Families as They Really Are

Although many older Americans have had long marriages, the proportions of Americans over age 50 who have been divorced and remarried have increased substantively over the past 25 years. In fact, individuals in the early ‘baby boomer’ cohort (born between 1946 and 1955) have divorced and remarried more often than any other age cohorts. It is not surprising, therefore, that many multi-generational American families include stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. This is relevant to multi-generational relationships and perhaps to the future care of these stepgrandparents.

In our studies, we have identified four distinct pathways to becoming a stepgrandparent, and we have conducted a series of investigations designed to uncover how these different pathways affect the formation of stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships. In a recent study we interviewed 48 young adult stepgrandchildren, comparing their perceptions of 44 long-term stepgrandparents who joined the stepfamily before these stepgrandchildren were born, with their perceptions of 28 later-life stepgrandparents who joined their stepfamilies when the stepgrandchildren were late adolescents or young adults). A number of these adult stepgrandchildren had more than one stepgrandparent, and we asked about all of them.

The differences between each pathway have been theorized to result in relationship differences. Long-term stepgrandparents’ are in relationships with stepgrandchildren because they became stepparents when their stepchildren were young – years before those stepchildren reproduced and made them a stepgrandparent. In this figure, Jay is a stepgrandfather to Meg. Jay married Laura in 1994, and Colin became his 8-year-old stepson. As an adult, Colin married Kayla in 2014, and Kayla gave birth to Meg two years later. Jay is a long-term stepgrandfather. As Meg grows up, she will always have had Ian, Laura, and Jay as grandparents on her father’s side of the family (for simplicity, we ignore Kayla’s family tree in this illustration). Jay was a member of Meg’s family long before she was born.



Comparatively, later-life stepgrandparents acquire adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren following their remarriage to a grandparent; the new stepchildren are often middle-aged parents, and stepgrandchildren are often adolescents or older. The figure is an example of a later-life stepfamily. Cal married Sue in 2016. Sue has a daughter, Denise, who was 48 when her mom remarried. Denise had three children, ranging in age from 17 to 32 when Sue remarried. Those children are now Cal’s stepgrandchildren. Therefore, Cal is a later-life stepgrandfather to Jannie, Alex, and Fred.


The structural factors matter in how multi-generational stepfamilies interact and may affect the quality of stepfamily relationships. We discovered from our interviews that long-term stepgrandparents (like Jay) much more closely resemble biological grandparents in their relationships with stepgrandchildren than do later-life stepgrandparents, and they generally are called by family names (e.g., Grandpa, Nana). In large part this is because of conditions associated with the timing of remarriages and the subsequent personal histories that stepgrandchildren have with biological and stepgrandparents. Although the middle-generation influences how the stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren bond in both long-term and later-life stepfamilies, parents in long-term stepfamilies control the amount of interactions between the older and younger generations more. Both later life stepgrandchildren and the middle generation adults, because they experience the remarriage of grandparents at the same time, concurrently are grieving the past (i.e., after the death of a grandparent) and trying to make sense of the family transitions. Perhaps not surprisingly, In long-term stepfamilies, relationships and kin connections usually have been defined long ago when the middle generation parents were quite young. The stepgrandchildren did not enter the family until long after remarriage transitions. These long-term stepgrandparent-stepgrandchild relationships and their multigenerational families generally functioned like grandparent-grandchild relationships in first-marriage multigenerational families; later-life families and relationships did not.

The stepgrandchildren did not remember a time when their stepgrandparent had not been a part of the family. Similar to findings from previous research, our results suggest that contextual factors, namely the timing of life events and transitions, duration of key family relationships, and opportunities for intergenerational interaction (e.g., co-residence, affinity-building), matter tremendously for if, how, and to what extent, intergenerational steprelationships are developed, maintained, and associated with caregiving and support exchanges, particularly in later-life.

Results from our study suggest that later-life stepgrandparents may be especially at risk for diminished social support, particularly from adult stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. These relationships often did not have enough time to develop before the older stepgrandparent needed care or other help. The later-life stepgrandparent had not had time to do things that bond people together – hanging out, giving gifts and sharing resources, having fun together. As a result, younger generations did not feel a sense of obligation or a need to reciprocate past gifts of the later-life stepgrandparent. The stepgrandchildren and their parents often referred to the later-life stepgrandparent as “grandma’s new husband” or “grandpa’s new wife.” Although stepgrandchildren’s thoughts and feelings about long-term and later-life stepgrandparents are worth exploring and shed light on complex family processes, we are unable to draw conclusions about the experiences of middle-generation parents or stepgrandparents. Because individuals experience family transitions differently, and these transitions, in turn, inform kinship ideologies and family interactions, more research is needed to glean the perspectives of family members from multiple family roles. Analyses of qualitative data garnered from multiple perspectives (e.g., biological grandparents, biological parents, stepgrandparents) would offer additional insights about family transitions and relationship trajectories. Data from more diverse multigenerational stepfamilies would also add to our knowledge base, as most of our respondents self-identified as White and ‘middle-class.’ Moreover, some stepgrandchildren were reporting on relationships with deceased stepgrandparents. Although the degree to which the death of stepgrandparents influenced stepgrandchildren’s narratives about their family relationships remains an empirical question, it is possible that interviews about dead relatives may differ in important ways from interviews about living relatives. Finally, family relationships and dynamics, including roles/rules, symbols, and language, are likely to vary across cultures, yet we are unable to speak to the influence of culture on intergenerational steprelationships given the cultural homogeneity of our sample.

