Families as They Really Are

I decided to take a methods course in the Women’s Studies department this spring. The first assignment was to identify a word central to our research interests and to trace the etymology of our choice. As a sociologist primarily interested in families and inequality, I decided on the word marriage, thinking it might offer insight into the transformation of American families today.

Marriage Definitions_timeline
. . . . …………… |Marriage Definitions Timeline

Although marriage has been a universal social institution throughout recorded history, with one exception (the Na people of China), there is no consensus on a definition of marriage.[i] When researching the word’s origins, I started where I always do, with historian and family scholar Stephanie Coontz. In her book “Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage,” Coontz details in Chapter 2 the historical challenges of defining precisely what marriage means. Across societies and time, marriage has included (but has not been limited to) the union of: two families; one man and one woman; one woman and one ghost; one man and many women; two people who have a child together; and one woman and all brothers in a family. More recently, regulations of personal unions have centered around age, race, and sex (e.g., in the U.S., minimum age limits, Loving v. Virginia, Obergefell v. Hodges).

While marriage regulates social rights and obligations, nearly every function of marriage has been achieved by a mechanism other than marriage in one society or another. According to Coontz, stories that marriage was invented either for the protection of women or to keep women oppressed are probably not true. More likely, Coontz argues, marriage was an informal social mechanism to organize the daily tasks of life, sexual relationships, and child rearing. As greater economic disparity grew, marriage transitioned from functioning as a vehicle for creating community connections into a means to consolidate resources and transmit property. The meaning of marriage shifted dramatically in the twentieth century, moving from an institutional marriage to a companionate marriage.[ii] Essentially, spouses were assumed to be each other’s friend, a role not central to earlier definitions of marriage.[iii] The second transition was from companionate marriages to individualized marriages. In this conceptualization, the emphasis is on personal development whereby marriage leads to fulfillment and growth for both partners.

It is challenging to untangle contemporary definitions of marriage from definitions of wife and husband. Wife is a noun, defined in relation to another. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, wife means “the woman someone is married to.” Wives often take on adjectives such as military wife, political wife, housewife, and so on.[iv] Author Anne Kingston reports the first appearance of the word wife in the Bible is in Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” As a concept, wife understood, quite literally, as a helpmate. Husband, on the other hand, is either a noun or a verb, meaning “a male partner in a marriage,” “to save,” “a frugal manager,” or “to till the ground, to cultivate.”

Last year, the definition of marriage was central to the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which ultimately granted same-sex couples the right to marry in the U.S. While a somewhat oversimplified interpretation, the case hinged on the Justices’ acceptance that the definition of marriage evolves over time.[v] Justice Kennedy wrote, on behalf of the majority: “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” Kennedy added, “This view of marriage as timeless and unchanging was contradicted by an abundance of scholarly work.”[vi]

For further fun, I decided to see what Google images appear with the search term “marriage definition.” Some of my favorites, because they are insightful, funny, appalling, or thought-provoking, are posted below. Full disclosure, I skipped the hate-filled images.

Joanna R. Pepin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. She primarily researches romantic relationships and inequality, such as power between partners and the association between romantic partnerships and social stratification.

Follow her on Twitter: @CoffeeBaseball

[i] Coontz, Stephanie. 2005. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

[ii] Cherlin, Andrew J. 2004. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and Family 66(4):848–61.

[iii] Burgess, Ernest W. and Harvey J. Locke. 1945. The Family: From Institution to Companionship. New York: American Book Company.

[iv] Kingston, Anne. 2004. The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Picador.

[v] Obergefell v. Hodges. 576 U.S. ___ 2015. Justia Law. Retrieved February 1, 2016 (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/576/14-556/).

[vi] Perry, David M. 2015. “A New Right Grounded in the Long History of Marriage.” The Atlantic, June 26. Retrieved February 1, 2016 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/history-marriage-supreme-court/396443/).

trophy for media awardsThe Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) is pleased to present its Twelfth Annual Media Awards at 4:15pm on Friday, March 4th at the Liberal Arts Building (118 Inner Campus Dr.), University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, at the CCF annual conference, “Families as They Really Are: Demographics, Disparities, and Debates.”

The CCF media awards honor outstanding journalism that contributes to the public understanding of contemporary family issues. Honorees are invited to speak for five minutes on emerging issues affecting American families and how CCF members and supporters can help the media cover these stories effectively.

The 2016 Award for Print Coverage of Family Issues goes to Ashley Cleek for her piece, “Filthy Water and Shoddy Sewers Plague Poor Black Belt Counties,” which appeared on Al Jazeera America. Her reporting explores the intersections of race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location in terms of a local public health crisis that continues to threaten southern communities and families. Cleek highlights the serious structural challenges these communities face and how ongoing water contamination issues endanger children and families in the “Black Belt,” a poverty-ridden region in Alabama that now faces the emergence of parasitic diseases in children in record numbers.

Ashley Cleek is a radio reporter and producer living in Birmingham, Alabama. Ashley has reported stories in Turkey, Ukraine, India, and Russia for American, German and British radio. Her stories have appeared on radio programs, The World and Marketplace and on websites such as PBS’s The Tehran Bureau, Al Jazeera America, and the Atlantic.

