Families as They Really Are

educational policyFor all of its craziness and scariness, the 2016 election campaign has hammered home for millions of Americans the degree to which massive inequities permeate our daily lives and threaten our democracy.

Unfortunately, understanding how inequalities affect us has yet to permeate the education policy world. While the transition from narrow, punitive No Child Left Behind Act to the Every Student Succeeds Act represents real progress, there is still a widespread belief that schools are the main drivers of achievement gaps and that they can, and should, be responsible for closing them. Correcting this fallacy is critical to getting the education system we need – one that is both equitable and excellent – and will help correct some of those larger inequities as well.

In reality, the same systemic forces that have sucked most of the income and wealth from the bottom half of our population in recent decades and channeled it into the top one percent have substantially widened income-based achievement gaps. Without intentional measures to direct a broad range of educational and other resources to reversing that trend, gaps will continue to grow. And because big disparities in parents’ – and society’s – investments in children begin at birth, those resources need to be channeled early.

Many of us know that students from poor families, and especially low-income students of color, are often two to three years behind by the time they begin high school. What is far less widely known is that those same students began school that far behind. In other words, our highly inequitable school system, which consigns students with the greatest deficits to the least credentialed and experienced teachers, is doing more to maintain gaps that children brought with them on their first day of kindergarten than to create them.

A study by my colleague, Emma Garcia, finds that, in fact, students in the bottom social class quintile lagged their highest-social class peers by a full standard deviation in both reading and math at kindergarten entry. Those same students were about half a standard deviation behind on such social emotional skills as persistence, self-control, and social interactions, which are equally critical to academic, and life, success. Mind you, education researchers typically translate that “standard deviation” into two or three years of schooling. Let that sink in: one in five students start kindergarten one to three years behind, whether behaviorally or academically.

When we looked across racial groups, the gaps were smaller, and could be explained substantially by social class. Given that nearly half of black five-year-olds who started school in 2010-11, and almost two thirds of English-Language Learner Hispanic children, versus just 13 percent of their white peers, are living in poverty, however, shifting the comparison groups doesn’t improve those students’ real life contexts.

Schools didn’t start these problems. And the evidence tells us that schools alone can’t fix them.

Early fixes that will work.

Luckily, there is also some very good news on this front. Unlike fixes for our bigger, broader societal inequities, strategies for closing these early childhood gaps are well understood, extensively documented, and, miraculously, have fairly wide support across the political spectrum. A paper just published by five EPI researchers lays out both the multiple societal problems created by our failure to make the needed public investments in quality early child care and education, and the broad set of benefits to be reaped from righting that wrong.

First and foremost, an ambitious national investment in early childhood care and education would help get all our children to the starting gate in much better shape. Another recent study, conducted jointly by the National Institute for Early Education Research and the Center for American Progress, suggests that universal pre-k alone would narrow math gaps by between 45 percent and 78 percent (black- white and Hispanic-white gaps, respectively) and virtually eliminate pre-kindergarten reading gaps.

But the benefits to the investments we propose extend much further. Ensuring a living wage for child care providers would not only improve their quality of life and enhance their contributions to the economy, but help stabilize the workforce and, ultimately, benefit the children they care for. Because child care is such a burden for young families – as expensive as rent or more so in many cases – making high-quality child care available would provide a benefit of about $11,000 annually for Florida families with an infant and a preschool-aged child who are earning the state median income. And removing this barrier to women’s workforce participation would help bring American women in line with their international peers, with potential gains to the gross domestic product of as much as $600 billion annually.

As the election comes closer, we must continue to push all candidates in both parties to focus on the severe problems working Americans face. Let’s make the early childhood investments we suggest front and center. By our analysis they are low hanging fruit—politically and economically.

Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with four co-chairs, a high-level Advisory Board, and multiple coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive in school and life.  Major publications for BBA include case studies of diverse communities across the country that employ comprehensive approaches to education. She has also authored two studies with EPI economist Emma Garcia on early achievement gaps and strategies to reduce them.

coontz book coverThe latest edition of Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap is an essential read for policymakers. Coontz lays bare, in engaging, easy-to-read prose, the fact that many of Americans long-held beliefs about marriage, family structure, gender relations, caregiving, and child rearing are myths—amalgamations of narratives about families from different periods in American history that are rife with blind spots and errors. And, as Coontz makes clear, policymakers’ adherence to these false ideals has profound, often deeply negative consequences for American families.