This study has moved beyond describing stepgrandparenthood pathways to exploring underlying processes in intergenerational relationship building. Relationship quality among stepgrandparents and stepgrandchildren may vary widely, regardless of pathway. We have illuminated here the dynamics by which these distinct types of intergenerational stepfamilies diverge. Researchers and practitioners who work with older stepfamilies can utilize this knowledge to better think about, work with, and support stepgrandparents in later life. For researchers, knowing about pathways to stepfamily status (i.e., “How did they get here?”) provides hypotheses or assumptions to explore. In future studies of stepgrandparents, we encourage researchers to consider and attend to structural pathways, as the variability of stepgrandparent “types” is often an overlooked, yet important, distinction. For practitioners, understanding if, how, and to what extent stepgrandchildren’s relationships with stepgrandparents impact both upward and downward exchanges of social support, particularly as stepgrandparents age, can be useful in working with families to create care plans for older adults in later-life. Issues of who will care for frail stepgrandparents can only be addressed effectively by an understanding of the diversity of multigenerational stepkin relationships. Moreover, understanding pathway implications to stepgrandparenthood can enhance science and practice with older step-couples. Our findings illuminate expectations about new partner involvement in family life following transitions such as death, divorce, and remarriage.





Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu

Years ago, when interviewing a woman in a study of stepfamilies, I (Coleman) was struck by comments she made about her ex-stepdaughter. This woman had helped raise the girl from early childhood (age 2) into early adolescence. The father of this girl had physical custody of her because the child’s mother suffered from a drug addiction. The stepmother I interviewed and the father of this girl had divorced when the stepdaughter was 12 or 13 and the woman never saw the child after that. In the interview, the former stepmother shared through tears that after the divorce her ex-stepdaughter had called and written several letters begging her to get in touch, but she had not, she told me, because “it didn’t seem appropriate.” This was during an era when divorced couples generally were expected to sever all ties and not cooperate with each other in any way – after all, the thinking went, if the couple could get along well, then why had they divorced? When remarried couples divorced, children nearly always went with the biological parent and often never saw or interacted with their stepparent or stepsiblings again. This “clean break” of stepfamily ties after divorce may have seemed “natural” and “normal” to many adults – after all, stepparents were neither genetically nor legally related to stepchildren, but to some stepchildren and stepparents, such as the woman I interviewed and her ex-stepdaughter, these breaks were emotionally painful because they ended long-term family relationships. For example, the stepmother I interviewed had raised her stepdaughter for a decade and was likely an important figure in the girl’s life. The former stepmother’s comment that getting in touch with her stepdaughter “didn’t seem appropriate” nagged at me for years before our research team decided to explore what we called “ex-steprelationships.”

Ex-step kin are not rare. In the United States, about one-third of children will spend part of their childhood living with a stepparent. The divorce rate among remarriages is higher than that of first marriages, so a lot of these children will go through multiple family transitions. Maintaining ties with ex-stepparents could help children in terms of resources, relationships, and emotional stability. Our legal systems, however, generally do not recognize rights or responsibilities for ex-stepparents after a divorce. Without legal precedents, ex-stepkin are left on their own to figure out their postdivorce relationships. To explore this phenomenon, we launched a series of studies in which we interviewed former stepkin (stepchildren, stepparents, and stepgrandparents) using grounded theory methods in which we asked open-ended questions and let the study participants tell us what was important to them.

In the first study, we interviewed 41 young adults who had been stepchildren and who had experienced a parent’s remarriage breakup. Our questions focused on their experiences with former stepparents both before and after the divorce. We found three perspectives about ex-stepparents from stepchildren, which we labelled claimed, disclaimed, and unclaimed. About 25% of the young people we interviewed continued to claim their stepparent as kin after the divorce. Another 25% had claimed the stepparent as kin during the remarriage but cut all ties with them after the divorce (i.e., they disclaimed the stepparent). Finally, about half had never claimed the stepparent as kin (i.e., the unclaimed).

The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparents and those who had claimed them during the remarriage and disclaimed them after divorce had spent a lot of time with the stepparent when the remarriage was going well. During the remarriage, they felt close to their stepparents and considered them to be a family member if not a parent.

The ex-stepchildren who still claimed their stepparents as kin after divorce got help from parents in doing so. Their parents either encouraged them to stay in touch with ex-stepparents or were neutral about it, and thus did not discourage them from doing so. Those who had half-siblings from the dissolved remarriage were more likely to stay in contact with ex-stepparents than those who did not. The former stepparents were open to continuing to be in a relationship with them and did what they could to keep lines of connection open. Some ex-stepchildren waited until after the post-divorce flames and hostility had died down before becoming involved again with their stepparent. One man waited five years before reconnecting with his stepfather, and they rekindled a very close relationship. The ex-stepchildren who continued to claim their stepparent after the remarriage ended said that they continued to receive support from their ex-step in the forms of help with college expenses, other financial help, and the kinds of assistance young people seek from parents and parental figures (e.g., advice, emotional support).

The ones who disclaimed their stepparents, did so almost immediately after the end of the remarriage, often because of loyalty to their biological parent. Some said they cut off ties with the stepparent because their parent had revealed negative information about the ex-stepparent. These disclaiming ex-stepchildren took the side of their biological parent, and although it often was emotionally painful for them to do so, they quickly and decisively cut off ties to their ex-stepparents. These young people felt sad about the losses they experienced as a result of this divorce, and they often were still angry at the stepparent, whom they generally blamed for the divorce.  In some cases, ex-stepchildren wished they could resolve some of their feelings and wanted to reconnect with the ex-stepparent, but did not know how to make this happen, and even felt ambivalent about whether it should or not.


The last group of ex-stepchildren, who had never claimed their stepparents as kin, was older when their parent remarried, the remarriage was relatively short, and the stepparent and stepchild had spent little time together. Some stated they had always disliked the stepparent. These ex-stepchildren felt no sense of loss and some were even relieved after their parent’s divorce from the stepparent. They had made no attempts to connect with their stepparent after divorce and neither had their former stepparent tried to contact them.