The 2016 Award for Radio Coverage of Family Issues goes to Dan Carsen for his four-part radio series, “Bilingual Education in the South,” originally produced for Renaissance Journalism’s Equity Reporting Fellowship Project. Among other things, this series highlights Georgia’s unusual-for-the-Deep-South efforts to increase academic success and language proficiency by using multi-lingual educational programs in K-12 curricula. Teachers, administrators, parents, and children are all given voice in this series, which blends scholastic research with the pragmatic realities faced by English-as-a-second-language children and families, especially in other Deep South states where politics and policy have not caught up with research. But Dan’s reporting emphasizes the positive impacts these programs can have on a range of outcomes, from knowledge mastery to future economic prospects, and draws attention to overlooked facets of contemporary debates about immigration.

Dan Carsen is the Southern Education Desk reporter at WBHM in Birmingham; his work has been recognized and honored by multiple groups, including previously by CCF in 2013. He’s been a teacher, a teacher trainer, a newspaper reporter, a radio commentator, and an editor at an educational publishing house. His writing and reporting have won numerous regional and national awards. His outside interests include basketball, kayaking, sailing, mountain biking, percussion, and hoping his children let him sleep.

About the CCF Media Awards: The CCF media awards were established in 2002 as part of the Council’s commitment to enhancing the public understanding of trends in American family life. “All too often, changes in U.S. family patterns are painted in stark, better-or-worse terms that ignore the nuanced and complex realities of family life today. The Awards Committee looked for articles that put individual family issues in larger social context. This kind of coverage offers the public a balanced picture of the trade-offs, strengths and weaknesses in many different family arrangements and structures,” explained Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research and Public Education. The CCF media awards committee will call for nominations for the 2017 awards in the fall of 2016. Please visit www.contemporaryfamilies.org for information.

The Council on Contemporary Families’ 18th Annual Conference: “Families As They Really Are: Demographics, Disparities, and Debates,” convenes experts on youth well-being and international adoption, parenting and intimate relationships, fertility, sexuality, and partner selection, transnational families, and interventions for immigrant families that work. The conference will be held at the Liberal Arts Building on March 4-5, 2016, and is hosted by the University of Texas at Austin.

Christie Boxer is Assistant Professor of Sociology & Criminal Justice at Adrian College and is Chair of CCF’s Media Awards Committee. Other media awards committee members included: Ashton Applewhite, Allison Pugh, and Arielle Kuperberg.

via Flickr Creative Commons
via Flickr Creative Commons

CCF former Co-Chair Joshua Coleman posted this on 1/25/16 for The New York Times’ Room for Debate dialogue sparked by the Times’ burning interest “Hillary Clinton Deals with Her Husband’s Transgressions.”

It’s hard enough for couples to navigate the pain of an affair without everybody and their media outlets weighing in on it. To have your child exposed to jokes and lurid speculation about their parents’ marriage, sex lives and motivations is something that would severely test the strongest of couples. But when one or both parents fail that test and join in on the blaming and mudflinging, their children suffer immensely. While Hillary Clinton’s alleged attempts to discredit the women with whom her husband cheated may not be considered a good form of sisterhood, it could be a reasonable act of motherhood.

I’ve seen this dynamic played out in many of the wealthy Silicon Valley families that I work with in the Bay Area after an affair. As a psychologist and family therapist, I’ve witnessed far too many parents perfectly willing to ruin their children’s lives by exposing them to the most unseemly aspects of their mother’s or father’s actions, with the lame explanation that they’re doing it for the child’s benefit.

So while Hillary Clinton’s alleged attempts to discredit the women with whom her husband cheated may not be considered a good form of sisterhood, it certainly could be considered a reasonable act of motherhood.

I don’t assume that Clinton stayed with her husband after his affairs because of her ambition. These are two people who care intensely about shared goals and values, something that can allow couples to recover from infidelity. But I certainly wouldn’t blame her if she did stay for such practical reasons. I also wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to put herself or her daughter through a divorce, especially given the tabloid lens through which it would be viewed and commented on daily.

In the United States, we have elevated romantic love to such dizzying heights that staying together for practical reasons or because you think it’s better for your kids is somehow considered an act of existential cowardice. Only the starry­eyed pursuit of romantic love is considered a worthy enough compass on which to navigate one’s life. This is one reason we have higher rates of marital and cohabitation dissolution, and faster rates of recoupling, than most other countries ­­ creating heightened exposure to transitions and instability that are harmful to children.

Children and career often operate in a kind of fog of war where we have to choose our priorities based on our best guess of which commitment should be prioritized. “Life doesn’t always hand us the option of successfully maintaining an alliance between our marital goals, our aspirations for our children and our ideological commitments,” notes sociologist Barbara Risman, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.”

The Clintons have managed to keep their marriage intact, successfully raise a healthy daughter, despite the public humiliation, and Bill Clinton now seems to prioritize his wife’s aspirations in the same way that she had to prioritize his many years before. I’ve sure seen a lot more destructive reactions to infidelity in my practice.

I’ve sure seen a lot more destructive reactions to infidelity in my practice.

Joshua Coleman, the author of “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along”, is a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, as well as a private practice psychologist.   

Image by Rusty Sheriff via Flickr Commons
Image by Rusty Sheriff via Flickr Commons

In 2015, the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) continued contributing to public discourse through the dissemination of reliable research. CCF’s impact has grown over previous years in the quantity of coverage, the diversity of media outlets (and presumably, audiences), and social media influence. This year, nearly 250 unique media pieces have been influenced by CCF briefs and experts, and have been circulated via shares, likes, tweets, pins, etc., on social media more than 149,000 times. Keep in mind that this is an extreme lower bound of CCF’s influence, since we don’t recount the hundreds of reprints of CCF coverage. The five releases below are some of this year’s most successful.

