A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium Parents Can’t Go It Alone—They Never Have.   

Low-wage jobs may not be anyone’s ideal for a career, but they are not going away anytime soon. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shown (Figure 1) show that nearly one out of four Americans works for low wages. Many are parents. It is critical for the quality of family life in America that we understand how working conditions, including hours and flexibility, affect parents’ well-being, the quality of parenting, and, of course, the well-being of American children.

What are the problems for family life created by working conditions at low-wage jobs and what are some of the solutions to solve them? To understand what about low-wage work hurts families and what helps, we conducted interviews with 360 low-income, working families coping with new parenthood and old jobs.

Time was a theme that came up over and over again in our interviews with new parents. They talked about needing time to sleep, work, care for babies, connect with their partner, or simply to be alone. Parents also needed predictability in their time, meaning consistent and set hours. Parents with whom I talked also expressed the need for some control over their time, such as being able to make last-minute doctor appointments or take a needed sick day.

Parents need access to caregiving leaves, sick time, personal time, flexibility, and predictability—issues currently being addressed by policy initiatives across the country. But they also need better conditions of employment. In our efforts to support families by providing flexibility, predictability, and time away from work, we often overlook the impact of what happens during the 40+ hours per week spent “on the job.” Experiences on the factory floor, in the nursing home, or on food service lines that occur hourly, weekly, monthly, and year after year affect workers’ mental health, emotional well-being, physical health, stress, and energy. Such experiences can either enable or disable workers’ abilities to be engaged and sensitive parents. The question of how we “create” low-wage jobs that provide autonomy, meaning, and support requires listening to the workers themselves and understanding what about their work matters to them.

Recent interventions aimed at improving workers’ control over their schedules and enhancing supervisor support have shown that efforts to provide greater control and autonomy to workers produce better mental and physical health in workers and less employee turnover. But how control and autonomy might look in low-wage jobs is not obvious. My research suggests that what actually matters for low-wage workers is being able to take some initiatives and being recognized for doing so. For example, one woman I interviewed, Linda, who worked in a candle-packing factory as an order packer, reported extremely high levels of job autonomy. We learned that when she first started packing orders for customers, she would slip in some new candle scents with each order with a note to customers about how they might enjoy this new product. Slowly customers began to specifically request her services. Her boss recognized her creativity and “autonomy” and had her train new workers on how to connect with customers. She felt valued and respected for her work. Others parents have described autonomy at work as having their opinions valued and having a voice in decision making.

Conditions on the job affect workers’ mental health, and that affects their relationships at home. Having autonomy and some control at work translates into more engaged parenting at home: Parents are more involved with their babies and exhibit more responsive and sensitive parenting. Jose, a young father who works as a line cook at a steak house, talks about work as fun and energizing; his boss lets him try out new recipes, plan items for the menu, and learn more about budgeting. He works long hours for minimum wage, but feels valued and sees a career trajectory ahead of him. He wants to succeed now that he is a father. When Jose walks in the door at home he completely engages as a parent, holding his son, singing and laughing.  It is a pattern we saw time and time again. We also saw the other side: parents working at jobs that are rigid, boring, and disempowering—experiences that can translate to disengaged or often harsh and insensitive parenting at home.

Often when we evaluate the effectiveness of a new policy in the United States, such as the current paid leave policies popping up in states across the country, we demonstrate its success by proving to employers or policy makers that there was no financial fallout from instituting this policy. What if—instead or in addition—we measured success by a reduction in working parents’ stress or in the improved well-being of parents and children? Or what about happiness? A provocative study by Glass, Simon, and Anderson found that parents in the United States report the lowest levels of happiness among the 22 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries studied. We must continually solicit feedback from workers themselves about what policies and supports are most important to them. Their voices matter. Once a policy is instituted, we need to hear from them about the consequences. Did it help? Did it help some workers more than others? Should we try something new?

As we consider the solutions to better support working families in this country, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the economic and social inequality. Many of us feel powerless, seeing solutions embroiled in the slow-moving wheels of policy and government action. Yet my data and those of others suggest that today each of us could create ways to improve workplaces and build cultures of respect and support that hold implications for workers and their families, especially their children. Such simple interventions as giving workers some control over day-to-day operations, soliciting their feedback, understanding the challenges they may face at home, and respecting their contributions are concrete ways to improve work settings. If we are truly invested in giving the next generation of children in this country a healthy and equal start, perhaps the first place to look is at workplace. Work matters.

Maureen Perry-Jenkins is Professor of Psychology and Director at Center for Research on Families at the University of Massachusetts, mpj@psych.umass.edu.


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium Parents Can’t Go It Alone—They Never Have.

If debates about women’s rights, relationships between the sexes, and worsening conflicts between paid work and family life seem endless, that’s because Americans can’t agree on what is happening, much less on what to do about it. Some blame the problems on a “gender stall,” as women continue to hit glass ceilings at work and perform the lion’s share of caregiving at home. Others focus on the decline of men’s breadwinning as their earnings erode, their labor force participation drops, and they fall behind women in educational attainment and career aspirations. Progressives lament the lingering traditionalism that leaves women mired in second-class citizenship, while conservatives worry about the rise of a self-centered individualism that elevates personal freedom over lasting commitments to others.

To gain a more nuanced picture of how today’s adults are negotiating work–family conflicts, I conducted face-to-face depth interviews with 120 (self-identified) women and men between the ages of 33 and 47 years—the years when most Americans face their peak challenges in building both their work and their family lives. I went to two different geographic areas, interviewing people living in the heart of the “new economy” in Silicon Valley (stretching from San Jose to the East Bay) and those living in or near America’s biggest city, the New York metropolitan area. This approach yielded a group with diverse racial, economic, and educational backgrounds living in a variety of family arrangements, including singles, cohabiters, and married couples.

My interviews revealed four major patterns of response to the challenges of earning a living and caring for others. At one end of the spectrum, one-fifth of my participants adopted a “hyper-traditional” pattern that emphasized overwork for fathers and intensive parenting for mothers. Concerns about job security prompted husbands to put in very long work weeks (ranging from 60 to as many as 100 hours) to assure employers of their work commitment. In a parallel way, concerns about living up to a standard of “intensive parenting” left wives with equally strong pressures to devote their utmost attention to childrearing. Although these mothers and fathers felt overworked in their separate spheres and deprived of both personal time and time together as a couple, they did not believe they could risk doing anything else.