We were encouraged in this study that none of the ex-stepchildren thought that it was inappropriate to continue these stepfamily ties. Some of the claiming ex-stepchildren in our study noted, however, that a lack of social norms and expectations for the ex-steprelationships after a remarriage ends made them unsure at times about what to do. Maybe these young people and their stepparents and parents are creating new norms, but the absence of guidelines or social support is unfortunate, at least for some ex-stepchildren who claimed their stepparents as parents during the remarriage; ex-stepchildren who continued to claim stepparents as kin cited many advantages to maintaining those relationships.


Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Distinguished Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at ganongl@missouri.edu and colemanma@missouri.edu

Kwanzaa altar


Holidays celebrated when it gets darker earlier – like Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas – can make people feel part of something larger. Maybe because people love holidays alongside those near and dear and those who may still enjoy being sentimental. Celebrating  holidays reminds us that we are part of a group who share our beliefs. But for some, holidays are  being part of the collective of scrooges and cynics that barely tolerate the lights, songs, and other festive stuff. More importantly, are those who feel lonely and removed from the collective support system, something that feels highly individualized and yet, perhaps paradoxically, is common  during the holidays.

This time of year is when our “belonging” to something larger is paired with highly individualized stories of unique gifts, treasured mementos, and objects symbolizing good and bad things about family, past and present. Here I offer ways that seemingly individualized holiday objects tell us an important collective story about roles and relationships in today’s families, and about social processes that extend beyond any individual family story.

Values Associated with Materialism, Spoiled Kids, and “Good” Parenting are Wrapped Up in Kids’ Gifts

It’s not hard to find buying guides for parents whose children want the latest toys and gadgets. It’s also easy to find online advice columns about how best to give children gifts without spoiling them, giving in to a marketplace filled with inequalities, or damaging our natural world. But what we often escapes our thinking is how social class may influence parents’ gift-giving, and how kids’ well-being can be affected by how they talk with classmates about the presents they received (or did not receive) after winter break.

Sociologist Allison Pugh reminds us that while it’s pretty universal for parents to want to give their kids gifts, sometimes parents give in to their children’s material desires and spend more than they can afford to buy an expensive toy or other object (Pugh calls this symbolic indulgence). Importantly, in these cases, parents are trying to give kids what they need to feel as if they belong. For better or worse, consumer culture powerfully influences parents. But if we only focus on the powerful marketplace, we miss important stories about how parents use holiday gift-giving to help their children fit into a peer culture where status is highly valued and is the currency through which children’s dignity and belonging are fostered. And we may miss  how parents from different economic backgrounds vary in how much they can give their kids the gift of “fitting in.” This sociological finding adds complexity to claims about spoiled kids and materialistic parents.

Annually Displaying Cherished Items from Lost Loved Ones Reflects Family Role Expectations

Saving cherished items is a social act, partially because  decisions to cherish something is shaped by values and experiences we collect interacting with others, and by our perceptions of others’ expectations surrounding those items. When giving talks about my book The Stuff of Family Life, the most common topic in the Q & A sessions afterward is about whether adult children will cherish objects their aging parents want to give them. Sometimes children’s reluctance to be excited about antique holiday ornaments from beloved grandparents is seen as reluctance to be connected to past family. The adult child may not see the ornaments as “stand-ins” for the grandparents, but parents may see them as substitutes for grandparents rather than symbols. To preserve ornaments is to preserve memories of grandparents; to dispose ornaments is also disposing the persons. Adult children are expected to demonstrate family loyalty by desiring the ornaments. This can be hard when adult children’s values about having too much stuff or beliefs that objects are unnecessary for memories of loved ones are stronger than their values about being dutiful to parents.

Less contentiously, sometimes adult children will save holiday objects from parents who passed away because the parent loved them. An annual display of the holiday objects from deceased parents can honor past family influence on present family. A father’s menorah may be displayed during Hanukkah to remind someone of the father; the holiday is the vehicle for that memory even if it is not explicitly celebrated.

Holiday decorations have biographies. They enter our lives, are participants in life transitions, and get lost, broken, or forgotten. They can serve as mementos, whether old things from a grandparent or new things, they are meant to create an imagined future nostalgia, something I discuss in my research on the preservation of private love letters. This means they are meant to be shared with children so they know the origins of their family story.

To “hand down” a cherished holiday object entails decisions about loyalty, memory, and longevity, not to mention the object’s aesthetic beauty (or lack thereof). So, when next you hear about a baby’s first [insert winter holiday item here], remember it is not just about that object. It’s also about expectations that it may be saved for when that “baby” leaves home and needs to figure out whether to cherish or dispose of it, which may require negotiating with others’ expectations about the preservation of those memories in physical form.

Object-Centered Holiday Rituals Help Families Find Stability in a Time of Uncertainty

We live in a time of perceived uncertainty. Our everyday lives are moving fast, news headlines showcase political and economic turmoil, and our family structures are changing. Whether because of family border separations, poverty-inflicted adverse childhood experiences, or estrangement, people from varied political perspectives perceive the family and social life as more precarious than ever.

At the same time, we love rituals that offer stability. We live, however, in a time that historian Elizabeth Pleck describes as post-sentimental – a reaction,  to  over-sentimentalization of holidays and the blues that sometimes accompany them. There is also a desire to be more inclusive about what holidays and rituals may be desirable and best represent the diversity of families who are celebrating. The rituals of gift-giving, displaying or using special objects that appear only during holidays, and expanding the repertoire of “acceptable” holiday objects and their use, all strengthen the claim that we seek rituals to clarify and stabilize our lives. This search for stability can appear via use of old objects symbolizing long-held traditions as well as via new and innovative objects that create new traditions that more accurately tell the story of the varied ways that family life takes place today. In both cases, the objects serve as tools for rituals that provide glue in a climate where stable family life can seem fragile.

How Is This About More Than Just My Family?