1-28-15: Sandra Hofferth reported in “Child-Rearing Norms and Practices in Contemporary American Families” that on key parenting measures—such as reading and meals together, regulating TV watching, and involving children in extracurricular activities—children in married-parent households fared slightly better than those in single-parent households. The differences were much more stark, however, when poor and non-poor families of all types were compared, suggesting a spurious relationship between family structure and child outcomes. Hofferth argued that those who are poor are less likely both to be able to engage in these crucial child-rearing activities and to marry. Thus, marriage is not necessarily a direct route to improved child welfare. Coverage of this report appeared in least 51 media outlets, including Christian Science Monitor, Good Housekeeping, Real Clear Policy, and NBC News.

3-5-15: On the 50th anniversary of the release of The Moynihan Report, CCF scholars contributed to the online symposium, “Moynihan +50: Family Structure Still Not the Problem,” in which Stephanie Coontz, Philip N. Cohen, Heidi Hartmann, Jeff Hayes, Chandra Childers, and William H. Chafe focused their attention on Moynihan’s formulation that black poverty is the result of black family structure, especially single-mother households. The series authors argued that Moynihan’s claim of pathology itself created barriers to achieving racial equality. Yes, there was an increase in single-mother families since the 1960s, but poverty and crime decreased, highlighting the weakness of marriage-promotion for poverty reduction. The report was covered in at least 27 media outlets, including the History News Network, Washington Post, New York Times, and Deseret News.

5-7-15: In the “CCF Symposium on Housework, Gender, and Parenting,” CCF’s Stephanie Coontz, Jill Yavorsky, Claire Kamp Dush, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Arielle Kuperberg, Oriel Sullivan, Jonathan Gershuny, John Robinson, and Liana C. Sayer acknowledge that men have increased their contributions to housework, but that gender inequality persists in less dramatic and more subtle forms, particularly when the couple are parents. This release informed articles in more than 100 media outlets, including Cosmopolitan, Time, ABC News, Washington Post, Pacific Standard, The LA Times, and Tech Times.

7-1-15: Celeste Curington, Ken-Hou Lin, and Jennifer Lundquist revealed in “Dating Partners Don’t Always Prefer ‘Their Own Kind’: Some Multiracial Daters Get Bonus Points in the Dating Game,” that dating “racial hierarchies” have changed so that some multiracial groups—Asian-white and Hispanic-white in particular—are responded to as frequently, and sometimes more frequently, than certain mono-racial individuals. “Some” is the key word, however; bi-racial blacks appeared more favorable than mono-racial blacks (and mono-racial Asian and Hispanic Men), but still ranked relatively low in response rates compared to white, Asian-white, and Hispanic-white individuals. The study was covered by more than 20 media sources, including Time, NBC News, Washington Post, Market Watch, Vox, and the New York Times. This report was one of many that made its way to overseas audiences, appearing on a Malaysian news source, Astro Awani.

9-16-15: Kelly Musick and Katherine Michelmore provided a new answer to an old question: “What Happens When Couples Marry After the First Baby?” For couples whose first child was born between 1985 and 1995, the risk of divorce was higher among cohabiters (who went on to marry after the baby) versus those who married before the birth of their child. Times changed, though, and cohabiting couples whose first child was born after 1997 were no more likely to divorce than those who married prior to the birth of their child. The researchers found that those couples that never married were still at higher risk for break-up, and outlined potential risk factors for couple instability. This report was a knowledge-base for articles in at least 47 media outlets, including USA Today, Huffington Post, The Stir, and Yahoo Parenting, which were liked or shared more than 28,000 times on social media.

The briefs released from CCF over past years compound our influence. As just one example, Arielle Kuperberg’s March 2014 “Does Premarital Cohabitation Raise your Risk of Divorce?” (it doesn’t) was featured in 11 new articles on the topic throughout 2015 in a variety of media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Deseret News, and Medical Daily, which have been circulated on social media at least 6,200 times! This is added to the 37 times the work was covered in 2014. If history serves as a guide, CCF will bring reliable research on families to an even larger and more diverse audience in the coming year.

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.

johnson pieceIf I am to believe findings from the media coverage of a recent study, then I should anticipate a life where I return home from work and nonchalantly prop up my feet, crack open a cold beer, and patiently wait for sex once my wife has finished cleaning up the sink full of dishes following a delicious home-cooked meal she singlehandedly prepared while our two young children wreaked havoc on the house. This scenario seems better suited to science fiction than social science, for sure. To say I was skeptical of the study that serves as the basis for this questionable fantasy would be an understatement.

This widely publicized study a few years back ignited a pop culture debate about how men’s contributions around the house impacted a couple’s sex life. Drawing on a large national sample of married couples surveyed once in the early 1990s, Kornrich, Brines, and Leupp found husbands who did more of the housework that women often do (making dinner, cleaning house) had less sex, while men completing more “manly” tasks (mowing the lawn, washing the car) was linked with having sex more often. The authors argued that: “traditionally masculine and feminine behaviors consciously or unconsciously serve as turn-ons for individuals” (p. 31). My coauthors and I interpreted this conclusion as unfortunately implying that “husbands emasculate themselves by completing housework traditionally considered to be women’s responsibility and, therefore, experience reduced sexual frequency because they rendered themselves less sexually appealing … by doing the dishes.”

