Everyone’s relationships are different, with diverse goals, intentions, behaviors, and structures. Interviews with sexual minority, cisgender women (whom we’ll refer to as LGB+ women from now on) left us reflecting about how we can all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, think more expansively about sex, relationships, and sexual health.

Young LGB+ women are often left out of the picture by researchers and medical professionals  when it comes to sexual health- even though they’re actually at increased risk for getting sexually transmitted infections and becoming unintentionally pregnant. Similarly, LGB+ women are often left out of the picture when we talk about sex and relationships, because so many of the messages we receive about romantic and sexual relationships focus on straight couples and families. Whether we’re aware of it or not, that messaging can influence how we act in our own relationships with our partners. This is sometimes referred to as heteronormative sexual scripts.

What we wanted to find out:

Since heteronormative sexual scripts are pervasive and often unavoidable, we wanted to learn more about how these scripts show up for LGB+ women in their sexual relationships. Thus, our recent study, Queering LGB+ Cisgender Women’s Sexual Health Scripts, explored these questions: How do heteronormative sexual scripts show up in LGB+ women’s sexual relationships and health promotion decisions? If heteronormative sexual scripts do not appear in their relationships, how do LGB+ women construct sexual health scripts that are grounded in their experiences as LGB+ women?

What we did:

To answer our questions, we interviewed 22 LGB+ women about their decision-making processes when it came to their sexual health and relationships (like preventing STIs, condom use, and birth control). Our goal with these interviews was not to say that our sample reflects the sexual experiences or decisions of all LGB+ women. Rather, we used interviews to better understand a shared, lived experience more in-depth, which we can use to inform other research, social and medical policy, or relationship education. We got to listen to LGB+ women tell us about their relationship experiences so we could share the meaningful patterns with others as family and relationship scientists.

Finding 1: Redefining Sex

The women in our sample all discussed expansive definitions of sex. Participants’ definitions of sex included many components such as individual pleasure, sexual behaviors beyond penile/vaginal intercourse (e.g., touching, oral sex, sex toy use), and a focus on altruism and partner pleasure. In other words, re-defining sex had less to do with the “what” (i.e., behaviors) and more to do with the “why” (motivations, like promoting a partner’s pleasure). In this way, LGB+ women moved beyond heteronormative sexual scripts (which would say that sex really boils down to penile-vaginal intercourse) and thought creatively and expansively about what sex can look and feel like.

Finding 2: Leaning into Trust

A second pattern we noticed was that many women talked about establishing trust with potential partners as part of health promotion strategies. Through conversation, STI testing, or just getting to know their partner, they learned that they were able to trust partners to protect their sexual health. This new sexual script contrasted with a heteronormative script, which would tell us that women often act as gatekeepers around potential sexual partners who can’t be trusted. By instead falling back on trust, LGB+ women also enacted agency in their relationships, often sitting in the driver’s seat of their own sexual health decisions. (This was the case regardless of whether participants were partnered to someone of the same or a different gender.)

Finding 3: Thinking Inside and Outside the Box about Safer Sex

We also asked women about using barriers like condoms or dental dams (which are used for oral sex) to prevent STI transmission or pregnancy. Interestingly, while our participants often talked about using condoms to prevent unintended pregnancy, women did not often did not discuss using condoms as STI prevention during interviews. Centering pregnancy prevention over STI prevention is a common heteronormative sexual script. Emphasizing pregnancy prevention  also carried over into conversations about dental dams, which women did not embrace or discuss favorably (often categorizing them as unaffordable, uncomfortable, or inaccessible). Basically, if the barrier didn’t directly prevent pregnancy like condoms, it wasn’t endorsed by LGB+ women. However, women also used creative, expansive health promotion strategies like washing hands and sex toys, or urinating before or after sex with partners. In that way, LGB+ women moved beyond the idea that a barrier method is the only way to practice safer sex.

Takeaways

All in all, LGB+ women’s stories taught us that their relationships and sexual health promotion strategies are creative, expansive, and reflect their own needs and goals. Although some beliefs about sexual health were influenced by dominant heterosexual relationships and scripts (for example, a focus on pregnancy prevention over STI prevention), LGB+ women teach us that there are ways to think with and beyond what we’re told when it comes to our sexual health and relationships.

Mari Tarantino, M.S. (she/her) is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying Human Development and Family Science. Her research focuses on sexually, gender, and romantically marginalized individuals in partnerships and family contexts, as well as interdisciplinary perspectives on LGBTQ+ health. Her dissertation research will explore how transgender men and their partners make decisions about HIV prevention strategies. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_tarantino

Rose Wesche, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on how diverse interpersonal relationships, including friendships, romantic relationships, and casual sexual relationships, are associated with adolescents’ and young adults’ well-being. Rose uses diverse statistical methodologies and theoretical perspectives to examine how interpersonal relationships create risks and benefits related to health. You can follow her on Twitter @RoseWesche

Reprinted from the Council on Contemporary Families Press Release

AUSTIN, TX – May 11, 2023 

Here’s a great tip for dads who want to give their partners a Mother’s Day gift that will last all year long.  Skip the flowers and commit to sharing more of the invisible mental and emotional work of anticipating the family’s needs over the next year and planning how to meet them. Such cognitive labor is a major but largely unrecognized source of stress and depression for mothers. But here’s the good news: Fathers who take more responsibility for such work report less stress and depression than those who don’t. Sharing the load can make for a Happy Father’s Day as well as a Happy Mother’s Day.  