At the other end of the spectrum, 24 percent opted to remain “unencumbered.” These adults remained single and childless or became estranged from offspring in the wake of a breakup. A comparable percentage of women and men followed this path, but they did so for different reasons. The men were typically unable (or unwilling) to find steady work and concluded they could not afford to take on the financial or emotional responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. The women found they valued work too much to dilute their career commitment by taking on commitments to care for husbands and children.

In a very real sense, the hyper-traditional couples are recreating traditional gender patterns in an especially extreme form, whereas the unencumbered are opting to preserve their independence by avoiding such traditional family commitments. Yet together these two extremes account for only 44 percent of my respondents. The remaining 56 percent comprises two additional groups.

About a quarter (26 percent) of my participants are in relationships that reflect the simultaneous decline of the male breadwinner wage and the persistence of the female caregiver norm. These families rely on the woman’s earnings as much as they do on the man’s (and sometimes more) but they also depend on her for the bulk of caregiving. In these cases, women do not “have it all” so much as they “do it all.” It is hardly surprising that carrying the load as both a primary or co-breadwinner and the main caretaker leaves most of these women feeling tired, disheartened, and unappreciated—but they are not alone in their frustration. Most of the men in these relationships also express frustration, saying they wish they could do more caregiving, but fear that taking the necessary time would endanger their job security and prospects. What’s more, these are not unrealistic fears. Research has demonstrated that a “flexibility stigma” penalizes workers—especially professional men—who choose to pull back even slightly to engage in care work at home.

The remaining 30 percent of my participants can be described as egalitarians—couples who are experimenting with building an equal partnership despite the obstacles. With no clear path to follow, they do so in varying ways and with varying degrees of success. A third of this group (about 12 percent of the entire sample) decided to avoid the difficulties of equal caretaking by forgoing parenthood altogether, with many looking to relatives, friends, and pets for other forms of caregiving ties. The rest were willing to limit their working time, risk their financial prospects, and forego sleep and personal time to try to divide work and caregiving equally. Yet the dearth of institutional supports has left many of the work–care egalitarians wondering how long and at what cost they can sustain their efforts.

Despite their differences, all these strategies are responses to a similar set of pressures and conflicts. Rising job insecurity has upped the ante for workers, forcing them to put in long hours or risk losing their employment or endangering their future security. On the home front, concerns about rising inequality and declining social mobility have upped the ante on childrearing, creating a sense that only intensive parenting can prepare children to navigate an uncertain future.

Each of the four strategies described inevitably produces some degree of dissatisfaction, but the one commonly seen as most challenging—that is, the egalitarian strategy—turns out to be most preferred by those who practice it. Figure 1 shows that 55 percent of hyper-traditional women and 38 percent of hyper-traditional men would prefer a different arrangement, while 84 percent of the women who “do it all” and 75 percent of men who rely on a woman to do it all would also prefer a different arrangement. Among the unencumbered, 58 percent of women and 76 percent of men report that a different situation would be preferable. In contrast, those expressing the lowest desire for a different arrangement are the egalitarians, with only 7 percent of women and 29 percent of men saying they would prefer one of the other alternatives.

What arrangement do people prefer? Figure 2 shows that in addition to the egalitarians, where 93 percent of women and 71 percent of men prefer their situation, most of the rest of my interviewees also would prefer to share breadwinning and caregiving in an egalitarian way if that were a more realistic option. Women are understandably more likely to prefer sharing, with 74 percent of those currently “doing it all,” 58 percent of the unencumbered, and 55 percent of those in hyper-traditional relationships preferring more equal sharing. Although men expressed less enthusiasm for sharing, a significant minority—including nearly a third of hyper-traditional men, almost half of men who rely on a woman to do it all, and slightly more than half of unencumbered men—expressed a preference for an egalitarian partnership.

These findings make it clear that although every work–care strategy poses significant trade-offs and difficulties, people should not be forced to choose between hyper-traditionalism and hyper-individualism. Given the realities of the new economy, which relies on women workers but rarely longer offers job security to anyone, regardless of their gender identity or class position, it is neither humane nor just to confine the measure a man’s worth to his ability to be a successful breadwinner or a woman’s worth to her willingness to be a selfless caregiver. The solution is not to shore up and intensify an outdated system, but to address the inequalities and insecurities that permeate the current one.

How can we get to a more reasonable future? The first step is to reframe the work–care debate. It is time to jettison the tired lens of “having it all”—a lens that sees earning and caregiving as incompatible goals and the people (read women) who seek it as selfish or unrealistic. Instead, it is time to build our work and caring institutions on the principles of gender justice and work–care integration. Concretely, this means regulating time norms at the workplace so no worker must choose between excessively long work weeks and job insecurity. In our communities, it means creating caretaking resources that extend beyond the privatized household for children of all ages. And in our political institutions, it means ensuring equal economic opportunities for women of all stripes, equal caregiving rights for fathers as well as mothers, and a strengthened safety net that provides everyone with the basics that fewer and fewer jobs provide, such as a livable income, decent health care, and access to supports for weathering the ups and downs of our increasingly uncertain economic and family lives.

The rise of the new precarious economy is as challenging as the rise of the industrial system was more than a century ago. This transformation calls for structural and cultural realignments as vast as the shifts they need to address. Judging from the responses of my informants, the costs of doing nothing are far greater than the costs of helping everyone—women and men alike—forge a more balanced, equal, and secure division of work and caregiving.

Kathleen Gerson is Professor of Sociology, and Collegiate Professor of Arts and Science at New York University, Kathleen.gerson@nyu.edu.


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium Parents Can’t Go It Alone—They Never Have.  

Who doesn’t want their children to grow up happy and healthy? But different families face different challenges. I interviewed 68 newly middle-class Latinx parents in Chicagoland, and learned that one of their pressing concerns is how to shield their children from the possibility of violence in their daily lives. Most people I interviewed were themselves the children of immigrants who had little education and worked low-wage jobs to support their families. This made my interviewees’ recently achieved middle-class status especially significant. They were able to raise their children in households with more than they had growing up. Three-fourths earned six figures. The majority were married couples where both parents worked for pay.

Optimism and Worry

Thanks to their upward mobility as adults, most interviewees reported feeling optimistic about raising their children. They had the money they needed, but could also transmit some knowledge and skills about how the United States worked. But these middle-class Latinx parents voiced serious concerns about the possibility of violence in their children’s lives, especially for their sons. They talked about the vulnerability of young men of color to all kinds of violence: gang-related violence perpetrated by other young men, gun violence, and violence at the hands of the police.