We explored sex and men’s contributions to chores traditionally done by women (cleaning, shopping) using data from couples repeatedly surveyed every year for five years as part of the German Panel Analysis of Intimate Relations and Family Dynamics (pairfam) study. We considered men’s housework in two ways: actual share and perceived fairness. Actual share was the extent to which men shared traditionally feminine tasks (did more or less than female partner vs. 50/50 split) and perceived fairness was whether men felt their contributions to housework were fair (did more or less than their fair share of housework vs. fairly shared). Our study then looked to see whether actual share and perceived fairness predicted future sex frequency and sex satisfaction of both partners. Such an approach is critical to gain an accurate understanding of how relationship dynamics unfold as couples move through time together. Studies based on data gathered at only one point in time are inherently limited in their ability to identify aspects of intimate partnerships that promote or inhibit later couple sexuality.

Our results demonstrated no association between men’s actual share of housework and sex. However, when men reported making a fair contribution to housework, the couple enjoyed more frequent and satisfying sex in the future. A good deal of social science research and theory indicates the determination of fairness is a subjective process based on comparisons to societal norms, personal expectations, and the circumstances of a particular couple’s daily life. Applied to housework, equal contributions may not necessarily be fair. The optimal amount of housework men should or should not be doing is something to be actively negotiated between partners. When both partners are on the same page regarding household responsibilities, sex may be more frequent and satisfying because feelings of bitterness and anger are less likely to accumulate knowing one’s partner is pulling his weight around the house.

Rather than avoiding chores in the hopes of having more sex, findings from my study paint a different picture. Men are likely to experience more frequent and satisfying (for both partners) passion between the sheets when they simply do their fair share. We suspect this will involve scrubbing dishes from time to time.

Matt Johnson is an assistant professor of family science in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta. He studies the development of couple relations to identify mechanisms responsible for relationship success or failure. He would like to thank Nancy Galambos for her edits and helpful suggestions on this post.

Photo credit: Got Credit.
Photo credit: Got Credit.

Public discourse in the U.S. has long viewed teen childbearing and nonmarital parenthood as social problems that threaten the well-being of women, children, and society at large. Popular media, like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom reinforce more academic assessments. That delaying teen births will benefit women seems so obvious that this assumption has received little empirical scrutiny. Our new research, however, challenges this conventional wisdom and further raises questions about the potential costs of encouraging young unmarried mothers to marry.

Analyzing 29 years of data on a nationally representative sample of 2,900 women, we find no evidence that delaying births from adolescence to early adulthood (age 20-24) improves women’s long-term health. In many ways, this is not surprising. As rates of college attendance and completion have grown, particularly among women, early adulthood has become an increasingly important time the acquisition of resources necessary for later socioeconomic attainment. Like teen births, births during this stage likely create barriers to educational and occupational success necessary to healthy functioning across the life course.

In fact, for white women, we find that it is only young adult births and not teen births that are linked to health detriments in midlife. Because teen mothers are more likely than young adult mothers to live with their parents, the greater availability of economic and instrumental support from parents may minimize the negative consequences of childbearing for white women. For black teen mothers, high levels of economic disadvantage may limit the resources their families can provide, with negative consequences for health later in life.

Contemporary demographic trends underscore the importance of our findings. Although teen childbearing has declined steadily for the last two decades, reaching its nadir in 2013, childbearing in the young adult years remains high. In 2010, nearly 30 percent of 1st births in the U.S. occurred to women between the ages of 20 and 24 (36% among African American women) and the majority of these births are nonmarital. The result is that the birth timing of a large proportion of U.S. women may place them at risk for health detriments in midlife.

Is Marriage the Answer? Declines in teen childbearing in the U.S. have occurred alongside an explosive growth in nonmarital childbearing, particularly among women in early adulthood. In approximately 20 years, rates of nonmarital childbearing have risen by 46%–from 28% of all births in 1990 to 41% in 2009. In conjunction with the 1996 welfare reform bill and its reauthorization in 2006, federal and state government has taken an increasingly active role in promoting marriage among low-income single mothers (a substantial proportion of whom had teen births) through efforts such as public advertising campaigns and relationship skills training. Yet whether marriage can improve outcomes for single women who had teen births is unknown.

Our findings suggest that subsequent marriage after a nonmarital early first birth (that occurs prior to the age of 24) may pose health risks for black women. Being unmarried at birth does not itself appear to be a health risk factor for black young mothers as long as they remain unmarried. Rather, those who subsequently marry have worse midlife health compared to similar young mothers who were married at birth and, more importantly, worse health than those who, by age 40, have never-married.

Explaining the health risks of later marriage for young unmarried black mothers is beyond the scope of our study, but prior research provides important clues. Given high levels of economic disadvantage and rates of male incarceration in their communities, black single mothers who later marry are disproportionately likely to marry men who have lack a high-school diploma and who have limited economic and occupational resources—factors known to be linked to high levels of stress and conflict in marriage. Our own previous research finds low levels of relationship quality and high rates of instability in the new unions that single mothers form. Thus, rather than being a source of emotional and instrumental support that is beneficial for health, subsequent marriage may introduce additional strains into the lives of Black young single mothers in ways that ultimately take a cumulative toll on their health.