A briefing paper released today from the Council on Contemporary Families, “Managing the household is a stressor for mothers but not fathers,” summarizes new research on how the sharing of cognitive or mental labor, such as anticipating and monitoring family needs, organizing and planning, and making decisions, related to mothers’ and fathers’ psychological well-being during Fall 2020.

In an article published this week online in Society and Mental Health, professors Richard Petts (Ball State University) and Daniel Carlson (University of Utah) used data from 1,765 partnered parents from the Study on Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 to examine parents’ time in, and division of, cognitive labor in Fall 2020. They also examined how the division of cognitive labor related to mothers’ and fathers’ stress levels and depressive symptoms.

Petts and Carlson found that mothers spent over twice as much time on cognitive labor per week compared to fathers (5 hours vs. 2 hours per week). Notably, mothers reported that the division of cognitive labor was more unequal than the division of housework and childcare, suggesting that inequalities in the often “hidden” and never-ending mental work required to run a household may be at the core of persistent inequalities in domestic labor.

When examining associations between the share of cognitive labor and parents’ psychological well-being, mothers who were more responsible for cognitive labor reported feeling more stressed and depressed. However, fathers who took on greater responsibility for cognitive labor actually reported feeling less stressed and depressed.

As Petts and Carlson summarize the takeaway: “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 carework 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.”

FURTHER INFORMATION

To contact lead author Richard Petts, email him at rjpetts@bsu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @pettsric 

Follow Daniel Carlson on Twitter @DanielCarlson_1 

LINKS

Brief report: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/05/03/cognitive-labor-and-parents-well-being-brief-report/
Press release: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/05/03/cognitive-labor-and-parents-well-being-press-release/

ABOUT CCF

The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.

The Council helps keep journalists informed of new and forthcoming research on gender and family-related issues via the CCF Network. To locate researchers or request copies of previous research briefs, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at coontzs@msn.com, cell 360-556-9223.

Follow us! @CCF_Families and https://www.facebook.com/contemporaryfamilies

Elissa Straus
Cover of When you care: The Unexpected magic of caring for others

Elissa Strauss has been writing about the politics and culture of parenting and caregiving for more than fifteen years. Her work appears in publications like the Atlantic, the New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, TheWeek.com and elsewhere, and she was a former contributing writer at CNN.com and Slate, where her cultural criticism about motherhood appeared on DoubleX. Here, I ask her about her new book, “When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others,” which is out now from Gallery Books. You can find out more about Elissa at her website. And you can follow her on Twitter @elissaavery

AMW: How has our cultural emphasis on independence and self-reliance led to a caregiving crisis? And what does that crisis look like?

ES: Allow me to take you back with me to my 11th grade English class. I remember the moment our teacher read us Henry David Thoreau, the way her voice deepened and her spine straightened. We were, these physical changes implied, about to confront deep truths about the very nature of life. Pay attention!

Now, I don’t want to pick on Henry here, or discount his many worthy observations…that said, so much of our anti-care, anti-dependency culture can be traced back to this book and his reputation as a real American truth-teller ever since. Thoreau, who found it “wholesome to be alone;” who believed that a “man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone;” who left his home and family and “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” If I could wave a magic wand, I would make it so Henry wrote a book about the magic of independence and going away from home and his sister, let’s call her Henny, wrote a book about the magic of dependency, and staying put and raising children or caring for her parents with dementia. “A woman is rich in proportion to the number of things which she can not afford to let alone.” Imagine if we also read that in 11th grade English, and it was presented as another, equally important path to finding deeper truths. Imagine how we would value care!

We don’t have support for caregivers because we don’t value care down to our very core. We don’t value care in practical, economic or political terms. And we don’t value it in psychological, philosophical or spiritual terms, as individuals or a collective—it is simply, sadly, not part of the bigger story we tell ourselves about what it means to be a human and live a meaningful life. In my book I look at how that happened, and how that can change. Though I want to be abundantly clear that I don’t think care and dependence are only for women and solitude and independence are only for men. The dream is for both ways of being to be seen by society as equally valuable and fertile–and for people to embrace them no matter their gender identity.

AMW: How can care transcend mere practicality and enrich our lives with meaning, purpose, and a deeper connection to others?

ES: One of the big problems now is that many people are so overwhelmed by the practical demands of care–inevitable in a country that fails to support parents and caregivers and expects them to do everything on their own –that they lack the bandwidth to fully experience the emotional richness of care. This makes me so mad! So many of us are stuck in a battle to make care practically possible, that we don’t get to experience it in all its fullness.

That said, we owe it to ourselves to try to find those moments of epiphany, metamorphosis and transcendence in care, which is one of the richest experiences humans can have. Also, doing so can make the experience more meaningful and even enjoyable. The important of attention, and truly seeing another, has long been held up as an essential component of living an ethical life. Except, surprise, for a long time philosophers didn’t see this in the context of care. Really, is there anywhere the need to really see another, understand them, and anticipate their needs is more essential or complex than in parenting and caregiving? Having someone dependent on us, really puts us to the test- are we able to break through our subjective reality and make space for another? Or, keep on insisting their is one way to live, one way to experience the world, and we have it all figured out.