Latinx parents said they were worried because of what they see and had witnessed growing up in Chicago, especially how Black and Latino boys and men are disproportionately affected by the gun violence in the city. Local and national media coverage of shooting injuries and deaths in the city made them attuned to gun violence in Chicago. Chicago experienced an increased spike in violent crime rates in 2016, and 50 percent of shootings that year were concentrated in neighborhoods on the West and South sides of the city, such as Austin, North and South Lawndale, and Humboldt Park.

Neighborhood Advantage Isn’t Enough

Most of the people I talked to didn’t live in high-crime neighborhoods. Even so, the upwardly mobile Latinx parents in my study did not believe that their neighborhood choices could necessarily protect their sons from other forms of violence, such as racial discrimination.

Parents described some strategies they drew on to minimize the chances of their sons’ encounters with violence. They carefully chose where to live. Most of the Latinxs I interviewed lived in the city of Chicago, but a few lived in surrounding suburbs, citing gang and gun-related violence as a key reason for their decision to move. Yet those parents who lived in predominantly white suburbs understood that their sons ran the risk of being seen as a threat, particularly if they had dark skin tone. Just living in a suburb meant their sons could be racially profiled by police.

Latinx Parents’ Versions of “the Talk”

The suburban Latinx parents had to give their sons a version of “the talk.” They gave them specific instructions to help them reduce their vulnerability to police racism. These strategies centered on image and emotion management. They taught their sons to avoid oversized pants and shirts, not to cover their heads with hoodies while walking down the street especially at night, to make an effort to greet adults they met on the street, to avoid getting visibly angry or frustrated if questioned by other residents and police, and to follow directions if detained by police.

For parents who lived in the city, strategies to reduce the likelihood of sons’ exposure to violence included choosing city neighborhoods away from the West and South sides of the city. This strategy only went so far, however, because most parents did not think any neighborhood in Chicago was immune to violence. The parents in my study who did live on the West and South sides chose certain streets in their neighborhood that seemed to have less threat of violence and gang-related activities; they believed the threat of violence varied “block by block.” One father noted that it was possible for one neighborhood block to be generally “violent incident-free,” while the next had more crime, including gang-related physical assaults or gun violence. Parents who lived in the city described particular socialization strategies to protect their sons from violence. These were similar to those used by the suburban parents in my study, such as not appearing defiant or resistant when in contact with police. But these parents had other strategies as well, including teaching their sons which streets and/or street corners to avoid, restricting when and where they walked in the area, disallowing them to wear certain color combinations associated with gangs. They even taught them to be mindful of how to wear their baseball hats and to avoid hand gestures that might be mistaken as signaling gang membership to gang members or to police.

Although parents I talked to were especially worried about their sons’ vulnerability to violence, they also knew that their daughters were not exempt from gun violence or police brutality. Even so, their concerns for their daughters were more focused on sexual violence. They worried for sons because they were young Latino men, but worried for daughters as women vulnerable to sexual violence.

We won’t understand working parents unless we recognize this: All parents have concerns for their children’s safety, but what that means varies by race and class. Despite the economic privileges of reaching the middle class, the Latinx parents I talked to had serious worries about the risk of violence in their sons’ lives. These are stable two-parent families, where both parents work for pay; but they worry about how to keep their children safe when neither parent is around to enforce the rules that they believe will help their children avoid peer or police violence. They worry because no parent can be there around the clock to protect their children. Both academic and popular discussions of how families navigate the need to work outside the home should pay attention to what my research shows—that Latinx parents and other parents of color have additional worries. We need to realize that reducing violence in our cities and ending racism in our criminal justice system are policies needed to support working parents. No parents should have to worry when they go to work about their children experiencing violence.

Lorena Garcia, Associate Professor, is Director of Undergraduate Studies & Associate Head of Sociology & Latin American and Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, lorena@uic.edu.


A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium Parents Can’t Go It Alone—They Never Have.  

It is common for observers to talk about a “stalled revolution” in family life. Most American mothers raising small children now work outside of the home, but the “ideal worker” remains a man who has no obligations at home because he has a wife to take care of them; and many Americans believe that the “ideal parent” is a mother who takes primary responsibility for the home. Much has been written about the guilt and conflict that mothers feel when they work for pay outside of the home. But for some mothers in America, working outside the home was not a revolution but a long-standing norm. Whereas significant numbers of middle-class white mothers joined the workforce only during World War II and again in the early 1960s, African-American mothers, including middle-class ones, have always worked for pay or as enslaved people. Thus, statements such as “mothers think,” “mothers feel,” or “mothers are seen” might be appropriate for racially, ethnically, or economically homogeneous nations, but not in the United States. Here, the impact of race and class on mothers’ experiences and perspectives makes such claims suspect.

For my new book, Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood, I interviewed 60 African-American middle-class mothers about their work, family, and parenting experiences. They talk very differently than white mothers about what it means to be a good mother. Although caregiving was an essential part of these mothers’ identities, they and their communities often assumed they would work outside of the home. Although balancing the demands of paid employment and raising children did not become easier, this did mean that these mothers often viewed working outside of the home and economically providing for their families as part of the duties of motherhood, rather than as a detraction from them. Indeed, contrary to research and popular discourse that depicts working mothers as feeling compelled to justify their employment, these mothers generally did not do so. In fact, African-American middle-class stay-at-home mothers often felt as though they had to justify their decision not to work.

Patricia Hill Collins and Bart Landry have described how African-American women were historically not able or encouraged to reduce or eliminate their paid employment. In response, African-American women produced their own distinct and positive visions of womanhood and motherhood that incorporated the needs of their communities and supported their work outside of the home. Landry describes how, long before Betty Friedan and the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, African-American female activists from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Cooper, were proponents of an ideal of womanhood that combined family, career, and community and, in part, explained why African-American women’s rates of employment were higher than those of white women.

Indeed, the majority of African-American middle- and upper-middle-class mothers I talked to, either employed or stay-at-home, did not feel isolated in their mothering. Instead they experienced motherhood within a community they were already connected to or worked to create. Many of the mothers I interviewed expected support from extended family and community members when raising their children. They felt secure having kin and community members care for their children, and that assistance facilitated their paid employment. Although these networks of care were not available to all mothers, those who had them generally used them. Research on middle-class families often focuses on self-sufficient traditional heterosexual nuclear families consisting of a mom, dad, and children, with extended kin called on only in emergencies. In my interviews, informants described extended family and community networks as sources of assistance that were valued for their own benefit, not merely used as backup. Such networks play an essential role in helping these women balance the competing demands of paid employment and raising children.