Of course, many other ways can symbolize family roles and relationships as they manifest during holiday times, including whether digital gifts are as “real” as physical ones wrapped in shiny paper, whether some gifts violate norms about privacy (are underpants too personal a gift from my in-laws?), or how holiday décor, like any display in the domestic realm, calls to mind gendered division of household labor (do women decorate indoors and men hang the lights outside ?). I am sure you can think of objects in your family that carry deeper meanings this time of year.

Here I showcased a few ways to think about individualized experiences with holiday objects – dilemmas about spending and spoiling, attachment to relatives with or without retaining their possessions, and use of objects in holiday rituals. Holding a holiday candle is never just about the candle. It also is never just about the family that only uses it during the holidays. The candle and the person holding it are about collective topics larger than any of us or our families: the marketplace where candles are made; the collective belief system that the candle represents, the light of someone no longer alive, and the tendency to value rituals as a form of social “glue” in  times of uncertainty and perceived loss of social connectedness. Holidays remind us that our family stories are both private and public. Our unique gifts tell a collective story about today’s families.

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences & Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She celebrates Christmas, and has had trouble throwing away her son’s “Baby’s First Christmas” stocking over the last fourteen years. She researches and teaches about the connection between material culture and family roles and relationships. She is the editor of the 2019 book Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research, and the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (2018). Her work can be perused at www.michellejanning.com.

BR: You introduce the term “genetic strangers.”  Can you define it for us, and explain how the families you studied embodied the term?

RH: We use the term ‘genetic strangers’ to describe people who share genes but who do not know one other … or even that the other exists.  Genetic strangers are not relatives until a relationship is created.  In fact, the core of the book is about whether and how strangers become relatives … and what happens to the meaning of family as a result.

In Random Families we refer to “donors, donor siblings and their families as ‘genetic strangers’ as a way to bind together something that usually connotes familiarity with something that symbolizes the opposite.”  In the conventional heteronormative view, there is nothing more intimate than blood ties (i.e., shared genes). As single mothers and two-mom families joined the ranks of heterosexual parents who needed gametes to create a baby, those gametes often came from commercial sperm banks.  The rise in markets for sperm and/or eggs means that more children share half their DNA with strangers.

The donor sibling networks we discuss in Random Families are modern strangers in a modern world — a world in which we interact with people we do not know well and may never have met before.  Think about the Internet, especially Facebook groups or our own FB page that often includes people with whom we do not share space or time. The internet extends our acceptance of strangers whom we believe can provide us with a sense of connectedness or belonging, information and perhaps even intimacy. Donor sibling networks are a special case of people who may have randomly purchased the same donor; and after finding each other they might try to turn that strangeness into some form of kinship.

BR:  According to your evidence, there are distinct eras in the history of the emergence of families connected by donor siblings.  Can you identify these eras and how the experience of creating familial networks differs between them?

RH: Those are important questions because they point again to the distinction between stranger and relative.  The first successful pregnancy with donor sperm began nearly six decades ago. But because donors were anonymous it didn’t make sense to talk about networks, even if multiple offspring were probably created in the earliest days.  It wasn’t until much later that this made sense, particularly with the rise of the internet, which increased the availability of information and made it much easier for people to connect by means of Facebook and web sites such as Ancestry.com and 23andme, for example.

That’s why we distinguish different eras in donor-conceived networks based on the kind of genetic information available and by the ease of access to that information.

The first era of donor-conceived networks begins in the 1980s with lesbian couples and single mothers (straight or queer) who pioneered the formation of these families by using smaller commercial sperm banks in two important hubs – San Francisco and Boston.  In contrast to the anonymous sperm marketed by the large, often national, sperm banks, these smaller banks offered identity-release donors.  The parents felt that nurture – how they raised their children – would trump nature. They told their child he or she had a “father” whom they could meet when they turned 18.  If at age 18 children wanted to connect, they could ask the bank to relay that desire to the donor.  Surprisingly, it was usually the donor who fostered connections between their various offspring as they came forward.  The child almost always expanded family to include these new relatives and conventional terms, such as father and brother/sister were also likely to be used. The donor was a good guy who kept his promise and arrived to meet his genetic offspring. The offspring met as a sort of afterthought.

The second era begins in the 1990s with parents who purchased anonymous donor sperm only to have anonymity stripped away with the growth of the internet and online networks.  These nuclear families fully expected to raise their children with disclosures about the sperm donors, but they expected that family lineage would come from the parent(s) and not through paternal (donor) kin. The growth of the internet and the ease with which people could access internet sites changed all of this. Registries emerged as independent sites and then banks offered these registries as opt-in features. Parents (for the most part mothers) were startled to learn about this possibility to connect with other families who shared their child’s genes.  Parents would register and usually they did not discuss their decision to do this with their children. They wanted to check out these strangers who lived all over the country before telling their children. Once parents were satisfied, they told their children they had “half siblings.” Children were surprised. Sometimes these relationships moved offline to a face-to-face meeting and sometimes the children became close to these new siblings.  Counting these networks as extended kin took time as these unscripted relationships slowly developed.  Parents might have orchestrated those first “reunions” when children were adolescents or teens. In the book we compare two networks from this era. Both have anonymous donors; but the donor in one network decides to reveal his identity which represents a likely possibility. Moreover, the kids in these two networks react differently to meeting their donor siblings. As these networks expanded, intimacy between such a large group of children became problematic.  Like other kinds of large organizations, the networks fragment into smaller groups that sometimes resemble high school cliques.

The third era of donor-conceived networks begins with children born after 2003. The distinguishing feature is that children born in this era would grow up with donor siblings as commonplace. These parents had toddlers when registries first began, and they connected early on with their child’s donor siblings.  Unlike the earlier era when kids were surprised that they had donor siblings, these kids saw their half-siblings more like cousins who visited once or twice a year. Sometimes children formed close ties to one or two other children in the group. These networks are larger from the start (as more parents decide to locate a child’s half siblings). There are no large gatherings with all the members. Families are most likely to meet regionally with a smaller group.