Or, let’s take spirituality. Care offers us so many opportunities to connect with something we may call divine, the force of life, the mystery of it all. We are, according to the bible, made in the image of God. Why not see our moments of care as important, spiritually and theologically, as going to church or volunteering for the need outside the home. As one source I spoke to for the book said, sometimes the needy are in our home! And yet, those who give to their families, people they can’t walk away from, have never been held up as saints or the righteous. It’s bananas.

AMW: How can we address issues of gender equity within the context of care?

ES: This is a one-two policy and culture change punch. We have many examples of one being not enough; dads were offered paid leave but didn’t take it because they would be punished at work, or dads trying to do more but being held back by a lack of structural support.

In my book I focused on a few things when it comes to men and care. First of all, men can care, they also have the neurological wiring to experience pleasure from giving care, and care changes them physiologically. Indeed, as much of this research shows, we don’t care because we love. We love because we care.

Second, men still do not do enough care for children or ill, older or disabled people, but they are doing way more than their fathers or grandfathers did. Also, many of them like it. They report it to be meaningful and a big part of their identity. But they do need our support because many of them were not raised with training on how to care like girls are.

I hope my book helps men see care as more than an obligation, and, ideally, more than a right. I hope my book helps men see care as an opportunity. Something that could expand their horizons and add meaningful complexity to their lives,  if they’d only let it.

Alicia M. Walker is Associate Professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. She is the current editor of the Council of Contemporary Families blog. Follow her on Twitter at @AliciaMWalker1.

Mother and child. Untitled by Jupi Lui licensed by Pixaby

Reprinted from the Council on Contemporary Families Brief Reports published on November 2021.

A summary of forthcoming research prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Jennifer Glass, R. Kelly Raley (UT, Austin), and Joanna Pepin (Univ. at Buffalo, SUNY)

About 70% of U.S. moms can expect to be primary financial providers before their children turn 18.

In a substantial number of families with children, mothers, whether single or partnered, are now the primary breadwinner. More than 40 percent of American mothers solely or primarily support their minor children through their own earnings in any given year. For most of the 20th century, except in wartime, says historian Stephanie Coontz, women who were the primary source of their children’s income were generally unmarried, divorced, or widowed. But for the past two decades, the most rapid growth in breadwinning mothers has been among partnered women.  As late as 2000, only 15 percent of primary-earning mothers were married. But by 2017, married women accounted for almost 40 percent of mothers whose earnings were the primary support for their families.[1]

These figures actually understate the chance that a mother will at some point be the primary economic support for her children, since they represent only a static cross-section of families in any one year. The number of years mothers primarily rely on their own earnings to support their children provides a better picture of children’s financial dependence on moms. In a study to be released this month in the peer-reviewed journal Socius, “Children’s Financial Dependence on Mothers: Propensity and Duration,” we use recent data from the Census Bureau’s 2014-2017 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to estimate a mother’s chance of ever being the family breadwinner over her first 18 years of motherhood, as well as the average duration of a mother’s role as primary household earner. We conservatively define breadwinning as earning at least 60 percent of her household’s earnings in the previous year.

We find that in the 18 years following the birth of their first child, about 70 percent of American mothers can expect to be the primary breadwinner in their household for at least one year. The average time such mothers can expect to spend as primary breadwinner is nearly 6 years.

The experience of being the family’s primary breadwinner occurs across all educational levels. We find that 62 percent of mothers without a high school diploma will support their households at some time during the first 18 years of motherhood, a figure that rises to 67 percent among those with a high school diploma. About 71 percent of mothers who are college graduates will at some point bring in more than 60 percent of household earnings, and a whopping 76 percent of mothers who attend college but do not obtain a degree will serve as primary breadwinners for their household for some period of time. These mothers also average a longer duration as primary breadwinners. Mothers with “some college” but no degree are not a small part of the population. Thirty percent of all mothers fall into this category.

Our findings demonstrate that many American children already depend primarily on their mothers’ earnings for their well-being, and that most will likely do so at some point in their childhood. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the tremendous risks to children when mothers cannot earn money for their families because they do not have access to childcare and/or paid caregiving leave. In large part because of the lack of such supports, mothers have experienced job losses at over twice the rate of fathers in this crisis. For many families the economic consequences of mothers’ COVID-19 related employment interruptions will last well into the future, and research shows that even just a few years of economic deprivation or insecurity pose long-term risks to children.  It is time for policy-makers and social planners to recognize the near ubiquity of children’s reliance on their mothers’ earnings across all sections of the population.


[1] Author calculations based on the 1990-2000 Censuses and 2010-2017 American Community Surveys

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The study discussed in this briefing paper is forthcoming in Socius, the open-access journal of the American Sociological Association. I would like to recognize my co-authors R. Kelly Raley, and Joanna Pepin. We are also greatly appreciative of Stephanie Coontz’ feedback and editorial assistance on this briefing paper.

An older man smiling. Untitled by go_see licensed by Pixaby

Marriage is often regarded as one of the most vital aspects of Hispanic culture. This is largely attributed to the traditional Hispanic cultural values— Familismo. Marriage is not just a union between two individuals, but an extension of the most significant social network – family – over other forms of social relationships, such as friendship networks and professional networks. Because of its cultural significance, marriage can impact many aspects of life, such as health, happiness, and quality of life among Hispanic adults.