This myth busting is part of what makes Coontz’s newest release so important. Family is so ubiquitous, so personal, that everyone fancies themselves an expert. The fact that Coontz reveals one surprise after another on this intimate and familiar terrain shows that such thinking is just that:  fanciful. Many policymakers would be astonished to learn, as Coontz informs us, that nearly three in ten American households contain just one person; that premarital cohabitation does not increase the risk of divorce; and that modern working and single mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home, married mothers did 50 years ago.

A nuanced discussion of the economic and social contexts in which families form, live, and work—and the centrality of public policy in shaping these contexts—is the second reason Coontz’s book is a must read for policymakers. Coontz, a historian, carefully assembles rigorous and persuasive research to explain how income inequality, which has been driven to historic heights in recent years by decades of ill-advised policy choices, is a much stronger predictor of poverty than family structure.

Coontz’s work clearly demonstrates that there is much room for improvement in the ways policymakers understand, regulate, and try to influence families. There is a push in Washington for evidence-based policymaking. Yet all too often family policy is an area where, even when we possess the kind of coherent evidence Coontz offers, policy is rooted in those myths rather than what has been empirically observed or tested. Efforts to undermine marriage equality, reduce women’s access to reproductive health services, and teach abstinence-only sex education are all examples of policies that are purportedly designed with the best interests of children and families in mind—yet in reality these policies fly in the face of research about what families need to be strong, stable, and secure.  Such policymaking is illogical at best and harmful at worst.

Fortunately for policymakers Coontz’s book makes for an absorbing, sometimes shocking, often wryly funny read. Both comprehensive and comprehensible, it’s a veritable one-stop shop for reliable research on how public policy and culture affect families. Readers will feel as if they have been whisked away on a tour of history and academia with an expert guide imparting the most relevant and compelling facts at each stop. Policymakers would be smart to buy a ticket.

katherine gallagher robbins photoKatherine Gallagher Robbins (@kfgrobbins) is the Director of Family Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP). Before joining CAP, Robbins was the director of research and policy analysis at the National Women’s Law Center. Robbins holds a bachelor’s degree in government from the College of William and Mary and a doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

This recent coverage of family friendly policies and men in academia made us want to look again at Erin Anderson’s post from earlier this year.

Something at work can make choices related to this hard. Image from Pixabay.
Something at work can make choices related to this hard. Image from Pixabay.

U.S. fathers are eager to be more involved in the care of their infants and young children—per much research and many people’s personal accounts. The New York Times recently reported on men who have pursued legal action against their employers as a challenge to discriminatory policies and practices that prevent or limit the time they have available to utilize parental leave. Additionally, a recent survey of American fathers found an overwhelming majority, 89 percent, rated paid parental leave provided by an employer as an important workplace benefit. But consider this: there is also significant evidence that men are not likely to use parental leave, even when it is paid.

Because the leave mandated by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid (and simply unavailable to many Americans), many fathers can’t use it due to financial constraints. If paternity leave was paid, and resulted in no lost income, would men be more likely to take it? In our current economic climate, the answer is not so clear. My recent research on men in academia reveals that many fathers are uninterested, hesitant, or fearful that if they step away from their workplaces for most or all of the 15 weeks their employer offers in parental leave, their careers will suffer.

Some people think that academic institutions are paragons of research, discovery, and innovation that would, of course, be on the leading edge of progressive policies that would allow employees to balance the needs of work and family. This, however, is not the case. Few colleges and universities offer paid leave for mothers that doesn’t require the use of sick or vacation time to cover lost wages, and many schools actually violate federal law with their parental leave policies. Fewer still extend parental leave benefits to fathers. Furthermore, the tenure process puts pressure on young faculty, those who might be looking simultaneously at the tenure clock and their biological clocks. And the vulnerability of some staff positions or the demands on administrators means they are also not likely to take any extended leaves for the birth or adoption of a child.

Originally impressed by the decade long policy of gender neutral parental leave at the institution I recently studied, I ultimately found that policy and practices were seldom in alignment. Through interviews with men, both faculty and staff, employed in higher education within an institution with a generous parental leave policy, I learned that the opinions of colleagues and the needs of co-workers often took precedence over the wishes of a spouse and the needs of a new baby. In general, the men I interviewed still defined a significant part of their family role as that of provider, regardless of their partner’s employment status. Even though a policy of parental leave existed, and even though many of the women with whom they worked had utilized the leave, many fathers worried about the future consequences for their careers if they took any significant time out for parenting. Would co-workers resent them for taking the time off and possibly burdening colleagues with additional responsibilities? Would supervisors question their commitment to their careers or the institution? Would they lose future opportunities or rewards in their workplace if they took parental leave?

Without a doubt, we need more realistic and generous policies that allow workers, men and women, to meet the needs of their families and their workplaces. But people also need to use the policies that are available. The fact that this workplace offered a policy, but few men felt they could use it without suffering consequences, demonstrates the power of the workplace culture and the resistance many employees feel to rocking the boat, especially following a period of economic tumult. Moreover, when it is largely women who utilize parental leave, we reinforce gendered patterns of care work and continue to disadvantage women in the workplace.

These and other issues related to the individual and institutional factors that influence combining paid work and care work in academia are examined more closely in a collection I recently co-edited with Catherine Richards Solomon, Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe.

Erin K. Anderson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington College. Her research focuses on the experiences of gender at individual, interactional, and institutional levels. Her most recent work appears in Family Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe.

finding time book coverFamilies at all levels of income are struggling in our economy simply because it does not allow congenial coexistence of work and family life. Lives have become busier and busier and policies have not changed to reflect that. In her book, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict (Harvard University Press), Heather Boushey thoughtfully and comprehensively explains the problems with work-life conflict for women. Her book presents a set of solutions, too, that could make work-life conflict a thing of the past. While the story leads with the tale of what happens to women, Boushey takes the very issues that working women with families face and shows how these dilemmas are not about being a woman, they are about economics, and are shackling our entire economy. A valuable contribution is her portrait of contrasting work-life conflicts across income groups and family composition. She uses data as a skilled economist—which is her discipline—yet builds sensitively from history and social theory in a compelling book. Ultimately, her grounded arguments deliver detailed explanations as to why family policy needs to change and change quickly. Boushey, who is Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has decades of work bringing careful research to bear on key policy issues—and is successful at making the research and policy issues understandable to people who are really affected by the policies.


Boushey sets the table with locating economics in social context. The deal with capitalism is that by design the economy is ever-changing. Since the 1970s it has become heavily dependent upon women’s earnings. Families can no longer get by on the earnings of just one parent as they could before around 1979. So if our economy is so dependent upon a dual income family, then why aren’t there policies that support families’ need to manage work and family care? In Boushey’s words: “The hodgepodge of work and family policies that has evolved over the years does not address how people can have the time to deal with conflicts between work and home life” (p. 250). Finding Time explains the factors that determine what needs to change and how that change can happen.


The composition of families, Boushey reminds readers, are a lot different now than they used to be. While in the past families typically consisted of a mother, a father, and children, families now are more complex and could be classified in a burgeoning array. Single parent families make up about 27 percent of families today, for example. While in the past families could survive off of one parent being the breadwinner, that is nearly impossible now, especially for single parent families. She explains that single parent families are more likely to be low-income than families that have two (married) parents. Where are U.S. policies that make single-parent families able to thrive? Yes, they are already at a disadvantage with only one income, but policies that work will empower single parents to earn money and do the carework, which are two key things parents need to do.


Boushey makes a great point when she explains that women have always been the “silent partner” to businesses. Starting with the 19th century “family wage” and ending somewhere after the 1950s boom, men could go to work and not have to worry about their family because they knew their wives would be taking care of it. Businesses never had to take family into account because men never had to worry about theirs. In Boushey’s phrase, women were the “silent partners” to business. However, now that women’s incomes are key to family survival, the country is still not doing anything to lessen the burden of the work-family conflicts. Meanwhile, businesses reap benefits from having more capable workers in a larger labor pool, for whom wages are stagnant.


Women do not have a “silent partner.” But Boushey has a recommendation to fix this. She found that there is not one sure-fire way to fix the work-life conflict that families are facing. She argues that we need solutions in four areas that she calls Here, There, Care, and Fair.

Here: Policies for when women need to be Here (in the home). These policies include paid sick leave for medical needs and other time that would need to be spent with children.

There: Policies to make sure that the amount of hours that women are working leaves room for managing their family so that they do not always need to be There (at work).