What about Children? Improving the well-being of children is a central aim of efforts to reduce teen pregnancy and promote marriage among single parents. Much evidence indicates that children born to teen mothers are disadvantaged on a range of indicators of socioeconomic and educational attainment and they are more likely to experience early childbearing themselves, although the causal order here is unclear. Our study considers only mothers’ outcomes, but a growing body of research indicates that the impact of fertility timing and mother’s subsequent marriage on children’s well-being is more complex than previously believed. For example, research in Britain recently showed that children born to mothers in their early 20s fared worse on several socioeconomic and educational outcomes later in life than those born to older women. And earlier work by Elizabeth Cooksey using the same data as ours found that a mother’s subsequent marriage even to the child’s biological father did not close the gap in academic success between children born to young single mothers and those born to married mothers.

In sum, our findings for mothers indicate that it is important to consider how different groups of children are differentially affected by factors assumed to be universally harmful such as teen and nonmarital childbearing. Even well informed social policy based on empirical evidence may produce unintended negative consequences when average effects of complex social phenomena such as marriage and childbearing are assumed to apply equally to all.

Implications. Although it seems obvious that discouraging teen childbearing is a desirable goal, our results suggest that delaying childbearing to the young adult years offers few benefits to women’s health. In recent years, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy altered its title, now the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, to better address the rise in unplanned pregnancy occurring to women in their twenties. Our findings indicate that our myopia on the challenges inherent in becoming a mother immediately after the age of majority, together with a failure to consider race/ethnic differences in the likely impact of a range of reproductive and family policies may result in unintended negative consequences, often for the most disadvantaged or vulnerable groups.

This point also applies to our findings regarding the impact of marriage. Although decades of research indicate that married individuals are healthier on average than the unmarried, one cannot conclude that marriage is a panacea that will solve a range of individual and societal ills or that it is equally beneficial to all individuals. Our findings indicate that marriage may pose long-term health risks to some women who have births in adolescence or early adulthood. More broadly, they sound a cautionary note about the long-term consequences of attempts to intervene in women’s personal decisions about childbearing and marriage.

Kristi Williams is Associate Professor of Sociology, The Ohio State University and Senior Scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.

You can view the press release for her study: Timing of First Child Influences Women’s Health at Age 40. 

zekeprotest“What do we want? JUSTICE. When do we want it? NOW.”

I chanted along as I watched my son engaged in social protest. My palms began to sweat and my jaw tense as I watch him. I wondered if my son was at the line of civil disobedience or had he already crossed it. He is an absolutely beautiful young man, tall with broad shoulders and a smile that melts my heart. I am his mother and I love him dearly.

I know he has the right to protest what he sees as injustice. I have taught him, and countless college students that it is our duty to participate in the struggle to create a just society. From schoolyards, where they might encounter someone bullying someone else, to encountering homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles, I have taught my children that to ignore injustice is to further inflict it. However, in this moment, I am his mother. In this moment, as police surround him as he angrily argues his rights, I am afraid for my beautiful son, my man-child. I am acutely aware that Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland have mothers that thought them beautiful and whom now, mourn them. In this moment, my pride that my in my 17-year-old son has learned, and is extending my life lessons regarding social activism are mixed inextricably with a mother’s fear.

In 1955, a fourteen-year-old boy was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Emmett Till, like many young African American boys today, lived with his mother in a single-parent household. Mamie Till, anguished at the loss of her only child, nevertheless decided upon an open casket to make sure the world knew what happened to her son. Many scholars, myself included, believe the choice to make public and lay bare the horrors of the murder was pivotal in launching the beginning of The Civil Rights Movement.

zoOn April 27th 2015, a video of rioting in Baltimore was broadcast on the news and shared widely on social media. In the video, a woman wades through the crowd and hits and yells at her rioting son. An angry crowd of rioters had exploded in response to the gruesome death Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody. Media stories and interviews with ‘Baltimore Mom’ generally deemed her actions as necessary to keep the city, and her son, safe. See was celebrated by many as “Mom of the Year”.

My response, the actions of Mamie Till and “Baltimore Mom” represent the weight of black motherhood. In the United States, around 67 percent of black families with children live in households with an unmarried mother. In fact, then, as now, women like Baltimore mom, Mamie Till, and myself, are portrayed as emblematic of “THE REAL” problem besetting black communities. Like Mamie Till, I am divorced from my son’s father. Although the fact that his father and I continue to co-parent our children despite the change in our marital status, and the fact that I am a professor with an advanced degree, should both be logically considered mitigating factors, our family is nonetheless included in statistics described by The Moynihan Report as representing “a tangle of pathology.” The Moynihan report, written 50 years ago to buttress Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, is among the most famous pieces of social scientific analysis. In my twenty years of research of African American families, I have yet to see policy or research on black family that fails to reference it. While the report cogently assessed the constraining impact of discrimination on intimate relationships options available to Black men and women, it also imposed a biased and limiting meaning regarding marriage fragility. The Moynihan Report, and contemporary popular opinion both generally place single-black motherhood at the top of the list of self-inflicted harms, right alongside discussions of “black-on-black crime.” The Moynihan Report explicitly asserted that Black women’s strength emasculated Black men and thereby caused criminality and a host of other pathologies. Today the harms of black, single mother families are unarticulated but nevertheless presumed. Post-Civil Rights Movement changes in welfare policy, along with ‘War on Drugs’, are key components in the emergence of what law professor and author Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. In Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Los Angeles, as well as in urban Black communities everywhere, the impact of the “New Jim Crow” has been deeply felt. High numbers of community residents are incarcerated in prisons all over the country and are therefore absent from their families. “Baltimore Mom’s” response seemed to me to be emblematic of the toxic circumstances brought on by the criminalization of entire communities.zoprotest