One’s social network tends to shrink in later life for three reasons. First, language barriers may prevent making friends and participating in social activities. One in three Hispanic adults are immigrants in the United States, and English may not be their first language. Second, not all Hispanic immigrants or Hispanic Americans are fully acculturated to the mainstream U.S. culture, and therefore, are left behind in cultural and political participation. Third, from a life course perspective, some older adults experience aging-related changes, such as retirement from work (e.g., partial loss of professional network) and functional limitations (e.g., hearing impairment, joint pain). These aging-related changes may make their existing social network smaller and make it challenging for some older adults to be socially engaged. As a result, Hispanic older adults may rely more heavily on their spouses and immediate family for companionship and socialization.

Previous research has shown that the quality of close social relationships — spouses, family, and other social circles — can impact older adults’ health and happiness. One of the longest-running 85-year-old (and counting) research studies by Harvard University showed that people who maintained positive social relationships, regardless of the size of their social circle, are more likely to be happy in later life. Also, a number of research studies show that social relationships are linked with optimal aging, health, and well-being.

So, perhaps it sounds like having a good social relationship is all that matters? Not so fast. Family sociologists Kristi Williams, Adrianne French, and Daniel Carlson explain that marriages can have different impacts on one’s life. On the one hand, the marital resource model suggests that marriage can provide an essential social circle (e.g., a sense of belonging) and a variety of other forms of economic and instrumental support. On the other hand, the marital crisis model suggests that a “bad” marriage and relationship conflicts are major sources of stress, which leads to mental health problems. And it is also possible that people who have good mental health, resources (e.g., financial resources), and social skills just get married and stay married.

What happens when a marital relationship is not entirely positive? Two things. Marital quality matters. Having a close social relationship is one thing, but the quality of that relationship may impact health and well-being. Culture matters. When people value certain aspects of life, such as family relationships, based on their cultural briefs and norms, the impacts on health and well-being become larger. In other words, a “good” marriage may provide more health benefits, whereas “bad” marriage may harm health even more among people with a family-oriented cultural background. Let us also not forget that a marital relationship can be both good in some aspects and bad in other aspects.

Putting these puzzle pieces together, we decided to learn more about marital quality, which is important to our health, and Hispanic older adults who have unique demographic characteristics (e.g., high % of immigrants) and culturally value family relationships (i.e., Familismo) in the United States.

In our recent research, we looked at the relationships between marital quality and depressive symptoms among older married Hispanic adults aged 51 years and older in the United States. We analyzed the data from the 2016 and 2018 U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Positive marital quality of Hispanic older adults is assessed by their ratings of whether their spouses understand their feelings, can be relied on for serious problems, and listen to their worries. Negative marital quality is assessed based on their rating of how often their spouses make too many demands, criticize them, let them down, and get on their nerves.

We found that both positive and negative marital quality are related to the number of depressive symptoms reported. Positive marital quality is protective of depressive symptoms and negative marital quality is detrimental to depressive symptoms. Indeed, Hispanic older adults who reported higher positive marital quality scores (1-4 points: low-high) by 1 point, had about 24% fewer depressive symptoms. Those who reported higher negative marital quality scores (1-4 points: low-high) by 1 point had about 24% greater number of depressive symptoms.

Our research suggests that promoting marital relationships is a public health investment. Family support and social support policies are public health policies in the United States. Throughout adult life stages, aging is related to changing social networks, which may lead to greater reliance on close family relationships in later life. The impact of social relationships and relationship quality on health may differ based on sociocultural background. In this respect, marital quality can be more imperative to Hispanic older adults, as some of them may face limited social circles due to language and cultural barriers in U.S. society, despite the cultural significance of familism. A better understanding of marital quality and sociocultural characteristics can help develop culturally sensitive public health and family support policies. Our research project will continue disentangling complex relationships between marital quality and health among Hispanic older adults. We believe that other cultural characteristics, such as religiosity and alcohol consumption as a stress coping mechanism, can help us better understand what sociocultural factors matter to the health of Hispanic older adults.

About authors:

Jaminette M. Nazario-Acevedo, MPH, is a doctoral student in the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Gerontology Doctoral Program. Her research interests are aging and health among Hispanic populations in the United States and Puerto Rico. Follow her on Twitter @Jaminettena

Takashi Yamashita, PhD, MA, MPH, FGSA is a professor of sociology and gerontology at UMBC. His research interests are the wider benefits of lifelong learning and education over the life course, health literacy, gerontology education, and social statistics education. You can follow him on Twitter @dryamataka

Jennifer Roebuck Bulanda, PhD, MA, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University. Her research interests include family relationships and their connections with physical and mental health, particularly during the later life course. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenBulanda

J. Scott Brown, PhD, MA, MS, FGSA is Professor and Chair of Sociology and Gerontology and a Scripps Gerontology Center Research Fellow at Miami University. His research interests are inequalities in health across the life course, especially racial and ethnic inequalities, and statistical and quantitative methodologies.