Care: Policies regarding high-quality Care for children and aging family members.

Fair: Overall, policies need to be fair for everyone. This means that no matter what your income or familial composition is, you are still afforded the same work-family policies and no added responsibilities should hinder that.

Not only would adding this support make it less stressful for families to balance work and life, but such supports decrease costly turnover rates and increase productivity.


Women (and men!) need family policy as our silent partner to help us provide for our families. The “family policy” men had in the past was a housewife—and this policy is out of date. The economy has grown with the growth of women’s participation in the work force. It is time, Boushey demonstrates, that this growth should extend to benefits for women and their familial responsibilities.

This book was a great read. Along with clear explanations of economic concepts, Boushey uses her personal experience growing up in a working-class, union family in Washington State along with her knowledge of economics and history to show that to grow our economy and bring us out of the doldrums, working women need family-friendly policies. As a young woman looking ahead to a life of work-life conflict, I gained clarity and direction for my own work. Work-life conflict is a topic that needs recognition and Boushey is helping to spread knowledge and awareness. Boushey’s book still left me wondering how race may factor into this work-life conflict, maybe in a future addition we will be given some insight!

Molly McNulty is a CCF public affairs intern at Framingham State University. She is a senior Sociology and Education major.

Ashton's 2016 book.
Ashton’s 2016 book.

Concerned about an onslaught of enfeebled old people? Don’t worry, robots will take care of them! American techno-optimism knows no bounds, and so-called “age-independence” technologies are proliferating like crazy. But in a profoundly ageist culture, the implications can be disturbing. Here’s a critique of the latest article to catch my eye, “As Aging Population Grows, So Do Robotic Health Aides,” which appeared in the New York Times on December 4, 2015.

Let’s start with the hand-wringing opener [emphasis mine]: “The ranks of older and frail adults are growing rapidly in the developed world, raising alarms about how society is going to help them take care of themselves.” Frailty is indeed the biggest threat to an active old age, although only a subset of olders are at risk. It’s also easily detectable and the most remediable. Even very old people who are already frail see huge gains from modest interventions, like walking more or doing simple weight training exercises.

Next up, the inevitable alarm about global wrinkling: “An aging population will place enormous burdens on the world’s health care system by 2050.” In fact, older people are not inevitable money pits for health dollars. People aren’t just living longer; they’re healthier and are disabled for fewer years of their lives than older people of decades ago. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the share of US health care spending going toward nursing and retirement homes has declined since 2000 and been flat since 2006. The ten-year MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America concluded that once people reach sixty-five, their added years don’t have a major impact on Medicare costs. People over eighty actually cost less to care for at the end of life than people in their sixties and seventies. It’s high-tech interventions, not older patients, that make modern medicine so expensive.

On to another bit of problematic language: “Despite a patchwork of research and some commercial products, the United States appears to be lagging Japan and Europe in developing solutions.” Solutions to what? Aging is a natural, lifelong process, not a problem to be solved. Longevity is a fundamental hallmark of human progress.

Population aging—the prospect of many more of us living into our 80s and 90s— does mean that people will require more assistance of various kinds. Technology can indeed help us address some of these legitimate challenges.

  • Problem: limited mobility. Solution: small autonomous drones that will carry out household tasks, like reaching under a table to grab an object, fetching something from the other room, and cleaning. This sounds nifty. Please, though, do not call mine a “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bot,” as University of Illinois robotocist Naira Hovakimyan has dubbed the prototypes to make them less intimidating. I can handle “drone.” Even people with severe Alzheimer’s have been shown to react aggressively to infantilizing language.
  • Problem: “wandering.” Solution: smart pendants that track location. That makes sense.
  • Problem: tracking health status. Solution: “room and home sensors” that presumably verify that you’re up and around and have opened the fridge; devices with screens for video conferencing with health care providers. Those, too, make sense, and many more healthcare-related technologies are in the works.
  • Problem: driving. Solution: “Driver assistance [that] will turn cars into elder-care robots.” This is a great freakin’ idea. Google’s driverless cars are safer than human-operated vehicles, and Americans who can’t drive are hostage to lousy alternatives or homebound.

These benefits are real, but they’re limited. Technology, as we should know by now, is no panacea for complex social problems. Looking for ways to profit from the fast-growing “silver market,” thousands of companies are pitching devices as a solution not only for mobility and wellness issues but to remediate loneliness and isolation. “In addition to smart-home sensors and mobile robots,” the article continues, “there are a variety of other efforts to add stationary robots to provide everything from coaching to communications to companionship.”