Finally, we feature a network of younger parents whose children are under five and who knew about donor siblings when they purchased gametes. It is not the newness of the internet or registries that emerges among this group. Instead, these parents, whose children are too young to understand the idea of donors and donor siblings, question whether they can find a new kind of kinship organization. They don’t want to make assumptions about the relationships within the group and how their children might feel when they are older. They hope that by providing memories of gatherings their children will want to define those relationship with each other in the future or, at the very least, they will have each other to talk to about being donor conceived. For these parents the donor sibling network is more like other interest groups or forums they belong to where they can share information that they hope will benefit their child. This new period (maybe not an era) represents kinship revisited.

Since consumer demand for identity release donors increased over these eras the people we interviewed with children born after 2000 are more likely to have this kind of donor. Yet, when the children eventually can have contact with their donor (if their child wants this) these last two networks imagine a donor who is willing to offer information. He is not the “father” who arrived in the late 1980s.

BR:  In many of the narratives, you write about how individuals, and nuclear families, come to reassess the relative power of nature versus nurture in children’s development. Please explain how children come to think of nature versus nurture in their experiences as they met genetic family members.

RH¨ We made a point of interviewing children (ages 10 to 29) because we anticipated that at an early age they would have to puzzle through distinctions like nature versus nurture that are loaded with meaning for families, as well as for children.

But to be fair to the kids, it’s important to put “nature versus nurture” into context first.  That is, for all the public discussion of genetics and all the information available about individual genetic makeup (e.g., from services like Ancestry.com and 23andme), there is huge ambiguity about the meaning of genes for parents, let alone for children.  Even in the scientific community there is no consensus about the heritability of many human qualities – like intelligence, musical ability or sports.  So, when we interviewed kids it was important for us to listen carefully to the way they gave meaning to genes.

In most instances, parents set the foundation for kids’ understanding of nature versus nurture, usually with their first conversations about a child’s origins or birth story. Donor is a hollow concept to a child.  Parents fill in the concept, but always with reference to their preferred way of talking about family. A discussion about inherited traits and characteristics is how we locate children in a family system: “Your curly hair is from me, or musical ability from your grandmother.” If they have a donor’s profile, parents usually reference bits of information that factored into their selection of a donor (e.g., “He is an astronaut” or “wants to become a lawyer”, or he “reads a book a day” or “he likes mountain climbing”). Over time, parents and children collaborate in inventing both the donor and the child’s genetic inheritance.

However, for donor-conceived children nature versus nurture really becomes relevant – and complicated – when donor siblings are located. When half-siblings first meet, they quickly discover shared traits, starting with physical resemblances. It’s important to note that children who share a donor are primed to find similarities with their half-siblings.  The experience is often powerful and, not surprisingly, talk about genes and heredity takes center stage.

Donor-conceived children described a real tension between nature and nurture – if not immediately, then over time as they transformed genetic strangers into relatives. Kids who had no siblings within their nuclear family often took great delight in meeting children who were like them, especially since their parents encouraged the contact.  But even with parental encouragement some kids felt they should downplay the importance of genes – because putting genes at center stage implicitly distances them from the family they’ve always known. This is most pronounced in families with a non-genetic parent.  On the other hand, they could not deny the fact of physical resemblance and the often- eerie feeling that occurred when they discovered unexpected similarities like sense of humor and musical ability.

With time and distance, a more nuanced view about nature and nurture seems to emerge.  Kids assimilate the new information and arrive at workable definitions of siblinghood, for example.  They make a point of preserving a central role for non-genetic parents, such as talking about deeply-ingrained preferences for food, music, or esoteric matters that they shared with their non-genetic parents.  Talk about genes is tempered by a more sophisticated understanding that they can belong to their parents while acknowledging that they share some things with a donor and their donor siblings.

Cover of new book by Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson


Rosanna Hertz is Class of 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.  Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families. In this blog Professor Risman interviewed Professor Hertz with three questions about her new book, co-authored with Margaret K. Nelson, Random Families: Genetic Strangers, Sperm Donor Siblings, and the Creation of New Kin.  (2019, Oxford University Press).

Even in the most affluent societies, many young people grow up in families that are poor and/or unstable in some way, and the evidence is clear that this experience can lead to behaviors that put their futures at risk. That risk, however, is not necessarily going to be same across societies, and figuring out where it is most and least pronounced is an important task for family researchers.

The U.S., as is often noted, has a much less generous social safety net for families and children than many other countries; less generous than Scandinavian countries, of course, but also compared to the other wealthy, English-speaking countries that it is often grouped with in the broad category of “liberal welfare regimes”. As a result, children who grow up in the U.S. are much more likely than their peers in these other countries to experience some key risks to positive development, such as family poverty and instability. There is just not enough protection for their families and communities, and so they are more likely to enter adolescence in dire straits. Indeed, based on research from a range of interdisciplinary scholars, including Timothy Smeeding, Jane Waldfogel, Barbara Bergman, and Patrick Heuveline, we know that kids in the U.S. are worse off, but is being worse off worse in the U.S.?

My students and colleagues in the U.S., U.K., and Canada have been trying to provide some answers to this question. This research reflects some key lessons of contemporary family and developmental research. Specifically, we are viewing family poverty and family structure not as single and static states but rather as a long-term pattern of continuity and change. We also are focusing on adolescence, a period in which complicated patterns of brain development, parent-child relations, and peer orientation lead to behaviors with heightened potential for harm. Doing so has revealed that, although the odds of growing up in poor and/or unstable families and engaging in adolescent risk-taking are both generally greater in the U.S., the link between these two things is not always stronger in the U.S.