A woman meditating. Untitled by Kei licensed by Pixaby

A woman’s independence is often linked to her ability to control her body and her reproductive choices. If women can prevent and plan for pregnancies, they can control not only their bodies but other life decisions. Although the women I interviewed do not necessarily identify with being part of a childfree cultural movement, there is no denying that their individual choices to not parent are part of a choir of voices challenging the expectations of womanhood. One of my participants, Nancy (44), talked about never wanting children and wondered if there was something wrong with her because she never felt the ticking clock:

“Um, I have never wanted children. That’s something that I have known. Gosh, since I was young. And I’ll you know, and I think norms are cultural norms. And society kind of puts a lot of pressures. And I know, I’ve gone through a stage in my life where I’ve questioned it. Even when I was 38-39. I remember seeing my, my doctor and I was like, can you do like a hormone check to maybe like, check, because I’ve never had this like, ticking clock. I just never had had this desire to have children. I love children, I was a school counselor. But personally, I’ve never had a desire to, to have children.”

The women in my study are not women torn between motherhood and profession. Most did not feel they had to make a choice between professional goals or their desire to be mothers. Most of them never wanted to be mothers, nor did they see having children as essential to their lives. They wanted to pursue a life of independence on their terms, and motherhood was incompatible with that lifestyle. Sam (38) also felt she was not emotionally healthy enough to raise a child and thought it would be selfish of her to raise a child without first raising herself:

“Um I don’t want to put another being through what I went through, and I don’t feel

healthy enough that I actually have the capacity to raise a human being. So that’s part of it. Um, that’s absolutely part of it. And like, you know, I think my mother never should have had kids, like she wasn’t capable of raising and caring for beings the way they need. Um, and then the other part is, like, you know, I would call it somewhat jokingly being selfish, but like, I have so much work to do re-raising myself, and putting it like, that I didn’t have as a kid … I am the one, the only one I can get that from. So, I’m already raising a person and it’s me.”

Sam may have been joking (somewhat), but the role of nurturing can be multifaceted. Sam is not incorrect to acknowledge the role we play in nurturing ourselves. For some people, it may take a lifetime of self-care to make them whole. The women in my study are not all carefree following ducks in a park. Some of them are responsible for others in their lives. Two of the women have power of attorney for ailing parents, and others are caretakers for a parent or other family member. They are not immature or selfish. Some of the women in my study took care of others when they themselves were still children and had adult responsibilities. Although this has been viewed as a form of selfishness, I contend that these women have every right to live an autonomous life. Caring for one’s self, including physical and mental health, should not be interpreted as being selfish in the conventional sense of the word. These women have chosen to focus on self-care.

A woman’s body is the battlefield for which the cultural war of motherhood vs. non-motherhood is waged. Yet, this is a war where no one can win. Society has created divisions within divisions, and the divisions of women who are mothers and those who are not mothers are seemingly endless: women who gave birth vaginally or mothers who had cesarean births, women who breastfed or women who bottle fed, women who received an epidural and those who did not, women who carried their baby in their body or women who used a surrogate, and this does even begin to address the women who do not have children voluntarily and the women who wanted children and were not able to conceive. Even the terms childless and childfree are both problematic. These create a moral division between women who want to have children and could not, and women who never wanted children.

Motherhood is not the only important role women can play in society. Single and childfree women are not expendable. Women can fulfill a myriad of roles that help make society better, even if they are not wives and mothers. I argue that womanhood and motherhood are not synonymous and they should be viewed as independent identities. This separation would allow for a broader landscape to describe and define women who choose not to have children. They have chopped down their own trees, cleared the brush, and they are entitled to live a life for which they have created the path for. They are not asking others to live with their choices, nor do they want to be forced to live by the decisions of others. Therefore, there is no need to feel pity for the childfree woman. She has bought her own bed, assembled it herself, and is perfectly content to sleep in it alone – if she chooses.

Kimberly Martinez Phillips is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her dissertation studies the lives of childfree, never-married single women of color. Follow her on Twitter @ichoosefeminism

Workers sit around a table. Untitled licensed by unsplash.com

It’s nice to be liked—and it even comes with benefits in the workplace. Likeable individuals are seen as nice, sincere, good-natured, and trustworthy, and consequently are more likely to be rewarded at work. Likeability is so widely recognized as desirable for workers that nearly every business-focused website has articles providing tips on how to be seen as more likeable at work.

In a newly published study in Community, Work & Family, we considered whether workers are seen as more likeable when they take longer periods of paid parental leave. While numerous studies document workplace penalties for workers who take paid parental leave (such as assumptions of lower job commitment), we anticipated some positive consequences as well that have mostly been overlooked. Specifically, we suspected that parental leave-taking may demonstrate concern and compassion for others and consequently enhance perceived likeability. To test this idea, we conducted a survey experiment involving approximately 1,600 U.S. participants to assess the general public’s perception of how taking paid parental leave affects perceptions of worker likeability.

We find that workers are generally perceived as more likeable when they take longer periods of paid parental leave. But, there are some important gender differences. For mothers, likeability increases with each week of paid leave-taking. Consistent with intensive motherhood norms, mothers are seen as more likeable when they take longer leaves because they are demonstrating commitment to parenting and adhering to broader gender norms. In contrast, fathers are seen as more likeable when they take most, but not all, of the parental leave offered to them. Although fathers are now expected to be engaged parents, they are also still expected to be breadwinners. Our findings likely reflect these competing expectations, as fathers are seen as most likeable when they appear to balance both parenting and work obligations.