Communications, absolutely. Skype, Facetime and other web-based technologies are terrific ways to help people of all ages stay connected. Coaching, why not? Lots of learning involves the kinds of drills and repetition that machines are made for. I can envision some kind of gym droid making me stretch and sweat and work on my balance. I’d name it and curse it and grow attached to it, and probably do the same for the drone carrying my shopping bag and the bot beating me at Boggle.

But that’s not companionship. Facetime is not the same as being together. A robot is not the same as a friend. I’m willing to bet that even people with advanced dementia can tell the difference, and I’m not surprised by the response of a 91-year-old woman to “an Internet-connected tabletop robot with a round swiveling screen that portrays a friendly robotic face” called Jibo. “If Jibo were my last friend,” she said, “I would be very depressed.” Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

As advertised, all these assistive technologies will help people stay in their own homes longer. That’s a priority for many and a boon for the insurance industry, because “aging in place” is cheaper than institutionalization. But they are no remedy for the “epidemic levels” of loneliness that an executive at Brookdale Senior Living describes in the article. Just the opposite, in fact, because staying at home all too often means ending up alone.

Sure, machines could be trained to do a great job. The presence of a sophisticated, infinitely patient robot designed to show pictures of your kids or play Scrabble or drive you to the movies might arguably be better than that of a human trained only to keep you safe, whose thoughts are likely on the faraway children her minimum wage supports. Those marvelous robots will inevitably serve the wealthiest consumers, however, widening the inequality gap and distracting us from the kinds of communitarian solutions that will help us all.

The fact that many people end up lonely and isolated is not inherent to growing old. It reflects some regrettable—and very American—priorities:

  • We don’t value caregiving, work largely performed by women who are unpaid or underpaid.
  • We idealize self-reliance. This downplays life’s challenges, and shames us when, inevitably, we fall short.
  • We value youth over age. Internalized ageism makes people reluctant to adopt technologies that might telegraph vulnerability. At the other end of the spectrum, technophiles embrace “anti-aging” biotechnologies in the hopes of transcending senescence and even mortality. The denial is collective as well. It’s why the US is so ill-prepared for a demographic transition that’s been on the horizon since the 1950s.

Neither the “problem” nor the “solution” is technological. It is social.

Humans are social animals, and we’re meant to live in community. Social connections give life meaning, and are key to a happy and healthy old age. Instead of focusing on devices that reduce the need for human contact, why not make the most of our human resources?We already have something really good at looking after humans: other humans. Millions of people are out of work and a caregiver crisis is growing more acute.

If we genuinely care about well-being in late life, we need to create opportunities for older people to come together with people of all ages, ways to get there, and meaningful activities to engage in, from the mundane to the metaphysical. Older members of society are uniquely qualified to be watchdogs, advocates, educators and futurists. Not to mention backwards-understanders; as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Our drones can come along.

Ashton Applewhite began blogging about aging and ageism in 2007 and started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when she started the Yo, Is This Ageist? blog. Her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, was published in March, 2016. This column is reposted from Ashton’s blog.

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 originally titled “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.

Graffiti/Paris/July 2012. Credit: John Schmitt
Graffiti/Paris/July 2012. Credit: John Schmitt

I work with one of the most heartbroken groups of people in the world: fathers whose adult children want nothing to do with them. While every day has its challenges, Father’s Day—with its parade of families and feel-good ads—makes it especially difficult for these Dads to avoid the feelings of shame, guilt and regret always lurking just beyond the reach of that well-practiced compartmentalization. Like birthdays, and other holidays, Father’s Day creates the wish, hope, or prayer that maybe today, please today, let me hear something, anything from my kid.

Many of these men are not only fathers but grandfathers who were once an intimate part of their grandchildren’s lives. Or, more tragically, they discovered they were grandfathers through a Facebook page, if they hadn’t yet been blocked. Or, they learn from an unwitting relative bearing excited congratulations, now surprised by the look of grief and shock that greets the newly announced grandfather. Hmm, what did I do with those cigars I put aside for this occasion?