For example, in a study that came out this year in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Michael Green, Haley Stritzel, Chelsea Smith Gonzalez, Frank Popham, and I compared longitudinal population datasets in the U.S. and U.K. to examine adolescent health and health behavior. We categorized young people in terms of their histories of family poverty since birth (e.g., early poverty only, persistent poverty, later downward mobility). The results clearly show that the accumulating experience of poverty over time is much more prevalent in the U.S., that this accumulating experience is associated with smoking and health limitations in both countries, but that this association does not really differ across countries.

As another example, in a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Chelsea Smith Gonzalez, Lisa Strohschein, and I compared longitudinal population datasets in the U.S. and Canada to examine teen pregnancy. We counted how much of girls’ lives since birth they had spent in poverty and how many family structure changes they had experienced.  Similar to the other study, the results clearly reveal more long-term exposure to poverty and instability in the U.S. and that such exposure is associated with greater odds of a girl getting pregnant as a teen. This study, however, also revealed a country-level difference in this association. In the U.S., prolonged experiences of family poverty and family structure were associated with teen pregnancy, but, in Canada, any experience of family poverty and family structure change was. In other words, there was a dosage effect of family poverty and instability in the former and a threshold effect in the latter.

To be clear, we are not saying that family poverty and instability do not matter to adolescent behavior. They do. We are also not saying that social policies do not protect young people from harm. They do. We are also not saying that the circumstances of young people in the U.S. are the same as those in the U.K. and Canada. They are not. What we are saying is that the ability of social policies to buffer against the risks of family poverty and instability—once they have arisen—is not as neatly straightforward as one might assume.

Our work represents the comparison of three relatively similar countries, only two family variables, and only three adolescent outcomes.  As such, it is just a drop in the expanding bucket of population research comparing family contexts of child and youth development across countries. There is more to know here. How is family poverty and instability experienced by young people across countries in which it is more or less normative? Which domains of adolescent development are most and least reactive to family disadvantages across countries? Are there differences in patterns for children, adolescents, and young adults? Expanding the comparison pool to countries with much more generous welfare regimes than the U.S. and much less economic development than the U.S. is also important. What we offer here, therefore, is encouragement to keep this conversation going.

Robert Crosnoe is the Rapoport Professor of Liberal Arts and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and President of the Society for Research on Adolescence.

In preparation for the Council on Contemporary Families’ March 2 Annual Conference, Conceiving Families in the 21st Century, the Council asked speakers and CCF Senior Scholars to submit recent research related to the facts and dilemmas of the legal, medical, and social creation of families. The result: Unconventional Wisdom, vol. 7 (out today!) is a highly readable, non-technical survey with fifteen research updates, edited by Joshua Coleman and Stephanie Coontz. Psychologist Coleman and historian Coontz edited the first edition of Unconventional Wisdom in 2007. Eleven years later, the CCF’s new report concludes with a focused, annotated resource list of recent trends and useful facts related to reproductive health and policy.

Coleman, who with Adina Nack (California Lutheran University) is co-organizer of CCF’s upcoming conference, notes that, “Technology, medical advances, health policies, and social change have shaped the new frontier of reproductive health care. Those who receive and provide services face new possibilities and uncharted risks.” As Unconventional Wisdom highlights, the concepts and realities of sex, gender, sexuality, parenthood, and family in the U.S. reflect increasingly complex and inclusive definitions.

For example:

·      As reported by Mary Ann Mason (University of California-Berkeley), a 2013 international study determined that five million babies had been born from assisted reproductive technology. Hard figures, not to mention outcomes for surrogates and infants, are hard to track, with dire consequences for all, including the children who are created. Professor of Law Lisa C. Ikemoto, notes that global businesses evade restrictions enacted by governments to move ova, sperm and embryos, infertility specialists, egg donors and surrogate mothers across national boundaries.

·      Research shared by Caroline Sten Hartnett (University of South Carolina) shows that categories of “intended” versus “unintended” pregnancy don’t capture how women think of their births.

·      A less-considered way of making families includes those who are not having children: Amy Blackstone (University of Maine) advances information about how well those families are doing.

·      Not all can rely on families to advance for well-being. Rutgers (Camden) sociologist Joan Maya Mazelis’s brief highlights community organizations aimed at helping impoverished people with no family to help out.

·      What does college debt have to do with making families? Arielle Kuperberg (The University of North Carolina-Greensboro) reports on how debt influences how and when women (but not men) have children.

Background data to support fresh stories

This year, Unconventional Wisdom also features an annotated list of sources with research highlights from each study, produced by CCF intern Selena Walsh Smith (The Evergreen State College). Topics covered in this section include: studies that show how difficult life is for mothers and children when the pregnancy is experienced as unintended; the benefits of contraception; racial disparities in infertility and maternal mortality; how the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate among 19 of the world’s richest countries; and other facts about the gains, losses, and gaps in reproductive and child health.

Below is the full table of contents for this easy-to-use report.

Reproductive Tourism: Opportunities and Cost….2

New Babies of Technology: Where is the Voice of the Child?…. 2

Banning Surrogacy Can Be Harmful to Women and Children…. 3

Women in Affairs: Cheating to Save the Marriage…. 3

10 Common Questions of Intended Parents through Egg or Sperm Donation…. 4

Adoption: Are Genes More Powerful Than Parents?…. 4

Women’s Experiences of Intended and Unintended Births…. 5

Reproductive Health Services in the U.S.: Too Much or too Little?…. 5

Where the Millennials Will Take Us: Gender Policies among Young Adults…. 6

LGBTQ Grief over Miscarriage and Failed Adoptions Increased by Discrimination…. 6

More People than ever are not having Babies and They’re Doing Just Fine…. 7

The Opposite of a Shotgun Wedding – Getting Pregnant and Moving Out…. 7

Not Everyone can Rely on their Families when they are Desperate, and for Poor People, it Matters…. 8

Student Loans are Changing our Families in Surprising Ways…. 8

If You’re Infertile, Why Use Condoms?…. 9

U.S. Reproductive Health and Policy Facts…. 10-14

Intended and Unintended Pregnancy – 10

Benefits of Contraception; Consequences of Unintended and Unwanted Births – 10

Infertility and Miscarriages – 11

                 Maternal Mortality – 12Infant and Child Mortality Rates -13

Gains, Losses, and Gaps in Reproductive and Child Health 13-14

Picture by GDJ via pixabay

Social institutions powerfully impact how children move throughout the world—even if the institution is indirectly affecting them. Such is the case with parental incarceration and its effect on children and their transition to adulthood. And, of course, education is a major site of indirect inequalities. The research article, “Paternal Incarceration and Children’s Schooling Contexts: Intersecting Inequalities of Education Opportunity,” by Anna R. Haskins, describes the type of schools that children with incarcerated fathers attend. Her article highlights the ways in which mass incarceration has transformed schooling in the United States. What are the types of schools that children with incarcerated fathers attend? Who exactly teaches at these institutions? How do those learning conditions compare to the learning conditions of children with fathers who are not incarcerated? Haskins’ new study answers these questions.

The article uses data on children’s early elementary environments from a longitudinal birth-cohort sample of urban families. Specifically, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is the longitudinal study that follows 4,898 children and their parents. A reminder of how this amazing data set was established: Data were collected from twenty large U.S cities between 1998 and 2000. Marital and non-marital births were randomly sampled within hospitals across cities. Mothers were interviewed in these hospitals 48 hours after the child was born, and the interviews for the fathers took place soon after. After these interviews, there were five additional follow-up waves of phone interviews that took place when the child was approximately 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15 years old. Specifically, these waves included interviews of the parents, in-home assessments of the child and their home environment (starting at wave 3); and when the child was 9 years old and had entered what the other called “formal schooling”, this was around wave 4, a teacher survey a large range of educational assessments, and administrative data from the child’s elementary school were collected.

And what we already know: Having an incarcerated parent already creates a disadvantage across a range of social, economic, behavioral and health outcomes. Therefore, since these students are possibly but in lower-income schooling, some research has demonstrated that schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority families disproportionately employ teachers with lower levels of education, nonstandard certifications, and fewer years of teaching experience. It was found that Black and Hispanic children in the Fragile Families Study are more likely than whites to experience paternal incarceration. Specifically, for Blacks, this reaches 57 percent by year nine, Hispanics at around 40 percent and Whites at nearly 30 percent. This means that nearly two-thirds of the Black children in the sample have had a father incarcerated at some point by the time they are only nine years old.

Focusing on the profile of the schools attended, there are significant differences in the types of schools and teachers at schools where children with incarcerated fathers attend. Children with incarcerated fathers by age nine are significantly more likely to attend a school that receives Title I funding. Title I funding is for schools with high rates of poverty. Their schools also have higher percentages of the student body eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, larger concentrations of minority students, and more students in their classroom repeating the current grade. These are all indicators of poor school quality and show that children who have not had incarcerated fathers attend higher quality school systems. In addition, per the study, children with incarcerated fathers are significantly more likely to be in public school, but less like likely to have white teachers.

But, what is unique about this study was that even though prior research found that lower-income schools employ teachers with less experience—this research didn’t exactly find that. Interestingly enough, none of the teacher quality indicators, such as years of teaching experience, highest level of education, or elementary certification, differed between the paternal incarceration groups, nor did class size or school reports of student-teacher ratios. In other words, the teachers were up to the task, but the context the children lived in made things especially difficult for them.

Pertaining to schooling and behavior, there was strong evidence that showed children that experienced paternal incarceration attend schools in neighborhoods with more disorder, harsher disciplinary climates, and lower rates of a positive school climate, as reported by teachers.

So, what does all of this mean for children with their fathers separated from them and trapped behind bars? Paternal incarceration not only impacts children’s transition at home—but it also dictates their overall schooling experience. Set aside their behavior, paternal incarceration has a heavy correlation to the type of school they go to compared to their peers without incarcerated fathers. When reading this research, we find a serious the impact of just having one parent, the father, incarcerated—think about what this can do to a child if it was both of their parents. The transformative experience a child has to go through, not just in their home but at their school, should speak loudly about the enormous costs of hyper-incarceration in the U.S.

Tasia Clemons is a Senior sociology major at Framingham State University, an Administrative Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

picture by louda2455 via pixabay

Assortative mating – the tendency of people to marry those similar to themselves – has become a popular explanation for increased economic inequality across American families (see the NYT, the Economist, or the NYT Upshot).

The idea is that if people are increasingly matching with partners who have similar economic prospects, families will be increasingly divided between those who pool two large paychecks and those who pool two small paychecks. More assortative mating increases spouses’ economic similarity, which in turn increases inequality.

Our research, however, shows that assortative mating has played a minor role in the increase of spouses’ economic similarity and its impact on inequality. More important than changes in whom people marry are changes in what happens after they marry. In particular, the well-known and dramatic increase in wives’ employment within marriage are responsible for the bulk of the effects of increased spousal economic resemblance on inequality.

That is, the rise of spouses’ economic similarity increased inequality not because there are more “power couples” who match with one another, but because both wives and husbands today are more likely to realize their economic potential during marriage, whereas in the past only one (usually the man) would do so.

Explaining increased spousal economic resemblance

The appeal of assortative mating as an explanation for spousal economic resemblance and inequality is based on well-known social and economic shifts. Declines in gender inequality in education and the workplace mean that women’s socioeconomic standing is increasingly similar to men’s. For instance, it is easier for a man with a PhD to match with a female PhD today than in 1970. These compositional shifts alone may drive increases in assortative mating.

In addition, men’s and women’s preferences for partners have shifted towards valuing similarities rather than differences, rising income gaps between college and non-college workers imply that individuals can lose more by “marrying down”, and growing residential segregation by income restricts opportunities to meet partners outside ones’ own income bracket.

This focus on assortative mating, however, has tended to overlook what happens after couples match, that is, how families organize their economic life: who is bringing money in, how much, who is dropping out of the labor force, and for how long? Overlooking these questions is surprising given the magnitude of changes in the economic organization of families.

The rise of wives’ and mothers’ employment since the 1960s shifted the modal division of paid labor from breadwinner/homemaker to dual-earner. As women are participating in the labor force for more time than in the past, their earnings are closer to men’s for more of their married lives. These shifts have the potential to increase the economic similarity of spouses, even without any increase in assortative mating.

The importance of these changes suggests that the rise of spouses’ economic resemblance could largely be a function of what happens after marriage, not the sorting process that happens before marriage.

And this is exactly what our study finds.

Contrary to what has often been assumed, we show that the contribution of assortative mating to the inequality-generating effects of spouses’ economic similarity is very small. This is because there is no evidence that economic assortative mating has substantially increased in the last four decades; newlyweds are not more economically similar today than they were in the 1970s.

Instead, couples have become more economically similar during marriage, due to the increase in wives’ labor force participation. This shift in couples’ division of paid labor is the driving force behind the rise of spouses’ economic similarity and its impact on inequality.


We underscore two implications of this finding. One is that more attention should be paid to the effects of the economic organization of families on inequality. There is a lot more to be unpacked about how and why shifts in the division of paid labor during marriage can increase inequality. For instance, is it about “power couples” being more able to sustain the dual-earner model during parenthood? Is it because those with more education tend to have fewer children than those with less education?

Another implication is that it is necessary to follow couples through their married lives to distinguish what family-level processes contribute to inequality. Researchers often measure assortative mating using averages across all couples in the population, thereby lumping together variation that exists at the time of marriage and variation that evolves during marriage. This might not be problematic for measures that do not change much over individuals’ lives, like education or race, but it is clearly misleading for measures that vary systematically over time, such as labor supply or earnings.

In sum, the division of paid labor within families is key to understanding the future of inequality across American families. Assortative mating on earnings has been the focus of prior work, but has played only a small role shaping the economic resemblance of spouses and its contribution to inequality.

Pilar Gonalons-Pons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Christine Schwartz is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article summarizes findings fromTrends in Economic Homogamy: Changes in Assortative Mating or the Division of Labor in Marriage?in Demography. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here. This post was published on 10/17/17 at Work in Progress.

Illustration by Bill Strain, Flickr CC.
Illustration by Bill Strain, Flickr CC.

Part 1 of the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium on Welfare Reform at 20

The welfare reform bill that emerged in 1996, after a back-and-forth struggle between President Bill Clinton and the Congress (both houses of which were controlled by Republicans), imposed a two-year continuous term limit, and a five-year lifetime limit, on poor cash welfare recipients. It ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), an entitlement program, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a state block-grant program. The policymakers who engineered this change took advantage of a growing popular expectation that mothers should be in the labor force. There was widespread resentment against those (perceived to be mostly Black) who used welfare payments to shirk the obligation to work, choosing dependence on the state rather than getting married or refraining from childbearing.

This policy reform, motivated and supported at least in part by racist ideas and stereotypes, set out to fundamentally alter the relationship between work, parenthood, and marital status for U.S. women. Instead, despite some increase in employment rates, it mostly increased the hardship – and reduced the support – for poor families and their children, who are disproportionately people of color. Reflecting on this anniversary, it now appears this was a tragic misdirection, and we lost an important opportunity to change work family policy for the benefit of all women and poor families. more...

Overview to a six-part series examining the origins, progress, and future of welfare reform. Over the next six weeks, The Society Pages will publish the individual reports.

Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton proposed to “end welfare as we know it,” and, on August 22, 1996, he did just that when he signed into law The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This welfare reform repealed the cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and replaced it with a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

This wasn’t just an alphabet soup change-up; it effected a significant transformation in policy, based on an amalgamation of old racial prejudices and new expectations about families, women, and self-reliance. That is the conclusion of six new papers presented to the Council on Contemporary Families for their Welfare Reform at 20 Online Symposium. As University of Maryland demographer Philip Cohen demonstrates, the PRWORA reflected changing norms about the employment of mothers along with an abiding hostility towards black women. Stephanie Coontz of The Evergreen State College points out that it also embodied several myths about the history of the War on Poverty. One result of these myths was a growing diversion of welfare funds to programs designed to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood. But as Cal State-Fresno sociologist Jennifer Randles’ in-depth study of these programs reveals, they did not increase marriage rates or relieve poverty. Indeed, the few benefits they conferred came despite their out-of-touch condescension towards poor families, not because of the middle-class values and skills they tried to teach.

The Act succeeded in reducing the number of families receiving assistance: In 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4.4 million families received aid, and in 2012, 1.9 families received aid. Yet it failed at reducing the need for assistance, as documented in legal scholar Shawn Fremstad’s examination of the state of millennials. In 1996, 5.6 million families were in need; in 2012, 5.7 million families were in need.

The Act was initially deemed a success because more single moms found paid employment and the employment rate reached historic highs, CEPR’s domestic policy director Alan Barber and Framingham State University sociologist Virginia Rutter report. This employment surge, though, started in the early 1990s, well before welfare reform. Furthermore, the job losses starting in the 2000s have not been mitigated by this program, leading to intensive instability, especially for very poor families, per American University economist Bradley Hardy. Notably, child poverty today is as high as it was when President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964.

Bill Clinton signs the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite via JacobinMag)
Bill Clinton signs the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite via JacobinMag)