The middle- and upper-middle-class African-American mothers I studied made decisions about work and family against a familial and community backdrop that presumed working for pay was one aspect of mothering. They often grew up in households in which two or more incomes were necessary to counter racial discrimination in the labor force. They were connected to  communities where being a strong independent woman is seen as a virtue. Their families and communities generally view positively their decision to engage in paid labor, and provide emotional and instrumental support by helping with child care. Indeed, instead of expressing guilt or ambivalence about their work, African-American mothers employed in middle-class professional careers described themselves as role models of female independence and self-reliance for both their sons and daughters. The positive expectation that mothering responsibilities include breadwinning supports their comfort with paid employment. Ironically, such expectations can also lead stay-at-home others to feel the need to explain their choice.

Of course, structural shifts such as changes in workplace functioning and new family-friendly laws and policies are necessary to reduce the challenges all parents face in the workplace. But my research with African-American middle-class mothers shows that it is also important to encourage cultural expectations and community supports that validate women’s need and desire to combine paid work and caretaking.

Dawn Marie Dow is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, a Faculty Associate in the Maryland Population Research Center, and the Director of the Critical Race Initiative, dmdow@umd.edu. She is the author of Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood, published by the University of California Press, which examines African-American middle- and upper-middle-class mothers’ approaches to parenting their children and their views and decision making about work, family, and child care.


Image by shaila19 from Pixabay

A briefing paper prepared  for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Symposium Parents Can’t Go It Alone—They Never Have.

Two-thirds of mothers today work outside the home in wealthy Western countries. Despite this similarity, mothers’ experiences managing their work and family commitments vary a lot from country to country. It’s easier to be a working mother in some nations than others. Why? One main reason is that countries offer very different public policies to support families.

National governments offer different kinds and levels of policy supports because societies have diverse beliefs about who should work for pay and provide care to others. Such policies give us a glimpse into national culture: Policies are powerful symbols about what a nation thinks women and men are capable of, good at, and deserve. These policies matter. My research shows how.

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States for my new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. I wanted to understand what working mothers themselves say helps and hinders their work–family balance. It was immediately clear that moms in the United States were more stressed, guilty, overwhelmed, and fatigued than the mothers I spoke to in Europe. In the United States, managing family and paid work is seen as a personal struggle. In Sweden, Germany, and Italy, citizens think of childrearing and work–family reconciliation as matters of public concern. In these European countries, public policies help ensure that people have the time and resources needed to care for their loved ones. These policies vary in their effectiveness, but they exist. In the United States, adults are encouraged to find solely private solutions for childrearing and housework.

The United States has no national work–family policy to support caregiving. We are the only wealthy nation on the planet with no paid parental leave. No universal health care. No universal social insurance entitlement. No guaranteed income. No universal child care. And no minimum standard for vacation and sick days.

To be clear, mothers didn’t say it was a breeze to work and raise kids in Europe. But it was far easier because of the various work–family policies available to women and their families in Sweden, Germany, and Italy. Let’s take a close look at what these policies are exactly. This can help give a sense for what could be possible here in the United States.

Parental Leave (Job-protected Paid Leave Available to Both Parents)

After the addition of a new child to the family, parents’ jobs are protected in the three European countries, and they are entitled to paid leave. The length of leave and wage replacement rate varies. In Sweden, couples have an entitlement to 16 months (480 days) paid at 80 percent of previous wages, up to a ceiling. This time is meant to be divided between parents, and it can be used flexibly until children are 8 years old. Each parent has an exclusive right to 3 of the 16 months. This “use it or lose it” model is meant to incentivize both parents to take time off. It means that unless fathers take at least 3 months off, the family is entitled to only 13 months. In Germany, couples can take up to 12 months of paid parental leave total, paid at roughly two-thirds of their net earnings, also up to a ceiling. If moms and dads share parental leave, they get 2 bonus months, for a maximum of 14 months. As in Sweden, parents can take leave flexibly anytime until the child is 8 years old. In Italy, parents are each entitled to 6 months of parental leave at 30 percent pay. Parental leave is an individual, nontransferable entitlement, and families can take 10 months total. Again, parents can use these days flexibly at their discretion until their child is 8. If the dad takes at least 3 months’ leave, the family gets an additional month for a total of 11 months. Of course, that means in Sweden and Germany, more families can afford to spend more time with newborns, whereas in Italy, only those who can afford to live on 30 percent pay can use the time allotted them. Although Italy may not be as generous as the other European countries I studied, it is far better than what we have here in the United States, which is no paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees up to 12 weeks unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or an ill family member, or to recover from an illness. Even that protection applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees, and workers must have worked for at least 12 months and a minimum of 1,250 hours to qualify.

Maternity Leave (Job-protected Paid Leave for Mothers Surrounding Childbirth)

In Sweden, mothers have the exclusive right to 3 of the 16 months’ parental leave at 80 percent pay. Employed women in Germany may take maternity leave for up to 6 weeks before childbirth and are required to stay home for 8 weeks afterward, receiving full pay. Mothers in Italy are required to take 5 months of maternity leave at 80 percent pay. Although requiring women to remain home may seem paternal, it is surely more appreciated by families than no statutory entitlement at all, which is what we have in the United states: no right to paid maternity leave after the birth of a baby.

Paternity Leave (Job-protected Paid Leave for Fathers During or Following Childbirth)

Fathers in Sweden have the exclusive right to 3 of the 16 months parental leave at 80 percent pay. In Germany fathers have no entitlement to paternity leave for men. If both parents take at least 2 months parental leave, they earn 2 extra months paid leave, for a total of 14 months. In Italy, as of 2018, fathers have 4 days mandatory paternity leave at 100 percent pay. They are required to take these days within the first 5 months of birth while mothers are also on leave. Before 2013, there was no designated paternity leave whatsoever. Five days may not seem like much, but that’s 5 more days than fathers have a right to in the United States.

Paid Vacation and Holidays

In Sweden all workers have 25 days per year paid vacation days. Many receive more as a result of union agreements. If a person falls ill while on vacation, those days aren’t counted against the vacation allowance. Swedes get 11 paid holidays per year. In Germany, workers have a right to 20 days per year minimum. As a result of collective agreements, most receive 30 days. Those working less than full time get proportionally fewer days. Depending on the state, Germans enjoy between 9 and 13 paid holidays a year. In Italy workers are entitled to 20 days per year minimum. As in Sweden and Germany, because of collective bargaining agreements, most receive at least 25 days. Italians have 10 paid holidays annually. Once again, the U.S has no minimum federal standard. The U.S. government designates 10 federal holidays per year, but paid holidays are at employers’ discretion.