And it’s not just being involved as a grandfather that gets denied. The estrangement may foreclose the opportunity to celebrate other developmental milestones he always assumed he’d attend, such as college graduations, engagement parties, or weddings. Maybe he was invited to the wedding but told he wouldn’t get to walk his daughter down the aisle because that privilege was being reserved for her father-in-law whom she’s decided is a much better father than he ever was.

Most people assume that a Dad would have to do something pretty terrible to make an adult child not want to have contact. My clinical experience working with estranged parents doesn’t bear this out. While those cases clearly exist, many parents get cut out as a result of the child needing to feel more independent and less enmeshed with the parent or parents. A not insignificant number of estrangements are influenced by a troubled or compelling son-in-law or daughter-in-law. Sometimes a parent’s divorce creates the opportunity for one parent to negatively influence the child against the other parent, or introduce people who compete for the parent’s love, attention or resources. In a highly individualistic culture such as ours, divorce may cause the child to view a parent more as an individual with relative strengths and weaknesses rather than a family unit of which they’re a part.

Little binds adult children to their parents today beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. And a not insignificant number decide that they don’t.

While my clinical work hasn’t shown fathers to be more vulnerable to estrangement than mothers, they do seem to be more at risk of a lower level of investment from their adult children. A recent Pew survey found that women more commonly say their grown children turn to them for emotional support while men more commonly say this “hardly ever” or “never” occurs. This same study reported that half of adults say they are closer with their mothers, while only 15 percent say they are closer with their fathers.

So, yes, let’s take a moment to celebrate fathers everywhere. And another to feel empathy for those Dads who won’t have any contact with their child on Father’s Day.

Or any other day.

Josh Coleman is former Co-Chair, Council on Contemporary Families, and author most recently of When Parents Hurt.

DV2Take another look at CCF’s online symposium on intimate partner violence.

This year, as was the case in 2015 when CCF convened experts on intimate partner violence, we continue to see a marked increase in attention to rape and sexual assault, especially on college campuses, by the media, local authorities, and the White House. The new focus on this problem is beneficial, but its persistence in recent cases is troubling.

History of rates of crime and intimate partner violence

The Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Intimate Partner Violence, reports a decline in IPV that parallels a decline in violent crime overall in the United States. Nevertheless, the series explains, while rapes and sexual assaults may be declining, they are still undercounted. Furthermore, while rates of IPV are unacceptably high on college campuses, those rates are even higher among women not enrolled in four-year colleges.

CCF director of research and education Stephanie Coontz writes in her introduction, “Violent crime has been falling in the United States for more than two decades, after rising sharply between the mid-1970s and 1993. In 2013 the murder rate was lower than any time since the records began in 1960, while violent crimes in general were at their lowest point since 1970.”

Is the decline in violent crime reflected in rates of IPV? Two reports in the series answer yes. Samuel Walker (University of Nebraska) indicates in “Interpersonal Violence and the Great Crime Drop” that “Between 1993 and 2010 IPV fell by 64 percent.” CCF intern Jessica Wheeler’s examination of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) in “A Review of National Crime Victim Victimization Findings on Rape and Sexual Assault” suggests that rates have been declining since 1973–with important caveats such as the NCVS’s neglect of military populations.

Undercounting on college campuses – and neglecting women who aren’t in school

In a detailed study of “Sexual Assault on Campus” University of Michigan scholars Elizabeth Armstrong and Jamie Budnick explain that while rates of IPV are declining, these rates are systematically underestimated – and have been from the beginning of IPV data collection.

For example, Armstrong and Budnick report, a national panel of researchers unanimously concluded that the NCVS techniques “likely inhibit reporting of assaults. Studies have consistently shown that many women do not label as ‘rape’ or define as criminal many sexual incidents that are unwanted and meet standards of forcible rape.” In addition, the way the NCVS is collected does not ensure privacy. “The interviewer is required to question everyone 12 and older at designated households, which means that all residents know what others are being asked. These oral interviews may be overheard,” which can inhibit people’s responses about controversial issues, explain the authors. Their report includes a detailed overview of data sources on sexual assault so that readers can examine the strengths and weaknesses of available data directly.

How common is IPV? The authors cite surveys ranging from a low of 14 to a high of 25 percent, which suggests that “the 1 in 5 statistic so frequently quoted is reasonable, even though inexact. The two most comparable recent surveys—the CSA and OCSLS [see data sources] — converge on a figure of 25 to 26 percent of college women experiencing sexual assault while in college.”

Jennifer Barber and colleagues, also at the University of Michigan, report in “Women not Enrolled in Four-Year Universities and Colleges Have Higher Risk of Sexual Assault” about a detailed study of college-aged women first collected in 2008. The Relationship Dynamics and Social Life Study (RDSL) found that women who never attended or dropped out of 4-year colleges — a group that on average comes from lower-income backgrounds — reported slightly higher rates of IPV. What’s more, these women were more likely to have a history of IPV (21 percent of non-college women versus 13 percent of college women in their study) and less likely to report that their friends and family would be supportive if they reported instances of rape or domestic violence. “There appears to be a higher incidence of, and tolerance for, such violence among the disadvantaged than among the privileged,” Barber and colleagues conclude. Since IPV has serious long-range health consequences for women, they report, this makes it all the more important “that the care and consideration we are giving sexual assault on college campuses must be extended off campus.

Stephanie Coontz returns to the bigger picture when she argues in her overview that while progress toward gender equality and mutual respect continues, women’s rejection of the double standard has risen faster than men’s. Despite the decline in forcible assaults, there may be new ways in which women are vulnerable to predatory or exploitative young men. “Today’s young women feel safer than earlier generations in openly expressing their erotic interests, and many do so without incurring the stigma or shame that used to be heaped on women who expressed their sexuality. Women also feel a new entitlement to drink alcohol and to party hard without being assaulted or taken advantage of. And they should be so entitled. But not all men have caught up with the new values that give women the right to say yes and the right to say no. There are subgroups of men, especially in settings that encourage rowdy masculine bonding, who still feel a sense of sexual entitlement, including some who actively attempt to incapacitate women with drugs or alcohol.”

"Peelers" via judygreenway.org
“Peelers” via judygreenway.org

There are memes all over the internet proclaiming that men who do housework “get laid” more often. Google “men who do housework,” and you’ll find, “Porn for Women:” a calendar featuring shirtless men doing household chores. What’s so sexy about men doing housework? The underlying message winks at the fact that, in the US, women continue to do the bulk of household labor even though almost as many of them work for pay outside the home as do men. Even after more than a century of feminist movement, most heterosexual households are still organized along gender lines. Heterogendered tradition still valorizes (and separates) male breadwinners and female caregivers. In this context, men who relieve women of housework are seen as rare, exotic, and even “sexy.”

Of course, real housework isn’t sexy at all. Preparing meals, doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning – these are tasks that never end. Another common internet meme asks, “Don’t you just love those 12 seconds when all the laundry is done?” We noticed that you could create a lively, acerbic Pinterest page just on gender and housework!

So what does it look like when “real men”—men who consider themselves breadwinners and heads of the household—do housework? Why would these men do housework in the first place? They might do it if they became unemployed. We interviewed 40 men who lost their jobs during the recent recession. Most (85%) of these men expressed traditional viewpoints about gender in the home, saying that men should provide for women and children. And yet, after losing work, most (85%) of these men became financially dependent on their wives or girlfriends. This caused an ideological as well as financial quandary for them. Because their beliefs about masculinity were tangled up with employment, they had to redefine manhood while they were unemployed.

So how did these men prove their manhood? They tackled housework, and they crushed it “like men.” Ben, who called himself, “Mr. Housework,” explained that he mopped, vacuumed, and steam cleaned the floors multiple times a week. Richard said, “I won’t even use a mop on a floor, just on my knees and stuff. I find it somewhat cathartic, believe it or not, but I roll the rugs up, the ones in the kitchen, shaking them outside, leaving them [to air] out.” Our subjects embraced housework to do their part in the family, and they redefined women’s work as hard work—work befitting men. As Brian said, “I would prefer to be working but I just have to step up and be a man in a different kind of manner.”

So it apparently takes a recession to blur the division of labor in traditional household. Will this blurriness last as the economy recovers and men go back to work? Maybe. If “heads of households” and “men’s men” see household labor as real work, this could elevate its worth in larger society, making it less surprising and funny when men and women cross gendered boundaries in their homes.

Kristen Myers is Professor of Sociology and Director of Center for the Study of Women, Gender, & Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Ilana Demantas is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at University of Kansas. They write about their research in detail in “Being ‘The Man’ Without Having a Job And/Or: Providing Care Instead of ‘Bread’”—a chapter in Families as They Really Are.