In 2015, as was the case in 1965 and 1955 before that, single motherhood continues to be associated with poverty and inequality, as well as with cultural arguments about the social problems observed in urban black communities. Simply put, race continues to influence how most people in society think about the links between marriage, childbearing, and the host of structural problems confronting African American communities. Oddly, even as American families have become far more diverse, and increasingly we interrogate the collateral costs of the “War on Drugs”, critical interrogations of the logic of “family dysfunction” as the cause of black people’s problems, is rare. In fact, even President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, and himself a product of a single mother, began several initiatives to build “strong communities” by promoting “responsible fatherhood” as a primary strategy.

Americans of every race continue to decry the “deterioration” of urban black communities as being directly linked to family behavior, and lament the tragic impact of the loss of “traditional family values”. This is indeed the context for “Baltimore Mom’s” initial elevation.

I did not succumb to fear as I watched my son impolitely assert that “Black Lives Matter” in an uncivil protest in front of the church that night. Instead, I saw myself joined with my son and countless other mothers, fathers, step-fathers, siblings, cousins and play-cousins, across time and geography to stand together and unapologetically demand meaningful political response to police abuses. Because, Black Lives Matter, really.

Professor James is co-author, along with Donna L. Franklin, of the newly revised paperback edition of Ensuring Inequality: Structural Transformations of the African American Family, Oxford University Press. 2015. She has devoted her academic life to understanding racial inequality, and her personal life to eradicating it.

When New York Magazine published a story about eight adults and three kids sharing one big house as a COVER, How We Live Nowmodern-day family of choice, it was shared more than 4,000 times in just the first few days. In the research I did for my latest book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I interviewed people across the nation who were creating their own intentional families or designing other innovative ways of living. In this two-part series, I am sharing excerpts from the book. Part 1 was “The Way We Live Now: Intentionally with Others, and Joyously Alone.” Here is Part 2, from pages 1-4 of How We Live Now.

In the fall of 2012, an article in the “Great Homes and Destinations” section of the New York Times began like this:

“In a slowly gentrifying section of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where gunshots are no longer heard and the local brothel has been turned into a family home, five friends made a 10-year commitment.

The group— two architectural designers, two fashion designers and one advertising executive, all in their 20s — rented 2,700 square feet of raw space and agreed to fix it up and live there for a decade. Two years into that commitment, it seems to be going pretty well.”

In just a few understated sentences, the Times captured a way of living that would have been nearly unthinkable not so very long ago. A confluence of cultural, demographic, and economic factors have turned the opening decades of the 21st century into a time of unprecedented innovation and experimentation as Americans search for their place, their space, and their people.

The choices of the five twenty-somethings are remarkable in a number of ways:

  • Demographics and Relationships: The five men and women in their twenties are making a 10-year commitment, and it is not to a spouse, nor even to the goal of finding a spouse, though that is not out of the question. It is a commitment to one another, a set of friends. In 1956, the median age at which Americans first married was as young as it has ever been—22.5 for men and 20.1 for women. By 2013, though, the respective ages had jumped to 29.0 and 26.6—and that’s just for those who do marry. Today, the twenties can be devoted to all manner of pursuits; marriage and children, while still an aspiration for many, no longer dominate.
  • Geography: They are staying in the city, and not looking toward the distant suburbs. That’s new, too. For the first time in at least two decades, cities and surrounding suburbs are growing faster than exurbs.
  • Architecture and Design: A century ago, many Americans were selecting houses from a Sears catalog. Now, adults can step into a big hunk of raw space and envision a place they will call home that stretches beyond a space fit for a couple or a traditional nuclear family.

The friends have separate bedrooms. They share showers, a bathroom, and space for entertaining. They are also sharing their lives. They consider themselves family.

These five people could have followed a more familiar script. Instead, they dreamed. They designed their own lives, with their own place, their own space, and their own people.

Another group of young New Yorkers, all heterosexual single men, began living together just after they graduated from New York University. That was 18 years before they were interviewed about their experiences by the New York Times. When the rent for their loft in Chelsea doubled after fourteen years, they could have gone their separate ways. But they are close friends, and they instead chose to look for another place they could share.

The four men, all approaching 40, found two stories of a concrete building in Queens which they affectionately call Fortress Astoria. The men have their own rooms (more like tiny apartments) and share a kitchen, living room, and garden. None of the bedrooms are adjoining, so the men have privacy when they want to bring dates home.

“We are really close, and care about each other deeply,” one of the men told Times reporter Hilary Howard. “And yet we give each other lots of space…We’ve got all the benefits of a family with very little of the craziness that normally comes along with them.”

Not one of the men is a parent. That doesn’t make them all that unusual. In 2012, the birthrate in the United States fell to the lowest level since 1920, when reliable records first became available.