These results provide important nuance to our understanding of workplace consequences associated with parental leave-taking. Americans are largely supportive of paid parental leave policies, but remain fearful about possible workplace repercussions from taking leave. On one hand, our results could be seen as reinforcing these concerns. Mothers are seen as most likeable when they prioritize family over work which could reinforce gender stereotypes and workplace disadvantages for women. And, fathers are indeed penalized if they take especially long periods of paid parental leave. On the other hand, our study demonstrates that there may be positive workplace consequences to leave-taking as well. Knowing this may lead workers to be more willing to take parental leave given that likeability is a desired and rewarded workplace trait. In fact, our analyses also suggest that more likeable workers (both mothers and fathers) are more likely to be recommended for raises and promotions. Thus, expanding access to paid parental leave and encouraging workers to take leave may improve perceived likeability, which may ultimately be beneficial for workers’ careers and help promote gender equality in paid labor.

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 X @pettsric.

Trenton D. Mize is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. You can read more about his research at www.trentonmize.com and can follow him on X @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 X @gakaufman22.

This picture was found on unsplash.com. Caption: “Workers who take paid parental leave are seen as more likeable.”

A dorm building. “Untitled” by eduardovieiraphoto licensed by Pixaby.

Christian colleges and universities make up around one-third of all colleges and universities in the United States, and many of these schools maintain policies that make it difficult for people of different genders to interact with each other in campus housing. For example, while an increasing number of secular colleges and universities offer gender-neutral housing, many Christian colleges and universities refuse to do so. Why might this be the case? In our new study, we argue that many U.S. Christian colleges and universities’ decision to maintain “gendered” housing, roommate, and visitation policies may be informed not only by their conservative, cisnormative (the assumption that everyone identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth) views on gender, but also by their heteronormative (a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation) views of sexuality.

Through an analysis of residence life policies at 609 Christian colleges and universities in the United States, we discovered that 27% of Christian colleges and universities segregate women and men into different residence halls. In addition, 86% of Christian colleges and universities require that students room with someone of the same gender. And 72% of Christian colleges and universities maintain gender-specific visitation policies that require students to follow a strict set of rules if they wish to visit the room of someone of a different gender, such as signing in at a front desk, leaving doors propped open, and keeping lights turned on.

Schools’ conservative, cisnormative beliefs about gender certainly inform their decisions to maintain these policies. Specifically, members of white, conservative Christian denominations are more likely to believe that there are only two biologically determined genders and that women and men are characterized by innate, essential gender differences. Such beliefs likely influence some Christian colleges and universities’ decision to place all students into one of two types of residence halls—women’s dorms or men’s dorms—and then enforce roommate and visitation policies that assume all students identify as women or men.

In addition to adhering to such beliefs about gender, most Christian colleges and universities expect their students to adhere to conservative Christian norms regarding appropriate sexual behavior, such as avoiding premarital sexual intercourse. LGBTQ students are also discriminated against at many Christian colleges and universities; for example, in line with prior research, 28% of Christian colleges and universities in our sample explicitly prohibit same-sex relationships. Because many Christian colleges and universities believe that their students are (or should be) heterosexual, and want their students to refrain from sexual intercourse, they place students into rooms and residence halls where they cannot easily be alone with a person of a different gender.

Yet, our work also suggests a deep irony in schools’ adoption of gendered residence life policies. Specifically, the same schools that condemn same-sex relationships and seek to exclude LGBTQ students from their campus actually craft policies that provide more opportunities for lesbian and gay students (as opposed to straight students) to live alongside, room with, or visit the dorms of their romantic partners. Thus, the assumptions about sexuality that underlie Christian colleges and universities’ gendered housing, roommate, and visitation policies are internally contradictory in that they have the potential to enable some of the same behaviors (e.g., same-sex dating) that they seek to prohibit and undermine some of the same behaviors (e.g., heterosexual dating) that those schools support. 

To be sure, we do not suggest that it is easier to be LGBTQ on a conservative Christian campus; many schools continue to punish students who are caught dating people of the same sex, and many schools have chilly campus climates that make it difficult for LGBTQ students to be comfortably out. But what our research does suggest is that schools’ heteronormative residence life policies are not firmly tethered to reality. Crafting residence life policies that assume that all students are men or women who are attracted to the so-called “opposite sex” inevitably means that some students will be living alongside people of the gender to which they are attracted. 

The internal contradictions underlying Christian colleges and universities’ residence life policies suggest that Christian colleges and universities’ residence life policies are in need of rethinking and that attempts to enforce cisnormative, heteronormative policies simply will not work. Although evidence suggests that gendered residence life policies have a negative impact on LGBTQ students’ (and especially transgender and nonbinary students’) mental health, current U.S. Department of Education policy enables religiously affiliated colleges and universities to maintain them. To challenge this state of affairs, organizations like the Religious Exemption Accountability Project have filed lawsuits against many Christian colleges and universities’ policies on gender and sexuality. Many LGBTQ students and their allies also continue to mobilize in favor of more inclusive, equitable policies at their schools. It is possible that such efforts will convince more schools to adopt gender-neutral residence life policies in the years to come.

Jessica Schachle-Gordon is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. You can follow her on Twitter @JessicaSchachle

Gabby Gomez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology department at Oklahoma State University. Follow her on Twitter @gabgo128

Jonathan S. Coley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University. You can learn more about his work here and follow him on Twitter @jcoleysociology

Dan Morrison is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. You can follow him on Twitter @danielrmorrison

Mother holding and breastfeeding a child. “Untitled” by StockSnap Licensed by Pixaby

Reprinted from Council on Contemporary Families Brief Reports published on May 31, 2023

Recent infant formula shortages in the United States have reignited debates about the importance of breastfeeding for child health and development. Major health and medical organizations unanimously recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants for six months or more, and breastfeeding has become a hallmark of ideal parenting. Children who are breastfed generally have lower rates of child obesity, fewer behavior and conduct disorders in childhood, and higher cognitive test scores compared to children who are not breastfed.

Although over 80% of infants receive some breastmilk, only 26% are exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months. This is partially because breastfeeding is time-intensive and requires a lot of support. As a result, breastfeeding is socially stratified in the United States and is most common among those with the most resources. For example, women with a college degree are twice as likely to exclusively breastfeed for six months compared to those with a high school degree.

Public health initiatives suggest that increasing breastfeeding rates among populations that are less likely to breastfeed is an important strategy for improving children’s health and development. But a growing body of research suggests that benefits of breastfeeding may have been overstated. We cannot conduct randomized controlled trials for breastfeeding, so it’s difficult to tell whether it is directly causing improvements in children’s health, or if breastfed children tend to have better outcomes because of their parent’s other socioeconomic advantages. Studies using sophisticated statistical techniques to account for these complicated dynamics find that, all else equal, the causal effect of breastfeeding is weak or nonexistent. For example, when we compare siblings in the same family who were fed differently (one sibling was breastfed and the other was not, or they were breastfed for different amounts of time), they tend to have very similar physical, behavioral, and cognitive development.

The lack of an average causal benefit of breastfeeding, however, does not mean that it confers no advantages.  Averages can obscure substantial variation, particularly for behaviors like breastfeeding that are highly influenced by social and economic factors. In such cases, asking if breast is best is too simplistic a question. Better questions to ask are: Does breastfeeding benefit all children equally? Or do some children reap greater benefits than others?

I conducted a study with my co-authors Kerri Raissian and Jiyeon Kim to answer these questions. Our study analyzed data from a longitudinal nationally representative sample to evaluate the relationship between breastfeeding and a comprehensive set of longer-term developmental outcomes for children ages 4-14. Specifically, we examined body mass index (BMI), three measures of behavioral development, and five measures of cognitive skills. We used statistical techniques to carefully compare children who were breastfed to children who were never breastfed but had very similar characteristics. We also grouped children based on their likelihood of breastfeeding and compared the effects across these different groups to assess whether everyone benefitted equally. We found that breastfeeding provides small benefits for children’s behavioral development, math scores, and academic ability, but only among those that are highly likely to breastfeed. We also found small benefits for children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary, but these effects were concentrated among those who were least likely to breastfeed.

One key takeaway from our study is that breastfeeding does not equally benefit everyone. What explains this variation?

One potential answer is that people experience the costs of breastfeeding differently. Although breastmilk is “free,” breastfeeding is not costless in American society. Breastfeeding is associated with prolonged earnings losses for women, in part due to lack of paid parental leave and time out of the workforce. This economic penalty may be more easily absorbed by women who are financially secure but is a more significant hardship for low-income or single women. Lack of economic resources may offset some of the benefits of breastfeeding for these children who are less likely to breastfeed. This could explain why we found that breastfeeding is related to better behavior, math scores, and academic ability among those who are most likely to breastfeed.

Another potential source of variation is that people experience the benefits of breastfeeding differently. If more advantaged parents are already providing an optimal home environment or parenting in ways that promote their children’s health or cognitive skills, they may not receive an additional boost from breastfeeding. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all parents read to their children from birth through kindergarten, and it is possible that parents who adopt this practice are also likely to follow the AAP recommendations for breastfeeding. If parents who are less likely to breastfeed do not engage in these early literacy activities to the same extent, the benefits of breastfeeding could be amplified among this group. This might explain why we found that breastfeeding is linked with better reading comprehension and vocabulary among children who are least likely to breastfeed. Parents may be less equipped to compensate for quantitative skills given that we did not find this pattern for math scores.

The second key takeaway is that the benefits of breastfeeding are modest. For example, among children who were least likely to breastfeed, those who breastfed for 6 months or more had about 30% of a standard deviation higher reading comprehension score than those who were never breastfed. In comparison, four extra days of mother-child shared reading time per month increases reading achievement by 32% of a standard deviation. On a broader scale, expansions in Universal Pre-K are linked with larger increases in letter-word identification (79% of a standard deviation) and spelling scores (64% of a standard deviation).

To be clear, we are not saying that breastfeeding isn’t an ideal source of nutrition for infants, or that other parenting practices or policies are direct substitutes. Rather, parents and policymakers should consider breastfeeding as one potential tool among others that may provide comparable or larger benefits for longer-term child development. This is especially useful information given the very real tradeoffs that many mothers make. It may also help to relieve some of the stigma and shame that some mothers experience when they are unable to breastfeed.

Our study provides insights for public policy. We highlight socioeconomic and racial inequality in breastfeeding within the United States. The US provides a weak safety net for parents of young children and offers no federal paid family leave. Factors such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, income, marital status, and employment are strongly related to the likelihood that a mother will breastfeed.

Furthermore, we demonstrate that the social context not only shapes who breastfeeds in American society, but also who benefits most. Efforts to increase breastfeeding rates among populations that are least likely to breastfeed are unlikely to close disparities in child development. The benefits of breastfeeding are largely concentrated among the populations that are already likely to breastfeed. To level the playing field, rather than merely telling mothers that “breast is best,” policies should focus on reducing structural barriers and economic costs for mothers who want to breastfeed. For many mothers in the United States, breastfeeding is ideal but unattainable.

Jessica Houston Su is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. You can follow them on Twitter: @jesshoustonsu

Bella DePaulo is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She is also an Academic Affiliate in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has written for Medium, Psychology Today, HuffPost, New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNN, Time magazine, the Atlantic, New York magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her TedX talk, What no one ever told you about people who are single, has over a million views. Here, I ask DePaulo about her new book, Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life. You can find out more at: https://belladepaulo.com/ You can follow them on Twitter: @belladepaulo

Cover of Single at Heart

AMW: What is being single at heart? Is that different from just being single?

For people who are single at heart, single life is their best life – their most joyful, meaningful, fulfilling, psychologically rich, and authentic life. They love being single and want to stay single. They don’t want to organize their life around a romantic partner. They are happy and flourishing because they are single, not in spite of it.

Single people who do not like being single are not single at heart. Even single people who want to stay single may not be single at heart if their reasons are only negative ones – for example, they hate dating, or they have given up on “finding someone,” or they have challenges that make it difficult to pursue or maintain a romantic relationship. People who are single at heart are powerfully drawn to single life for positive reasons; they value all that single life has to offer.

AMW: What are the advantages of being single at heart?
Here are a few of the advantages of being single at heart that I discuss in my Single at Heart book:

  1. People who are single at heart love the time they have to themselves. In solitude, they enjoy the opportunities for relaxation, creativity, productivity, spirituality, and just getting to be themselves. That’s a whole different experience than fearing solitude or finding it deeply distressing, as can happen, for example, when people are alone not because they enjoy being alone, but because they have been rejected or ostracized. People such as the single at heart who appreciate alone time have some great advantages. Contrary to stereotypes, they are very unlikely to feel lonely. Feeling comfortable in solitude helped the single at heart fare better than a lot of other people during the worst of the pandemic. Their embrace of solitude also means that they are very unlikely to become the caricature of the older single person who is isolated and sad.
  2. People who are single at heart have the freedom to follow their hearts and live according to their values. Within the limits of their resources and opportunities, the single at heart might use their freedom to continue to learn and to grow, to do meaningful work, and to chart their own life courses, rather than following the expected path through adult life. They appreciate their financial freedom, getting to be the deciders, and arranging their homes and their everyday lives just the way they want them. One of the stereotypes of single people is that they are selfish, but some people who are single at heart use their freedom to be there for the important people in their lives and to contribute to their communities or their nation.
  3. Because they are not organizing their lives around a romantic partner, the single at heart are often devoted friends. They can spend time with, and care for, as many people as they want, whenever they want, without worrying about romantic partners who may want more of that attention for themselves.
  4. Because the single at heart embrace their single lives and invest in them, they are often particularly well prepared for later life. Because they don’t marginalize their friends to focus on a spouse or romantic partner (they have “The Ones” rather than “The One”), they are likely to have a number of people who are there for them as they grow older. Because they don’t divide up the chores and tasks of everyday life with a romantic partner, they head into their later years already knowing how to do everything that needs to be done, or they have found people to hire or who will help. They are often good planners. For example, one of the single at heart women who shared her life story with me was only 33, but she was already having renovations done on her home that would make it more likely that she could live there as long as possible.  
  5. The single at heart have more expansive, open-hearted perspectives on intimacy and love. Sure, intimacy can include sexual intimacy, but it also includes emotional intimacy. And to the single at heart, love encompasses so much more than just romantic love. For example:
    1. About intimacy, a 61-year-old single at heart woman said: “When people share their deepest sorrows, fears, and joys with you, that’s intimacy. Giving people long hugs is intimacy.”
    1. About love, a 47-year-old single at heart schoolteacher said: “I love my blood family. I love my chosen family. I love my students, my pets, and pursuing my creative endeavors. My family, pets, and friends love me. My students love me.”

AMW: What are the biggest misconceptions about single life?

One of the most important misconceptions, and the one I most fervently want to dismantle in Single at Heart, is that what single people want, more than anything else, is to not be single. I review some striking evidence shattering that stereotype in the book. Challenging that misconception is important because when people believe that no one really wants to stay single, then single life gets treated as a lesser life. The stories told about single people’s lives are deficit narratives. What I find really stunning is that these deficit narratives are so powerful, and so rarely challenged, that single people who love their single lives worry that there is something wrong with them. Think about that: They have what we all crave – a life they find meaningful and fulfilling. And yet, they write to advice columnists, read self-help books, and go to therapy to figure out why they have this “problem” of liking single life!

Just about all the other stereotypes of single people turn out to be exactly wrong. For example, single people are often described as “alone” or “unattached” or as people who “don’t have anyone.” But in fact, research shows that single people are often more connected to more different people. Single people are often regarded as selfish, but in important ways, they are more generous with their time, money, and caring. And of course, the big one – that single people are unhappy; and as they grow older, they become even more dissatisfied with their single lives; and if only they would get married, they really would live happily ever after. I review evidence dispelling all of those misleading notions, and more, in Single at Heart.