Paid Sick Days

In Sweden, if you have been employed for at least 1 month, an employee gets roughly 80 percent of income for the first 14 days of illness. After that the employer contacts the state, which works with the person’s doctor to determine eligibility for extended sickness benefits. Unemployed or self-employed people get a sickness benefit from the government. And parents may stay home with a sick child for up to 120 days a year until children reach 12 years (paid at 80 percent of wages, up to a limit). For seriously ill children, there is no limit to the number of days parents can take off work. Workers in Germany may take as many personal sick days as needed over the course of a year at full wages. All employees get 10 days per year to tend to a sick child, at 70 percent pay. In Italy, parents can take unlimited unpaid days off work to care for ill children under 3 years, and 5 days unpaid annually for kids ages 3 to 8 years. For seriously ill family members, workers can take 2 years at full pay (with a cap) total. Here, too, the United States is the outlier, with no minimum federal standard. Eligible workers may use FMLA for their own serious illness, or to take care of a seriously ill family member, for up to 12 weeks, without pay.

Child Care

Sweden provides universal child care for children ages 1 to 12 years. The cost for parents is income-related up to a low ceiling, and it’s free for low-income families. The maximum rate for even the wealthiest families is about US$160 per month. In Germany, universal care is available for children ages 3 to 6 years. As of August 2013, all children older than 1 year are legally entitled to a child care space (although these are still difficult to come by in some places). A recent nationwide study found that in Germany day care costs families on average US$192 per month. In Italy, child care is universally available for children ages 3 years and over, but is difficult to attain for children below 3 years. A recent survey found that child care costs families US$343 monthly, on average. The United States has no state or federal child care systems. The limited federal child care provisions are means-tested for only the poorest families. The average cost of private child care is US$799 per month ($9,589 a year)—more than the average cost of many in-state college tuition levels.

What Do U.S. Policies Imply about American Values?

Given all this, what message do you think the U.S. government sends to residents with these policies—or should I say, the lack of policies? You are on your own. You are owed nothing. Yet, regardless of marital or parental status, wealth, race, region, or religion, every single person needs care throughout their lives. No one is an island. Society would collapse without care. Other countries came to this realization a long time ago. The United States lags way behind: It is exceptional for its lack of policy support for caregiving and families. That’s not a title we should be proud of.

The United States was founded on the belief that citizens have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that government is meant to protect these rights. If we truly believe this nation should be at the forefront of human rights—a country where residents can truly lead free and happy lives alongside those they care for and care about—then the path ahead is obvious. We don’t need to start from scratch in envisioning better policy supports. The benefits already available in other countries are models from which to choose.

We need to pass robust, egalitarian work–family policies at a federal level. I suggest we start with paid family leave and affordable, high-quality child care and health care for all. We can do far more and far better for U.S. families. Our future depends on it.

Caitlyn Collins, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Washington University in St. Louis, c.collins@wustl.edu, is the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving (Princeton University Press, 2019).  Portions of this report appeared in Working Mother.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The birth rate is falling throughout much of the world. Yet many people still want to be parents, and they invest great time, energy and love in their children. The essays in a new symposium by CCF offer research evidence on the state of parenting among a diverse group of American parents. Each essay suggests possibilities for how our society might come to the aid of today’s parents.

Kathleen Gerson busts the myth that there is such a thing as “having it all.” On the basis of interviews with 120 young adults (33–47 years old), she found four basic patterns for managing the conflicts between the world of work and raising children. Some are hyper-traditional, with men in very time-consuming jobs and women without paid work doing intensive mothering. Others opt out of the dilemma of balancing work and family problems by remaining single or childless. Another pattern Gerson found was in families where women “do it all” rather than have it all. In these families, both mothers and fathers work for pay, but mothers continue to do the primary parenting. Finally, about one-third of the people she talked to can be described as egalitarians, experimenting with building an equal partnership despite the obstacles. Only the egalitarians prefer the choice they have made; most of the others would prefer egalitarian relationships, but have not found a way to achieve them in a society that demands more from workers than ever before, and with a philosophy of childrearing that requires intensive attention. Gerson suggests that it’s time to change the workplace, so that families can live the lives they desire.

Maureen Perry-Jenkins offers some concrete suggestions for what needs to change so that low-wage workers can meet their families’ needs. In interviews with 360 low-income working families, a shortage of time was a recurring theme. Parents needed time to sleep, care for babies, and connect with their partner, but they also needed predictability in their schedules. Control over time makes it possible to have last-minute doctor appointments or a needed sick day. Jobs need to have predictable schedules. But beyond that, workers talk about the benefits of autonomy and the ability to get respect for taking initiatives at work. Conditions at work affect parents’ mental health and their relationships with their children and partners. Perry-Jenkins suggests that to support today’s families we must to improve workplaces and build cultures of respect and support. One way to support the next generation is to pay attention to the conditions of work for their parents. Work matters.

In the next essay, Lorena Garcia argues that the world around us matters a great deal for our families. Garcia interviewed 68 middle- and upper-middle-class Latinx parents in the Chicagoland area. What she found was both optimism and worry. The parents were optimistic that they had the knowledge and financial resources to help their children pursue their dreams. Yet they worried, especially about their sons. They worried about the vulnerability of Black and Latino boys to gun violence in the city. Even though most did not live in high-crime neighborhoods, they worried about gang-related violence and violence at the hands of the police. They gave their sons a version of “the talk,” trying to help them reduce their vulnerability to police racism. Garcia reminds us that all parents are concerned for their children’s safety, but that particular worries vary by race and class. Despite economic privileges, the Latinx parents in her study had serious concerns about their sons’ physical safety. No parent should have to go to work worried about their children’s safety. Garcia shows us that good family policy must include reducing gang-violence and police racism.

Dawn Dow offers a view of African-American mothering that is at odds with the presumption that all mothers similarly feel a conflict between paid work and parenting. In interviews with middle- and upper-middle-class African-American mothers, Dow found that working for pay is considered part of a mother’s responsibility—that financial support for children is part of mothering work. Indeed, stay-at-home mothers are more likely to have to explain their choice than are those in the labor force. What sets these mothers apart from how other American mothers talk about parenting is that they felt supported by their families and communities for their paid labor. They have often been raised in a household with two incomes and lived in communities where a woman’s strength and independence are seen as virtues. Their families and communities provide emotional and instrumental support for employed mothers. Dow’s research reminds us that not only must we change the structures of workplaces to support parenting, but we must support cultural expectations and communities that validate parents’ ability to combine earning a living with caring for others.

Although some of the essays in this symposium are all about mothering, Stephanie Coontz reminds us that dads count too. She suggests that a major obstacle to the successful coordination of work and family life is the assumption that the problem belongs only to mothers. If fathers were not presumed to be entitled to focus solely on earning a living, mothers would never be presumed to have to do it all. A historian, Coontz reminds us that this exemption of fathers from the demands of family life is not traditional at all. For millennia, fathers and mothers shared the duties of making sure everyone ate and supervising the children. Coontz provides data on the kinds of parental leave available to fathers, and shows the inequity of providing more or better leave to mothers. Coontz suggests, however, that when paternal leave taking becomes more normative, as in Denmark, it can lower the motherhood penalty in wages and increase household wages. Indeed, fathers who take parental leave raise more egalitarian sons. This suggests that feminists must work as strenuously for fair and generous paternal leaves as we do for maternal leaves.

In the final essay of the Symposium, Caitlyn Collins takes us on a deep dive into the social policy that makes it easier or harder to be an employed parent. She interviewed 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. The European countries have quite different social policies, but all have more family-related policies than does the United States, so employed mothering is less stressful in those countries than in the United States. The kinds of job protections that matter include parental leave for caretaking, maternity leave surrounding childbirth itself, paid vacations and holidays, mandatory sick days, and available and affordable child care. Collins ends by suggesting that the lack of policies in the United States sends the message that our families are on our own—that the community owes nothing to those raising the next generation of citizens. The United States lags behind other societies and is exceptional for the lack of support for family life.

The essays in this symposium show why parents cannot do it alone, and why they should not have to. It is time to focus on what parents need from the rest of us to successfully raise the next generation. These essays suggest that parents need workplace policies that presume all workers are also caretakers at some point in their lives. Every child deserves a parent whose work does not challenge their mental health, a parent who can be effective at work while also providing caretaking, and neighborhoods that are safe. These essays show that the family policies we need include parental leave and workplace flexibility, but those alone are not sufficient. Reducing gun violence, reducing racism and its effects, and creating workplaces where employees feel respected are also among social policies needed to support American parents and their families. are also among social policies needed to support American parents and their families.

Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families. 

Image by Denise Husted from Pixabay

The question of how having children affects parents’ wellbeing has been debated by social scientists and the public for decades. While research studies on this topic have found varied results—in part depending on who is being studied and how wellbeing is defined—some areas of consensus have emerged. First, when people are asked to reflect on their overall happiness or general satisfaction with life, parents tend to report lower life satisfaction than non-parents. This is especially true in the U.S. Second, and somewhat at odds with the findings on life satisfaction, when reporting their experience of positive and negative emotions during regular daily activities, parents tend to report more positive emotions than non-parents. Third, the impact of parenting on wellbeing is gendered: fathers experience a greater increase in positive emotional experiences during daily activities than mothers do.

So why might the day-to-day experience of parenting be more favorable for fathers than for mothers? Researchers have proposed various explanations, including that mothers suffer from insufficient sleep and leisure time, that mothers multi-task more and find multi-tasking more stressful, and that fathers enjoy parenting more because they are more playful in their interactions with children. In our recent study, we focused on how, when, and where parents undertake childcare as a potential explanation for gender differences in parents’ reported emotions. Caring for children involves many different types of activities undertaken in many different circumstances including, for example, taking a family trip to the playground, bringing children to and from school, and changing an infant’s diaper in the middle of the night. There is a substantial body of research on gender and parenting that shows that not only do mothers continue to do more daily childcare than fathers, but that mothers and fathers differ in terms of what activities they do for children and the circumstances in which those activities take place. Our study sought to bridge research on the emotional experience of parenting with research on gender differences in caregiving. In other words, we wanted to know if the context surrounding caregiving activities contributed to gender differences in the emotional rewards of parenting.

First we looked at parents’ reported emotions during childcare. We examined how happy, stressed, and tired parents were when caring for their children as well as how meaningful they found the activity. Consistent with other research, we found that parents generally experience childcare as happy and meaningful but that fathers are happier, less stressed and less tired than mothers when caring for children. Next, we developed the concept of the ‘care context’ as a way to measure how one childcare activity can be different from another. To develop the care context, we considered not only the type of activity parents were doing, but also when and where the activity took place, who else was present, and how much care was involved. We found substantial differences in the care context by parent gender. For example, fathers’ activities were more likely to be recreational (e.g. play) and to take place on the weekends. Meanwhile, mothers’ activities were more likely to be ‘solo’ parenting—parenting without a partner present—and to involve an infant. We also found evidence of mothers’ time fragmentation: although mothers’ childcare activities were typically shorter than fathers’ activities, mothers tended to have spent more cumulative time in childcare each day. We discovered multiple links between the care context and parents’ emotions while caring for their children. Indeed, all aspects of the care context—the type of activity, when and where it took place, who was present and how much care was involved—were related to parents’ reported emotions, often in complex ways. For example, parents reported more happiness and meaning when caring for an infant, but also higher levels of tiredness.

Finally, we tested whether gender differences in the care context helped to explain why fathers are happier, less tired and less stressed than mothers during childcare. We found that once we accounted for the care context, the gender difference in happiness disappeared and the difference in stress was reduced. However, the gap in tiredness was not reduced. So, overall, we concluded that differences in parents’ emotions during childcare result partly from general differences between mothers and fathers (i.e. that mothers are generally more tired and more stressed than fathers) and partly because, on average, fathers’ childcare activities are different than mothers’ childcare activities. Using the data that we have on reported emotions during specific activities, we can’t say why parents’ engagement with their children is gendered in a way that produces more emotional rewards for fathers. What’s clear from our analysis, though, is that gender differences in parents’ wellbeing are partly due to differences in how, when, and where mothers and fathers care for their children.

Cadhla McDonnell is a CAROLINE Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin. Reach her at mcdonc11@tcd.ie. Nancy Luke is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Demography at The Pennsylvania State University. Reach her at nkl10@psu.edu. Susan E. Short is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Reach her at susan_short@brown.edu.

Reposted with permission from This Chair Rocks.

What affliction do Americans fear most? Alzheimer’s disease. I’m one of them, unless so many bones give out that I have to be carried around in a shovel. But facts comfort me. Abundant new data shows that our fears are way out of proportion to the threat—and that those fears themselves put us at risk.

Fact #1: Dementia rates are falling.  As I reported last April, the likelihood of you or me developing dementia has dropped—significantly—and people are getting diagnosed at later ages. That’s despite a surge in diabetes among older Americans, which significantly increases the risk. Numbers remain high—an estimated four million to five million Americans currently have dementia—but that number pales in comparison all the people who are worried about getting it, and about aging in general. Why is that important?

Fact #2: Worrying about dementia—and about getting older—is itself a health risk. We’ve known for some time that attitudes towards aging affect how the mind and body function at the cellular level. New research published on February 7th in the prestigious Public Library of Science journal confirms that finding, reporting that people who associate old age with becoming useless or incompetent are more likely to develop dementia than people with a more positive outlook.

Scientists consider a gene called ApoE to be the primary genetic risk factor in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, yet many who carry it never develop dementia. How come? Could environmental—and therefore modifiable—factors play a role?  The new study, led by Yale’s Becca Levy, worked with a group of 4,765 people over age 60 who were dementia-free at the start, more than a quarter of whom carried the gene. Levy and her team interviewed them regularly over the course of four years, asking them to rank their feelings to prompts such as, “The older I get the more useful I feel.” They found that people with more negative attitudes were twice as likely to develop dementia. In other words, positive age beliefs confer protection against cognitive decline—even among people who are genetically predisposed to the disease.

Both experimental and longitudinal research show that stress, which links to dementia, may be the mechanism. Levy’s team found that positive attitudes about aging can reduce stress and help us cope with ageist messages that bombard us from the media and popular culture. People assimilate cultural beliefs from early childhood on, and as these stereotypes become more relevant over time, we tend to act as though they were accurate, creating self-fulfilling prophecies. (More here about Levy’s theory of stereotype embodiment.) Positive beliefs (e.g. late life is inherently valuable, old age is a time of growth and development, olders contribute to society) help keep us healthy by buffering stress and prejudice: the effects of ageism. Negative beliefs (e.g. it’s sad to be old, old people are ugly, aging means becoming a burden) make us vulnerable to disease and decline.

It’s time for an anti-ageism public health campaign.

We’re stuck with our genes, but not with our behaviors or attitudes. Interventions work. Last year New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata described the decline in dementia rates as “what seems to be a long-term trend, despite researchers’ failure to find any effective way for individuals to protect themselves from Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.” That is no longer the case.

Reputable researches are careful not to overstate their findings, but the scientists behind this new study note that that their findings have far-reaching social implications. In personalized medicine, for example, education could bolster positive attitudes in people at higher risk of developing dementia. On a broader scale, as Levy points out, the research “lays a foundation for creating a public health campaign to beat back against ageism and negative beliefs about aging.” I’ve been making this case for years.

No matter how you feel about the longevity boom, or just about hitting that next big birthday, everyone wants olders to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Imagine the benefits to health and human potential of replacing negative stereotypes about age and aging with more nuanced, positive, and accurate portrayals. The 65+ population of the US is expected to double by the year 2030. Let’s get cracking!

Author and activist Ashton Applewhite has been recognized by the New York Times, the New Yorker, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. She blogs at This Chair Rocks, speaks widely at venues that have ranged from the United Nations to the TED mainstage, has written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist?  The author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Ashton is a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age.

Last year, people all around the world tuned in to watch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American actress, and this year the couple welcomed their first child. With a black mother and a white father, Markle identifies as biracial and is one of the first Americans to marry into the British Royal family. Black women have been excluded from Western princess imagery until recently with the Disney Princess Tiana, who spent most of the movie as an animal. Yet, with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for the first time in living memory, an Afrodescendant woman was the star who ends the movie as a princess in a real life royal wedding.

2017 was not only the year that Prince Harry proposed to Markle, it also marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision outlawing state anti-miscegenation laws. To celebrate interracial love, The New York Times ran an editorial titled “How Interracial Love Is Saving America” by Sheryll Cashin. The author cited research by the Pew Research Center on how 17% of newlyweds and 20% of cohabiting relationships are either interracial or interethnic, many times higher than in 1967. Cashin saw the enlightened whites who had married across color lines as being at the forefront of a New Reconstruction in the Trump Era. Many people think that as an important symbol of racial harmony, Prince Harry and Ms. Markle will change the world. Like these U.S. newlyweds, their love will be the acid melting the boundaries separating blacks and whites.

Unfortunately, it is not true.

Between 2008 and 2012, I interviewed dozens of husbands and wives in black-white marriages in Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro. I expected them to reveal how they have been able to break down or blur racial and ethnic boundaries in their own lives. Instead, I was surprised to often find the exact opposite. Couples told me how their mere presence could be a spark triggering harassment from strangers in public. Los Angeles couples revealed that they saw individuals perpetrating hostility towards them; blacks, particularly black women, were very overt in their displeasure with interracial couples. For example, Stella was a white woman in her mid-twenties and lived in a predominantly white neighborhood with her black husband, Edward. They went with another black-white couple to a restaurant in Los Angeles. Stella said, “[W]e walked by a group of black girls, and…these two girls were looking right at us and the one girl goes, “That’s such a shame.”

This was different from the reactions Angelino couples received from whites. Mark is a white man married to Kelly, a black woman. He knew white man who had used racial epithets to describe blacks in the past. When he encountered the man again at a family gathering some time later, Mark explained encountering him once more.

And I’m sitting there talking to him, and [Kelly] walked up, and he said, ‘I got to go.’ And he walked away.  Turned around and walked away. And of course, I knew why.

White hostility to his relationship, as it was for other couples I interviewed, was subtle but also a reality. This was true even in Brazil, a society known for its large mixed-race population. Survey research has shown that most Brazilians, whether they identify as black, brown, or white can point to ancestors of different races in their backgrounds. Still, in Rio de Janeiro, the couples I interviewed talked about avoiding the famous South Zone areas of Copacabana and Ipanema because they were predominantly white and very wealthy. It was in these spaces that black women and their white husbands were mistaken for being a prostitute with her pimp. It was also in these neighborhoods that black men were unwelcome, whether with a white wife or not. Far from changing hearts and minds of locals, for the couples that I interviewed, being in an interracial marriage opened up new ways to be antagonistic towards people of color and the people who love them.

The same has been true for the Royal Couple. The Daily Mail tweeted a story of Meghan Markle moving “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton.”  Markle received a racist letter filled with a white powder, emulating Anthrax terrorist threats. These were just two of the many hate mail letters that the couple has received. Given the backlash that these couples endure, it is naïve to pretend that their interracial marriage will be a nail in the coffin of racism.