The ease and comfort they feel with one another is clearly one of the main attractions of the way the men live, but so is the money they save by splitting the rent and utilities four ways. Without the pressure of a pricier housing tab, the men can pursue circuitous, risky, and exhilarating career paths that the company men of eras past could not imagine. One of the men tried an office job for a while. The health insurance was nice, but the work wasn’t. He is now a personal trainer. His roommates are in film-making, acting, and the design of role-playing fantasy games.

In a vibrant Seattle neighborhood, complete with markets, cultural venues, and convenient public transportation, a group of artists longed to find affordable housing. There wasn’t any. There was, though, an old hotel that captured the fancy of their dreamy minds. With help from the city, they converted the hotel into a cooperative home with 21 living spaces, including doubles, triples, and solo “Zen” units.

The housemates—who range in age from 19 to 50—share kitchens, bathrooms, lounges, laundry facilities, and a roof deck. It is their responsibility to keep the building in good shape, but they throw work parties to get that done so it doesn’t feel like a chore. They have potlucks at home and organize outings to local stomping grounds.

The Brooklyn, Queens, and Seattle stories are all examples of one of the newly fashionable ways of living in twenty-first century America: under the same roof with people who are not your spouse or family. The bond that unites the housemates is not blood or marriage, but friendship.

The trend, however, is not confined to urban areas, to young adults, or even to artistic types. All across the nation, unrelated people who once went their separate ways (often with a spouse and kids in tow) are now living together.

Bella DePaulo (PhD. Harvard) studies single life and contemporary versions of home and family. She is the author of books such as How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at BellaDePaulo.com.

The demographic face of the nation has changed dramatically over the past half-century. Today, the number of unmarried adults in the U.S. is nearly equal to the number of married ones, and more and more women of all marital statuses are opting not to have children at all. Only about 20% of all households are comprised of mom, dad, and the kids. So how are people living now? For my most recent book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I traveled around COVER, How We Live Nowthe country asking people to show me their homes and tell me about their lifespaces – the domestic places, spaces, and people who are most important to them. I combined their personal stories with relevant research from the social sciences and some historical context to show the innovative ways in which contemporary Americans have moved beyond the paradigm of living in a nuclear family home in the suburbs. In this post and the next, I share excerpts from How We Live Now. This is the first, from pp. xiii-xv.

When I asked the people I interviewed what mattered to them in deciding how and with whom to live, they mentioned everything from dealing with the tasks of everyday life to existential concerns about who would care for them in later life. On a psychological level, there were two things that just about everyone wanted, though in vastly different proportions. You won’t find them mentioned in real estate circulars, in reports from demographers about the ways we live, or (with rare exceptions) in the writings of architects or builders or city planners.

They wanted time with other people and time to themselves. Everyone was seeking just the right mix of sociability and solitude. They would like their time with other people to be easy to come by. Sarah Stokes, who lives on her own, sometimes has so many social invitations that she stops answering her phone. Other times, though, her social circle is too quiet, and she is disheartened by having to be the one to initiate.

By living in cohousing, Karen Hester has found a way to have a place of her own and easy sociability, too. Just steps outside her door she will probably find neighbors in the courtyard or in the common house. There will always be community dinners several times a week, and a day now and then when the group comes together to keep the grounds in good shape. Anja Woltman and Tricia Hoffman live at opposite ends of a duplex, so each has a home of her own as well as a friend right next door. Robert Jones lives in a big old Southern house in a charming small town. It is a family home which he shares with his brother and sister-in-law. He finds his easy sociability, though, with his poker buddies and his theater group, and the neighbors he sees everyday as he walks to work.

In choosing a way to live, people are also regulating access to themselves, in ways that are both profound and mundane. Whether they end up satisfied with their situation depends on the fit between what they want, psychologically, and what their living arrangements afford. The important questions include:

  • To what extent do you want to know other people and be known by them?
  • How much control do you want over the depth to which you are known by other people?
  • Do you like the sense of presence of other people?
  • Is solitude something you enjoy now and then or something you crave?

People who want to know other people and be known to them are happy to engage in the day-to-day exchanges of pleasantries, but they don’t want their contacts with their fellow humans to end there. They want to be friends, and not just acquaintances.

A New York Times story captured the essence of the conditions conducive to the development of close friendships, as documented in social science research: “proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” The rhythms of cohousing, with regular or semi-regular dinners, meetings, and the occasional workdays—together with the spontaneous chats along the pathways of neighborly spaces—offer magnificent opportunities to develop relationships with breadth and depth. In cohousing, relationships can grow in their own good time. The more deliberative versions of house-sharing, which go beyond the mere roommate mentalities, are also rich with the potential for forming close personal bonds.

Maria Hall, who lives in a home of her own, is happy to cede some control over the access that people have to her and her house. “I don’t have a ‘you have to call me before you come over’ policy,” she told me. “If the truck is in the back, just come on in. If there’s something on the floor, step over it.” When I visited Diane Dew, who lives on the first floor of a two-story building, I noticed that the people on the top story across the way could probably see into her windows. That might make some people feel observed and self-conscious. Diane, though, told me that she loved opening her shades in the morning and waving to the children eating breakfast near their kitchen window; they, in turn, blow kisses to her.

Not everyone wants closeness from the people around them. That’s what Lucy Whitworth learned from her community of women who live in a house and two duplexes arranged around a generous stretch of gardens and fruit trees. Telling me about the kinds of people who have fit in well over the years, Lucy said that it is important that “you don’t mind if people know about who you are.”

