential Dads. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. Her social media handle is @jrandles3. 

Megan Carroll (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. She is a queer families scholar who founded the Ace/Aro Scholar Support Network. Her research on gay fatherhood can be found here and here, and her research on asexualities can be found here and here. Her social media handle is @MCsociology.

Women managing a calendar. “Untitled” by FirmBee licensed by Pixaby

Reprinted from Council on Contemporary Families Brief Report published on May 3, 2023

When we talk about domestic labor, we often talk about the physical activities of doing work around the house and caring for family members. But running a household is more than cooking, cleaning, and transporting kids to practice; it’s also monitoring the pantry to know when groceries are getting low, weighing options about (and deciding on) which vacuum cleaner to buy, and remembering that little league signups are the last week of March and that cleats typically go on sale the week prior to the season.  

Domestic labor therefore is not just the physical activities of doing housework and caregiving, but also anticipating and monitoring family needs, organizing and planning, and making decisions on which courses of action to pursue. These sorts of activities, known as cognitive labor, are often hidden (i.e., a parent might be planning their children’s schedules in their head while doing other tasks) and are never-ending as there are always things to think about and plan.

Most research on housework and childcare focuses on routine physical tasks but does not account for hidden cognitive labor. This is problematic because mothers perform more physical domestic labor than fathers, and this disparity contributes to negative consequences such as to the gender pay gap as well as to greater stress and less leisure time for mothers compared to fathers. Yet, mothers also perform more cognitive labor than fathers, and the constant need to anticipate and monitor family needs may be a significant source of additional stress for mothers. In sum, the lack of attention to cognitive labor may mean that the enduring gender gap in domestic labor—and subsequent inequalities in well-being—may be even larger than often estimated.

Our new study recently published in Society and Mental Health focuses on the division of cognitive labor between mothers and fathers during the pandemic, and the implications of this division for parents’ psychological well-being.  

Using data from the Study on Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC) on 1,765 partnered parents, we examined parents’ time in, and division of, cognitive labor in Fall 2020. Popular press articles illustrate how mothers are increasingly overwhelmed and experiencing burnout due to the sheer volume of things they are trying to juggle. Results from our study provide some empirical support for these colloquial ideas. Among parents in the SPDLC, mothers spent over twice as much time per week performing cognitive labor (5 hours) compared to fathers (2 hours). When asked how cognitive labor was divided between themselves and their partners, mothers reported that they did more of this labor. In addition, mothers reported that the division of cognitive labor was more unequal than the division of housework and childcare—suggesting that the gender gap in domestic labor may indeed be even larger than we commonly think it is.

In addition to understanding how cognitive labor was divided among parents, we also wanted to know if there were consequences of performing this hidden labor. The results were striking; being primarily responsible for cognitive labor was associated with psychological consequences for mothers. Specifically, mothers who were more responsible for cognitive labor reported being more stressed and more depressed. The combination of mothers being primarily responsible for all of these hidden tasks and spending more time doing them means that cognitive labor may act as a chronic stressor that increases mothers’ risk of experiencing psychological distress.

But what about fathers? Do fathers who perform cognitive labor also report negative psychological consequences? Based on our study, the simple answer is no. Our findings show that when fathers perform more of the cognitive labor in families, they actually experience lower stress and fewer depressive symptoms. Similarly, mothers’ stress and depressive symptoms were also lower when fathers took on more of the responsibility for cognitive labor. Thus, whereas mothers’ involvement in cognitive labor may reduce their well-being, fathers’ involvement in cognitive labor appears to benefit both their own and their partners’ well-being.

Research on stress shows that the effects of stressors vary by context, and we find that gender conditions the effect of cognitive labor on parents’ psychological well-being. Fathers are not expected to manage the household and constantly monitor family needs. While fathers increasingly desire to be more engaged parents, they do not face strong social pressures to perform domestic tasks. Consequently, fathers may receive praise and positive reinforcement for performing cognitive labor as they are seen as going above and beyond what is expected of them. In contrast, mothers are expected to be primarily responsible for household tasks and may be penalized and judged if they do not meet these expectations. This makes mothers uniquely susceptible to the hidden, enduring burdens of cognitive labor.

Overall, our new findings suggest that gender inequality in housework and childcare extends to hidden domestic tasks, and also that performance of these tasks likely contributes to inequality in well-being between mothers and fathers. As long as gendered norms of care and the parenting double standard persist, gender inequality in domestic labor and well-being will continue. We need to change our cultural expectations about caregiving and provide more structural opportunities for fathers to be more engaged at home (e.g., remote work, paid leave) to reduce the burdens on mothers, reduce mothers’ stress, and promote greater gender equality at home. Increased opportunities for engagement will likely increase fathers’ awareness of family needs and empower them to take ownership in sharing both physical tasks as well as the hidden cognitive labor.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Richard Petts, Professor, Department of Sociology, Ball State University, and Daniel L. Carlson, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah.

Frog wearing a crown; “Frog prince” by NickyPe licensed by Pixaby

Popular culture tells us that women think with their hearts while men think with… other body parts. As a result, you might not be surprised to hear that men are far outnumbered by women and nonbinary people in identifying as asexual, a sexual identity that refers to those who experience low/no sexual attraction. But what about aromanticism, an identity that refers to those who experience low/no romantic attraction? If the stereotype of romance being a more feminine pursuit and sex being a more masculine pursuit is correct, surely there are more aromantic men than women. Right?

As it turns out, women are more likely to identify as asexual, but they’re also more likely to identify as aromantic. Our study, Sexuality, romantic orientation, and masculinity: Men as underrepresented in asexual and aromantic communities, examines men as a minority in asexual and aromantic communities. We draw on survey data from the 2020 Asexual Community Survey and the 2020 Aromantic Census as well as interviews from two samples (collected by the study authors) with individuals who identify on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrums. 

While 48% of asexual respondents in the Asexual Community Survey identify as women and 41% as outside of the gender binary, only 11% identify as men. Meanwhile, in the Aromantic Census, 33% of respondents identify as women and a mere 8% as men, with the remaining 59% identifying outside the gender binary. Our analysis suggests that men are vastly outnumbered by women and people outside the gender binary in asexual and aromantic communities.

Masculinity as Inherently Sexual 

While our survey data shows that men are a minority in the asexual community, we turn to the interview data to understand why this may be the case. We find that men in our study faced pressure from their peers, family, and community to participate in sexual relationships (with women). In the interviews, asexual men described how masculinity was tied in with notions of sexual voracity, and that they had been expected to seek out sexual experiences and enjoy having sex. As Richard, an aromantic asexual white man put it, “…you’re entitled to sex and you’re defined by sex and how much you want sex and the content of your conversations is going to be based around sex and conquest and competition and all those sorts of things. I think that duality plays into the fact that men are inherently less likely to identify as asexual.” Richard goes on to explain how this became an internalized belief such that when he first heard about asexuality “that doesn’t cross my mind as a possibility.” Unsurprisingly, because masculinity is framed as inherently sexual, this may help to explain why men are a minority in the asexual community.

Prince Charming and Romance 

What is more puzzling is why aromantic men are a minority in the aromantic community. Prior research has established that women often face pressure around partnering, but men are also expected to take the lead in initiating romantic relationship scripts with women. Although it seems likely that the consequences of not being in a romantic relationship are more severe for women than men, our findings suggest that not being in a romantic relationship also defies expectations of “ideal” manhood.

We argue that romance is also core to hegemonic masculinity. We find that men described “romantic gestures” as something that they were expected to perform within dating and relationship contexts. Additionally, some aromantic men explained that if they weren’t in a romantic relationship, they were often assumed to be gay or immature. 

Another likely explanation for why men are a minority in the aromantic community is that many people only learn about aromanticism after hearing about asexuality. We find that many interview participants describe finding out about aromanticism after finding out about asexuality. Given men’s underrepresentation among asexuals, it makes sense that this means men would be less likely to even learn about aromanticism.

Research Implications

Even as scholars and activists have challenged the stereotype that women want romance and men want sex, scholars have still devoted much more attention to the role of sexuality in constructing masculinity. The role of romance and romantic relationships in structuring masculinity has received far less focus. 

Our findings suggest that sex and romance both play a role in structuring culturally idealized masculinities. As a result, asexuality and aromanticism both fall outside these cultural ideals. These ideals frame asexual men as inadequately masculine, failing to live up to men’s supposedly universal voracious sexual appetite. Aromantic men, conversely, face the risk of being painted as too masculine, potentially even being interpreted as players or f-ckboys. 

In other words, our study helps us see that heterosexual desire and romantic relationship formation are both core to what sociologists often call hegemonic masculinity. Yes, men are expected to have an active sexual appetite–but they’re also expected to (eventually) settle down and pursue a romantic relationship. 

Hannah Tessler is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Yale University. Her research centers on sociology of the life course and transitions to adulthood, including pathways to higher education, and union formation. She explores how race, gender, and sexuality shape experiences with intimate relationships and family life. You can find her on Twitter at @TesslerHannah or learn more about her work on www.hannah-tessler.com

Canton Winer is an assistant professor of sociology and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Northern Illinois University, and the 2023–2024 Stephen O. Murray Scholar in Residence at Michigan State University. A leading sociologist studying asexuality, Dr. Winer’s work explores asexuality’s generative potential for the sociology of gender, the sociology of sexuality, and queer theory. You can find him on Twitter at @CantonWiner.

Reprinted from the Council on Contemporary Families Brief Reports published on April 20, 2023.

It is widely known that mothers’ employment has suffered most during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, however, most discussions about the causes of the pandemic-induced “she-session” have focused on the impact of school closures and lack of child care. Yet, none of those factors explains the slow initial recovery of women’s employment after businesses and school reopened following lockdowns in Spring 2020 and, most recently, a striking decline in women’s labor force participation in Fall 2022 after it had finally rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. This recent decline occurred in spite of low unemployment, high demand for labor, increased bargaining power for workers, and new concerns to increase family income because of inflation.

Our new study recently published in Socius reveals a largely overlooked factor driving mothers’ employment after initial COVID lockdowns – their concerns for public health.

Using data from the Study on Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC) on 263 partnered US mothers who were employed prior to the pandemic, we examined how mothers’ concerns about COVID (whether they worried that someone they know will contract COVID) shaped their labor force participation in the Fall of 2020. Indeed, polls in 2020 showed that Americans were markedly concerned about contracting and spreading COVID in Fall 2020. Three-quarters of mothers polled in one survey worried that their child or someone in their family would fall ill if their child returned to in-person school. Results from our study echoed these findings. More than three-quarters of mothers in the SPDLC agreed or strongly agreed that they worried that someone they know would contract COVID. Importantly, mothers who were more worried about COVID were less likely to be employed, and among those that were still employed, worked fewer hours per week.

Our aim was to examine not only whether – but also why – mothers’ COVID concerns affected their employment and paid work hours. We examined three possible pathways through which mothers’ COVID concerns could have impacted their labor force participation: 1) the frequency of children’s attendance of in-person school/childcare, 2) mothers’ remote work, and 3) mothers’ stress.

One of the primary reasons worried mothers worked less was because their concerns about COVID were associated with children spending more time at home and less time at school or daycare. Simply put: the more time children spent at home, the less likely mothers were to be employed. Mothers’ COVID concerns help us understand not only their delay in returning to the labor force, but also why despite substantial efforts to reopen schools across the U.S. in Fall 2020 so many children continued to learn remotely.

Among mothers who were still employed in Fall 2020, their concerns about COVID were associated with fewer work hours not only because these concerns led to more time with children at home, but also because keeping children home resulted in more stress for mothers. Working remotely was associated with fewer paid work hours for mothers. While the flexibility that remote work seemingly provides is often assumed to be a means of managing work-family conflict for mothers, it may actually exacerbate gender inequalities in families. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely in response to keeping children home to reduce COVID exposure appears to have constrained mothers’ abilities to work.

Though our study focused on Fall 2020, its findings have important implications for our broader understanding of mothers’ employment, particularly in regards to recent declines in the face of the “tripledemic” of flu, RSV, and COVID cases in Fall 2022/Winter 2023. Our study suggests that the sudden downturn in women’s employment in Fall 2022 despite what had been a steady increase in labor force participation since 2021, is due at least in part to processes similar to those observed in Fall 2020.

Every fall, Americans are warned about the upcoming cold and flu season. Now with COVID becoming seemingly endemic, and seasonal threats of surges in other diseases like RSV and strep throat, these warnings have become particularly dire. Alongside risks to families’ and children’s health, surges in serious transmittable disease, which are becoming more frequent post-COVID, pose a threat to gender equality. Because of a lack of widespread paid sick leave, rising rates of infectious diseases can make it difficult for parents – and especially mothers – to continue working. Whether it’s strategizing ways to keep kids from getting sick or caring for them when they fall ill, mothers are generally the family health manager and the parent to cut back on work hours to care for kids at home when illness strikes.

As long as COVID and other infectious disease transmission mitigation is largely dependent upon vaccines and antibiotics rather than other public health measures (masking, paid sick leave, etc.), mothers will remain less likely to make a full return to the labor force due to legitimate concerns about their children’s and family’s members health and safety or will see wild seasonal fluctuations in employment that may negatively affect their careers and job prospects. Indeed, approximately 3 in 5 Americans remain concerned about coronavirus and the ‘tripledemic’ further increased fears of illness among parents. Though mothers’ labor force participation appears to have once again recovered from its dip at the end of 2022, if we fail to address mothers’ concerns about COVID and other infectious diseases as they arise, not only is it likely that mothers’ employment will continue to oscillate wildly during periods of high transmission but current and future pandemics are likely to also continue to dampen mothers’ employment and have substantial consequences for gender equality.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Daniel L. Carlson, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, Priya Fielding-Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, Richard Petts, Professor, Department of Sociology, Ball State University, and Kristi Williams, Professor, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by <a href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/02/02/daniel-carlson/” data-mce-href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/02/02/daniel-carlson/”>Daniel L. Carlson</a>, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, <a href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2022/01/24/priya-fielding-singh/” data-mce-href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2022/01/24/priya-fielding-singh/”>Priya Fielding-Singh</a>, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, <a href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/04/06/richard-petts/” data-mce-href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/04/06/richard-petts/”>Richard Petts</a>, Professor, Department of Sociology, Ball State University, and <a href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/04/06/kristi-williams/” data-mce-href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2021/04/06/kristi-williams/”>Kristi Williams</a>, Professor, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University.It is widely known that mothers’ employment has suffered most during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, however, most discussions about the causes of the pandemic-induced “she-session” have focused on the impact of school closures and lack of child care. Yet, none of those factors explains the slow initial recovery of women’s employment after <a href=”https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/COVID-Facts-v3.pdf” data-mce-href=”https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/COVID-Facts-v3.pdf”>businesses </a>and <a href=”https://read.dukeupress.edu/demography/article/59/1/1/286878/Research-Note-School-Reopenings-During-the-COVID” data-mce-href=”https://read.dukeupress.edu/demography/article/59/1/1/286878/Research-Note-School-Reopenings-During-the-COVID”>school reopened</a> following lockdowns in Spring 2020 and, most recently, a <a href=”https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300002″ data-mce-href=”https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300002″>striking decline</a> in women’s labor force participation in Fall 2022 after it had finally rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. This recent decline occurred in spite of low unemployment, high demand for labor, increased bargaining power for workers, and new concerns to increase family income because of inflation.Our <a href=”https://doi.org/10.1177/23780231221138721″ data-mce-href=”https://doi.org/10.1177/23780231221138721″>new study</a> recently published in <em>Socius</em> reveals a largely overlooked factor driving mothers’ employment after initial COVID lockdowns – their concerns for public health.Using data from the Study on Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (<a href=”https://www.openicpsr.org/openicpsr/project/183142/version/V2/view” data-mce-href=”https://www.openicpsr.org/openicpsr/project/183142/version/V2/view”>SPDLC</a>) on 263 partnered US mothers who were employed prior to the pandemic, we examined how mothers’ concerns about COVID (whether they worried that someone they know will contract COVID) shaped their labor force participation in the Fall of 2020. Indeed, polls in 2020 showed that Americans were markedly concerned about contracting and spreading COVID in Fall 2020. <a href=”https://www.kff.org/policy-watch/its-back-to-school-amid-covid-19-and-mothers-especially-are-feeling-the-strain/” data-mce-href=”https://www.kff.org/policy-watch/its-back-to-school-amid-covid-19-and-mothers-especially-are-feeling-the-strain/”>Three-quarters of mothers</a> polled in one survey worried that their child or someone in their family would fall ill if their child returned to in-person school. Results from our study echoed these findings. More than three-quarters of mothers in the SPDLC agreed or strongly agreed that they worried that someone they know would contract COVID. Importantly, mothers who were more worried about COVID were less likely to be employed, and among those that were still employed, worked fewer hours per week.Our aim was to examine not only whether – but also <em>why –</em> mothers’ COVID concerns affected their employment and paid work hours. We examined three possible pathways through which mothers’ COVID concerns could have impacted their labor force participation: 1) the frequency of children’s attendance of in-person school/childcare, 2) mothers’ remote work, and 3) mothers’ stress.One of the primary reasons worried mothers worked less was because their concerns about COVID were associated with children spending more time at home and less time at school or daycare. <strong><em>Simply put: the more time children spent at home, the less likely mothers were to be employed.</em></strong> Mothers’ COVID concerns help us understand not only their delay in returning to the labor force, but also why despite substantial efforts to reopen schools across the U.S. in Fall 2020 so many children continued to learn remotely.Among mothers who were still employed in Fall 2020, their concerns about COVID were associated with fewer work hours not only because these concerns led to more time with children at home, but also because keeping children home resulted in more stress for mothers. Working remotely was associated with fewer paid work hours for mothers. While the flexibility that remote work seemingly provides is <a href=”https://hbr.org/2021/09/the-future-of-flexibility-at-work” data-mce-href=”https://hbr.org/2021/09/the-future-of-flexibility-at-work”>often assumed</a> to be a means of managing work-family conflict for mothers, it may actually <a href=”https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100615593273″ data-mce-href=”https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100615593273″>exacerbate gender inequalities</a> in families. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely in response to keeping children home to reduce COVID exposure appears to have constrained mothers’ abilities to work.Though our study focused on Fall 2020, its findings have important implications for our broader understanding of mothers’ employment, particularly in regards to recent declines in the face of the “<a href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/23/health/flu-covid-risk.html” data-mce-href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/23/health/flu-covid-risk.html”>tripledemic</a>” of flu, RSV, and COVID cases in Fall 2022/Winter 2023. Our study suggests that the sudden downturn in women’s employment in Fall 2022 despite what had been a steady increase in labor force participation since 2021, is due at least in part to processes similar to those observed in Fall 2020.Every fall, Americans are warned about the upcoming cold and flu season. Now with COVID becoming seemingly endemic, and seasonal threats of surges in other diseases like RSV and <a href=”https://www.npr.org/2023/01/05/1147052811/the-cdc-issues-an-advisory-about-a-surge-in-strep-throat-cases-in-kids” data-mce-href=”https://www.npr.org/2023/01/05/1147052811/the-cdc-issues-an-advisory-about-a-surge-in-strep-throat-cases-in-kids”>strep throat</a>, these warnings have become particularly dire. Alongside risks to families’ and children’s health, surges in serious transmittable disease, which are becoming more frequent post-COVID, pose a threat to gender equality. Because of a lack of widespread <a href=”https://www.cbsnews.com/news/state-laws-against-paid-sick-leave-higher-worker-mortality/” data-mce-href=”https://www.cbsnews.com/news/state-laws-against-paid-sick-leave-higher-worker-mortality/”>paid sick leave</a>, rising rates of infectious diseases can make it difficult for parents – and especially mothers – to continue working. Whether it’s strategizing ways to keep kids from getting sick or caring for them when they fall ill, mothers are generally the family health manager and the parent to cut back on work hours to care for kids at home when illness strikes.As long as COVID and other infectious disease transmission mitigation is largely dependent upon vaccines and antibiotics rather than other public health measures (masking, paid sick leave, etc.), mothers will remain less likely to make a full return to the labor force due to legitimate concerns about their children’s and family’s members health and safety or will see wild seasonal fluctuations in employment that may negatively affect their careers and job prospects. Indeed, approximately <a href=”https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/axios-ipsos-coronavirus-index” data-mce-href=”https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/axios-ipsos-coronavirus-index”>3 in 5 Americans</a> remain concerned about coronavirus and the ‘tripledemic’ further increased fears of illness among parents. Though mothers’ labor force participation appears to have <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/02/12/women-workforce-jobs-flexibility-remote/” data-mce-href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/02/12/women-workforce-jobs-flexibility-remote/”>once again recovered</a> from its dip at the end of 2022, if we fail to address mothers’ concerns about COVID and other infectious diseases as they arise, not only is it likely that mothers’ employment will continue to oscillate wildly during periods of high transmission but current and future pandemics are likely to also continue to dampen mothers’ employment and have substantial consequences for gender equality.Originally <a href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/04/18/lessons-from-the-covid-19-pandemic-about-health-concerns-and-us-mothers-employment/” data-mce-href=”https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/04/18/lessons-from-the-covid-19-pandemic-about-health-concerns-and-us-mothers-employment/”>published</a> on April 20, 2023.

Jessi Streib is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. She is the author of three books: The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, and The Accidental Equalizer: How Luck Determines Pay After College. Her work can be viewed on her website: www.jessistreib.com.  Follow her on Twitter @JessiStreib

Below I interview Dr. StreiB:

AM: What is “luckocracy” and how does it work?

Book cover of The Accidental Equalizer by Jessi Streib

A luckocracy is an opportunity structure that awards outcomes based upon luck. By basing outcomes on luck, it does not base them upon class. And so people from unequal class backgrounds receive equal chances to get ahead.

AM: How does hidden job information and class neutrality work to level the playing field?

The luckocracy is formed by two joint pillars: hidden information about where and how to get ahead, and class-neutral selection criteria. Hidden information forces people from each class background to guess where and how to get ahead, and class-neutral selection criteria mean that their guesses have the same chance of paying off. In this way, luck shapes outcomes because guessing well is what gets people ahead, not class or the resources associated with it.

The luckocracy operates in the mid-tier business labor market: the labor market for business majors from non-elite universities hired to do jobs such as tracking inventory, monitoring marketing campaigns, overseeing payroll, recruiting workers, and managing projects. In this labor market, information about where to get ahead is hidden: most candidates don’t know what jobs pay until they get an offer since this information isn’t in job ads, revealed in interviews, or knowable to students’ connections. Information about how to get ahead is also hidden from students of all classes and their connections. Students know the general competencies that hiring agents seek but don’t know how the person evaluating them defines or evaluates those competencies. Are strong communication skills shown through speaking concisely or giving thorough answers? If employers are looking for leadership and teamwork, should students talk about their accomplishments by saying “I” or “we”? Hiring agents often feel strongly about these issues, but students don’t know their criteria, and so have to guess how to present themselves to each evaluator.

At the same time, hiring agents in this labor market tend to use class-neutral criteria. They often have a low bar of employability, one that students from all classes can meet. So they look for interns who have done anything in the past—worked, joined a club, or volunteered. They look for recent hires who can answer their questions while not demeaning their teammates, swearing, or wearing ripped clothes. They also don’t care how high over their bar students go. If they want students with internship experience, three internships may not be better than one. If they want students with at least a 3.0 GPA, a 4.0 is no better than a 3.0. They also don’t care where students learn their skills, whether from working at McDonald’s, singing in a church choir, or leading an exclusive club. They ignore signs of prestige regarding where students interned, focusing on what students did and learned instead. They define their criteria in class-neutral ways too. “Polish” can mean not chewing gum, yawning, and avoiding too many “ums.” “Fit” can mean being outgoing or reserved, depending on the position, or showing integrity. And when employers do use class-biased criteria, they tend to use standards that favor each group. So the hiring agent who looks for students in Greek life might also look for students who pay for college themselves, with the first criteria favoring the advantaged and the second the disadvantaged. Then, of course, applying for jobs is free, and employers cover most expenses related to interviewing. Finally, many employers refuse to negotiate over pay with recent college graduates, neutralizing any difference that may arise from class-advantaged students’ greater propensity to negotiate.

In this situation, class-advantaged students’ higher GPAs and greater internship experience don’t give them a leg up. Students from all classes earn high enough GPAs and often intern once, and differences beyond that are ignored. Class-advantaged students’ status symbols don’t help them; they’re ignored too. Their connections to professionals don’t get them higher pay either. Because information about where and how to get ahead is hidden from their connections too, the people they talk to advise them to prepare for interview questions that are never asked, recommend answers that aren’t what evaluators prefer, and get them jobs that are just as often low-paying as high-paying. Indeed, in a luckocracy, more advantaged students’ resources don’t help them, and students from all classes end up in the same place: needing to guess where and how to get ahead, with the highest pay going to those who happen to guess the best.

AM: What are the implications of your findings for the future of higher education and the middle class?

My findings provide another argument against college being the great equalizer. Not only do they not equalize admission into college, but they don’t equalize the resources needed to get a job. Instead, it’s the luckocracy that exists within the labor market that is the great equalizer.

Many employers only admit students into the luckocracy with a college degree. This should change; many entry-level jobs don’t require skills that students learned in college. But as long as employers hire college graduates for these jobs, colleges can get closer to becoming an equalizer by graduating more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will let them enter the true great equalizer, the luckocracy.

Alicia M. Walker, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Missouri State University. Her research focuses on intimate relationships, gender, sexual behavior and identity, closeted behaviors, and online initiation of sexual relationships.

Hands on top of one another. Untitled by Jarmoluk licensed by Pixaby

Who do you call on when you are facing a problem or need someone to talk to? Conventional wisdom argues that most people first turn to a spouse in their time of need. If one does not have a spouse, or that spouse is unavailable, you are most likely to turn to your parents (and more specifically, your mother). Sons and daughters, and then siblings, round out the order of contact. This follows the Convoy Model, where relationships fall into levels of closeness and that people would go to their closest connections first. One’s spouse, parents, children, and siblings are all common members of the inner circle.

Where would your cousins fit in this scenario? How about your grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, or stepfamily? Prior research has focused strongly on the nuclear family network, obscuring the relationships with other family members and how these may be enacted in times of need. Extended family often live nearby and play an important role in family members’ lives.

These extended family members may even be a source of resilience in times of crisis by providing practical, financial, or emotional support or alleviating loneliness. Some studies have aimed to count available extended kin or record the interactions with family beyond parents, children, and siblings, but only get as specific as “other relatives,” but little is known about how people rely on these extended family networks for support, particularly in times of great need.

To better understand these relationships, my coauthors (Megan N. Reed, Linda Li, Luca Maria Pesando, Frank F. Furstenberg, and Julien O. Teitler) and I investigated the patterns of extended family communication in the wake of crisis, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. We developed a survey module for the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker survey, which began in 2012, and that module was administered in New York City between August 2020 and September 2021, meaning respondents were still experiencing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With a sample of over 2,300 respondents, we analyzed frequency of communication and change in communication by gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, and household composition.

Findings reveal that respondents were frequently in contact with non-residential family members, with more than half (55.7%) stating they communicated several times a week and only 6% communicating less than once a month or not at all. Further, respondents reported increased communication compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Convoy Model would suggest, the increase in communication was focused on the family members generally thought to be in the inner circle – siblings (31.0%), parents (22.3%), and children (15.6%). However, after those groups, it was not grandparents (4.3%) or grandchildren (4.9%) that were most common for increased communication, but cousins (14.2%), aunts and/or uncles (13.9%), and other relatives (7.1%). It may be that respondents were already in frequent communication with grandparents or grandchildren, or that they did not have these family members to communicate with, but even so, the sizable increase in communication with extended family illustrates how these family members are called upon in times of crisis or uncertainty. We do not just rely on our parents, siblings, and children, but we reach out to extended family networks for support.

Increased communication with family, both nuclear and extended, is expectedly not uniform across demographic groups. We found class (as measured by income and education) correlated with frequency of communication and whether that communication increased. One may expect respondents living in poverty to increase contact with family members in times of need, but respondents living below the poverty line reported less frequent communication with non-residential family. One may expect that it was primarily those living in poverty who would have increased their contact with family members during the pandemic, but we found no difference by poverty status in increased frequency of communication with non-coresidential family. Those with a college degree had higher odds of increasing communication with non-residential family during the pandemic, particularly with siblings, parents/grandparents, and collateral (aunts, uncles, cousins, and other) kin. This supports other findings that this population reported greater concerns over safety during the pandemic. (See the article for analysis and discussion of racial/ethnic differences!)

Past research has mainly focused on the nuclear family, which has long seen to be a source of support, but this study uncovers how family, and even extended family, can serve as a support, particularly in times of need.Future research should recognize how we do not rely only on close family, but that extended family, including cousins, aunts, uncles, and others, play a substantive role in our lives. This may be more so the case in times of great crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and should be studied to understand when and how these networks are enacted, and if frequent communication and support are maintained, decline, or increase after the crisis is over. Further study should investigate forms of support other than communication, including practical and financial, provided by extended family, to better understand the complexity of family networks and functions. Lastly, additional investigation is required to understand the role of education and income on the frequency and increase of extended family contact. The research described here is an important step toward recognizing the role of extended family in a time of crisis, and one of the major contributions is illustrating the need for more research on the subject.

Lauren Harris is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her research focuses on the structures and meanings of family, and the processes associated with developing romantic relationships, currently among older adults. You can learn more about her work here and here, and her take on The Golden Bachelor on twitter @lauren_e_harris.

Reprinted from UCI School of Sciences October 3, 2023 by Heather Ashbach

Investigating Families book cover

In her new book, Investigating Families: Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services(Princeton University Press), UCI sociology assistant professor Kelley Fong offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the impact CPS policies, practices and procedures have on the vulnerable families caught in their crosshairs. Drawing upon interviews with low-income mothers and experience embedded with CPS, Fong sheds light on what happens when we turn to an agency focused on parental mistakes as our primary solution for families facing adversity. Below, she shares her findings as well as alternative strategies for ensuring child and family well-being.

What motivates your research on Child Protective Services (CPS) and its impact on marginalized mothers and families?

Many people don’t realize how pervasive CPS is in the US. Taking children is one of the most powerful and terrifying things the government can do, so we might think we would only wield this threat in the most extreme circumstances. But it turns out that today, one in three kids experience a CPS investigation during childhood, and these rates are even higher in low-income families, Black families, and Native American families.

I’d been interested in children and families for a while. As an undergrad, I took several classes that touched on CPS in various ways, and then I worked on foster care reform after graduating. When I started grad school, there was a lot of sociological research coming out about the impacts of proactive policing and mass incarceration on social life, especially for young Black men. I thought there might be something analogous happening with CPS and the women in these same communities. I wanted to hear from them. I started by interviewing low-income mothers. Then, I wanted to look at the other side of these encounters. Researchers have rarely been able to embed with CPS, but I had some wonderful research partners in Connecticut who enabled me to shadow CPS workers as they conducted investigations.

Could you share some of your key findings and what they mean for those most impacted?

Fundamentally, CPS is oriented around child abuse and neglect. This means that they’re focused on how parents themselves are harming their kids or exposing them to harm and, as I mentioned, they have the power to remove kids from home. But today, so much of what comes to CPS is essentially family adversity in some form, like domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health needs, and homelessness. And while affluent White parents may have the resources to keep these conditions from affecting their kids or from coming to the attention of authorities, low-income parents and parents of color often don’t have that luxury.

So my research considers what it means that an agency focused on parents’ wrongdoings has become our go-to for dealing with families facing adversity. It amplifies mothers’ sense of precarity, even when children remain home, as is typical. The investigation itself is terrifying and digs into all aspects of families’ personal lives. Those facing the greatest challenges are seen as “risky” and shuttled deeper into the system. And it makes mothers think twice about reaching out for help or confiding in those who reported them to CPS. Essentially, our response to family adversity is structured around destabilizing mothers, around surveilling and evaluating and correcting them, no matter how respectful and well-meaning CPS and adjacent professionals may be.

How does reliance on CPS as a “first responder” to family misfortune and hardship affect the way society addresses family poverty and adversity?

It means that rather than actually addressing the root causes of poverty and adversity – low wages, insufficient labor protections, a weak and paternalistic welfare state, disinvestment in communities beyond the affluent, and so on – we are instead focused on what individual mothers are doing wrong. This is misguided and not actually getting at the problem. It continues a legacy of racism, threatening Black and Native American families in particular. And it’s unjust, as those in power make parenting extraordinarily difficult, then blame and penalize families for those challenges.

Based on your insights and observations, what changes or reforms do you believe are necessary in the current approach to addressing family adversity and child protection? What are some alternative strategies or models that could be used as a more effective response to ensure child and family well-being?

There’s a lot we can do right now to “narrow the front door” to CPS specifically, so that fewer families come into contact with the agency. I am inspired by grassroots efforts to educate mandated reporters on how to respond to families they are concerned about by offering support rather than rushing to report. It’s also great to see organizations that frequently report, such as hospitals, revising their reporting practices, and even jurisdictions like LA County trying to rethink the reliance on CPS reporting. CPS agencies themselves could shift screening practices to ensure that only situations posing serious child safety issues require CPS intervention. Clarifying child maltreatment statutes – for instance, to state that homelessness does not constitute child neglect – could help with this.

But of course, we don’t want to leave families homeless. So we also need to develop and invest in supports for families facing adversity. It’s a different approach to child protection, one that tries to ensure families have what they need to raise their kids. Fortunately, we know what works. There’s a growing research base on how material supports like cash assistance and childcare subsidies prevent abuse and neglect. The Expanded Child Tax Credit, which recently expired, was an enormous boon to child welfare. Supporting families and investing in community amenities like libraries and parks is child protection work. It may feel easier to turn the task of child protection over to CPS. But as I heard one CPS official say, it’s not CPS but communities that keep kids safe.

Kelley Fong is assistant professor of sociology at UC Irvine. She studies social inequality and family life, with a focus on families’ interactions with state systems. Twitter: @kelley_fong