Many of us forget about Queen Charlotte, Prince Harry’s ancestor, who gave her name to that city in North Carolina. Wife of King George III, Charlotte was a descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese royal family. Yet, her reign did nothing to better the lives of the millions of blacks under her rule, including slaves in the US South or British holdings in the Caribbean.

Perhaps this new royal marriage is a nice symbol of racial harmony. However, it will take much more than a fairytale romance to minimized racial inequality whether in the United Kingdom or the United States.

In the twenty-first century, no one ever says that a man marrying a woman should bring about gender equality. In fact, whether in terms of working couples’ unequal distribution of domestic chores or the wage penalty for motherhood versus the wage bump for fatherhood, marriage and the family can be an institution that reproduced gender inequality. Similarly, we should not expect interracial marriage should lead to greater racial equality. While interracial couples can serve as important symbols, their existence does not reduce inequality.

Rather than waiting on interracial couples and their multiracial offspring to magically end racism, we everyday people need to be involved in anti-racist activism. This can mean checking out the efforts of a local YWCA; joining and funding protests and organizing efforts for black lives; getting involved in local efforts to end mass incarceration; funding nonprofits that support undocumented immigrants. It could also start off by forming reading groups for books like Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla Silva to understand how 21st century colorblind racism has replaced Jim Crow. Those steps are far better than taking the easy route of false claims of colorblindness and waiting for a never-coming miracle of race mixture. Interracial love, like all forms of love, is something to be celebrated. But as we watch the royal nuptials, let us remember that they cannot save us from our racism. Only we can do that.

Chinyere Osuji is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University at  Camden. In her book, Boundaries of Love: Interracial Marriage and the Meaning of Race (2019, NYU Press), Osuji compares how interracial couples in Brazil and the United States challenge, reproduce, and negotiate the “us” versus “them” mentality of ethnoracial boundaries. Boundaries of Love is based on over 100 interviews with black-white couples to reveal the family as a primary site for understanding the social construction of race. 

Reposted from the LA Times

In the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern U.S. history, my attention seized on the living as much as the dead. I couldn’t shake images of children running across a Walmart parking lot fleeing for their young lives. According to one witness, a young girl ran to a car and frantically (and successfully) tried to open the door. “You could just see the terror in her face,” she said.

Almost 18 years ago the girls running from terror were my twin sisters Joelle and Shauna. They were 15 when they fled the attack on the World Trade Center. Days before, they had transferred to the High School for Leadership and Public Service, a city block from the towers.

Hearing eyewitness accounts of children in El Paso running from bloody chaos, who moments before had excitedly stocked up on back-to-school supplies, reignites the personal horror of Sept. 11 for my sisters and me. Having witnessed the long-term effects of terrorism on my family, I worry about the accumulating trauma on these young mass shooting survivors and their not yet fully formed adolescent brains. They have lost friends, family members, neighbors and the ability to unsee the violence they witnessed. How will this carnage affect them in the months and years to come?

For my sisters and me, that September morning irreparably obliterated a time bursting with promise. As I peeked out the window at that now-infamous, piercing blue sky, I brimmed with the excitement of my senior year of college.

As I watched the towers fall from my bedroom window in Chelsea, Peter Jennings’ somber voice on TV in the background, I felt like those tearful relatives in El Paso being interviewed on TV about searching for their missing loved ones. I couldn’t locate my sisters. I called the school over and over, but no one answered. Subway service stopped before I could hop on a train to find them. I tried to steel myself for the possibility that my sisters might come home in body bags. And I waited.

They finally returned home around 4 p.m., covered in thick white ash, seemingly unharmed. High on adrenaline, they sounded almost upbeat as they chronicled their experiences: the debris and the boot that hit their classroom window, initial confusion about whether to leave the school building or stay put (against the teacher’s orders, the class left en masse), running around the southern tip of Manhattan to escape the dust storm from the towers’ collapse, the kindly businessman who helped them break into a fancy restaurant for shelter, water and tablecloths they used as masks. They pulled from their backpacks charred papers that fluttered from the fallen towers. We saved them in a shoebox, and almost two decades later a whiff from the box brings back that smoky, ruinous day.

In the days and weeks afterward, whenever I asked if they were OK, my sisters replied with an exasperated, “We’re fine.” They weren’t. The unraveling would happen in the months to follow. They cut classes and soon stopped going to school, as if sucked down a harrowing rabbit hole they couldn’t climb out of.

We fought as I pleaded with them to go to school. But who could blame them? For my sisters, school had become the site of a mass murder. Even when they wanted to return, they felt powerless to dig themselves out from under an avalanche of missed work. It’s no surprise that standardized test scores have been shown to drop when a murder happens in a neighborhood .

Five years earlier, we had lost our mother. Sept. 11 compounded our family traumas, blasting a hole though whatever progress we’d made toward healing those wounds. I could never have imagined that with the fallen towers, my relationship with my sisters would also implode. That I’d become estranged from the girls who were my best and often only friends. Years piled up where we didn’t talk.

My sisters turned 33 this summer. We’re finally all speaking again. But I tiptoe around landmines. Communication is fragile. We don’t talk much about certain things, including that day. But my sisters recently opened up a little. Shauna spoke of her participation in a Columbia University study of survivors enrolled in the World Trade Center health registry. “Sometimes I think I’m invincible, like if I’ve survived that, I can survive anything,” she says. That feeling of invincibility may be reflected in the higher rates of risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking, found among Sept. 11 survivors. Joelle has also spoken of residual trauma, saying: “That really messed me up more than I thought.”

Both finished their GEDs, though neither completed college. I still mourn the loss of their education, but they have managed to gain some emotional, physical and financial stability despite how the ground shifted beneath their feet and concrete rained down on them that September day. I’m proud of the strong, resilient women they’ve become. Shauna has packed a thousand lives into one, having an endless series of adventures. Joelle is a mother of four, soon to be five, secure in the love of the family she has nurtured.

The terrorism that has reverberated through my family since that Tuesday morning was foreign. Today domestic, white nationalist terrorism threatens us as U.S. citizens of Latin origin. It’s frightening to think about how we could become targets. Since the El Paso shooting, I keep thinking about Joelle, who shops frequently with her children at their local Walmart in Arizona.

My nephews and niece are half-Mexican. They have brown skin and dark hair. They face the risk of becoming the second generation of terrorist attack victims in our family, potential targets of hate, if they wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time — sadly, places like school, the park, the mall, an outdoor festival. Must I be afraid to go to the Cardenas supermarket in my heavily Mexican and Central American neighborhood? Must I fear for my life and those of my family and neighbors because of what we look like, where our families come from, and where we live?

Ya basta. Enough.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Francisco.