The sense of the presence of other people, though distracting to some, is reassuring to others. One of two widows who live next door to each other told me that in the evenings, when she looks outside, she is comforted by the sight of the light on in the home of her friend. Marianne Kilkenny, who shares a house with four other people, likes the privacy she has in her own suite. At the same time, she enjoys hearing the soft sounds outside her door of her housemates going about their daily routines. She missed that when she lived alone.

Just about everyone I interviewed wanted at least some time to themselves. I thought for a moment that I had found one person who didn’t, Danica Meek, a 21-year-old who lives in a tiny room in a big house that she shares with one other woman and three men. When I asked Danica what she liked to do by herself, at first she couldn’t think of anything. Then she said she might like to do some writing but had not done any yet. As we continued to talk, though, she mentioned how much she enjoyed being the first one up in the morning, and starting her day in peaceful solitude. Len, a 91-year-old widower who opened his home to his daughters and grandsons, does not see the appeal of living alone. But he also shared with me what he remembered of a quote from Einstein: “being alone can be painful in youth but sweet in old age.”

For some, solitude feels more like a need or a craving than a mere desire. Arlia, who has a committed relationship but insists on living on her own, explained that she “requires” time alone “to get centered and balanced, to feel solid.”

Bella DePaulo (PhD. Harvard) studies single life and contemporary versions of home and family. She is the author of books such as How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at BellaDePaulo.com.

policy oct 2016If you didn’t watch it, then you may have heard the clips or perhaps viewed the mansplaining vine that characterized the mean-spirited and prosecutorial tone of the September 29th House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s five-hour grilling of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. In September, amid rumors of staffers profiting from selling fetal tissues and a flurry of purportedly incriminating video content, Congress voted 241-to-187 to strip Planned Parenthood of some $500 million in federal family planning funds for a year. Women’s reproductive health remains a deeply political issue.

Planned Parenthood provides women’s health services that span beyond constitutionally- protected abortion services to include contraceptives like the Pill or LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives), screening for sexually transmittable diseases and infections, cancer screenings, and treatments for other women’s health issues, all of which represented 97 percent of the services delivered in 2013-14 – according to their own reporting. However, it’s pointless to get stuck trying to make an apolitical argument that the non-abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood justifies their continued public funding, because all of Planned Parenthood’s services bear the same end goal of empowering women to take control of their sexual and reproductive lives — and that’s the part that is inescapably political. It’s disingenuous to say this is about the law or fetal tissue or video or the sanctity of life or anything other than what it is: the agency of women. pp data

Research demonstrates that empowerment through expanding access to and use of subsidized birth control reduces abortion rates and helps more women avoid unplanned births, so spending on contraception more than pays for itself. Fifty years of access to birth control and increased reproductive health has brought about a 60 percent decrease in adolescent birth rates since 1991 (Future of Children), which is good news when we calculate the social costs of unprepared or premature parenting. However, the U.S. adolescent pregnancy rate remains the highest in the developed world (at 57 per 1,000 in 2010) outside the former Soviet Bloc (Guttmacher Institute). A recent policy brief from the Future of Children argues that the increased access to LARCs could play a major role in reducing adolescent pregnancy, although only about 12 percent of women aged 15–44 using birth control use them. The authors suggest “LARCs are effective in large part because they change the default for women from having to take action to avoid pregnancy (that is, consistently take a pill or use a condom) to having to take action to become pregnant (that is, remove an IUD or an implant).”

Last week in Colorado, a bill to continue funding of a program to promote the use of LARCs was blocked by the Republican-dominated Senate – some opponents claimed that existing public programs already provide funding for birth control, that birth control encourages sex among teenagers and unmarried young adults, and that abstinence only programs are the most appropriate programs for teens. The most seditious and misguided claim was that the particular LARC to be funded by the bill (the intrauterine device [IUD] Liletta) is an abortifacient – meaning that it works by terminating a pregnancy. This claim does not hold up to scientific scrutiny, nor does it fit with the definition widely accepted by experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which explicitly states in a position paper “IUDs are not abortifacients—they work before pregnancy is established—and are safe for the majority of women, including adolescents and women who have never had children.”

Dressing down Planned Parenthood and blocking access to legal, affordable, safe, and constitutionally protected birth control are not the only facets of the disempowerment strategy. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI), which awards five-year grants to teen pregnancy prevention programs, recently announced that additional funding will be committed to new programs in 31 states this year, but the remaining four years are in jeopardy. Last summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding to the program by 80 percent, and the House Appropriations Committee voted to terminate it altogether.

Like the crusade to defund Planned Parenthood, the resistance to providing access to all forms of women’s reproductive health services is a misguided mission. The transparent and mendacious attacks on women’s autonomy proves to be less focused on protecting the sanctity of human life or fetal tissue, or videos, or legal requirements, than on penalizing women for having non-reproductive sex or empowering them to have greater control over their lives. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and a tireless advocate for a woman’s right to control her own body, said “woman must have her freedom, the fundamental freedom of choosing whether or not she will be a mother and how many children she will have. Regardless of what man’s attitude may be, that problem is hers – and before it can be his, it is hers alone.” And so goes the politics of the women’s bodies with a white-hot heat.

Perry Threlfall is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in sociology at George Mason University. She studies gender, racial, and class stratification across institutional and structural contexts, e.g. education and family. Her current research examines the contextualized experience of non-traditional higher education degree seekers. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist.