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Couples who follow stereotypical ideas about what a wife should do report the least satisfaction and the most conflict.

Originally Posted at NBC News

Few events in modern life are wrapped in as much “tradition” as engagements and weddings — especially for heterosexual couples. Surprise proposals from men on bended knees; diamond rings; virginal white dresses with flowing trains; proud fathers walking glowing daughters down the aisle to waiting grooms.

Not all traditions match modern tastes, of course. Instead of a cake, for example, it was customary in the Middle Ages to serve a “bride pye” at wedding celebrations. The earliest recorded recipe for such a pie included lamb testicles, oysters, sweetbreads, fruit, butter, egg yolks and lemon.

While many of the rituals we embrace today — or have thrust on us by wedding planners — sound more palatable, they too can leave a bad aftertaste, especially when they reinforce the notion that marriage is the biggest day in a woman’s life and becoming a wife the most important identity she will ever acquire. You see, even when we “just play” at stereotypes, we absorb some of them — and they affect other people’s expectations of us. Studies show, for example, that when a woman is described to people as a wife, rather than, say, a friend or colleague, they expect her to take major responsibility for cleaning, even if they know she works full-time. They hold a “wife” to higher standards of cleanliness than a man or a single woman, even a cohabiting one, and judge her more harshly when she doesn’t meet those standards.,

Far be it for me to suggest that women give up white dresses, dispense with the father-daughter dance, or even challenge the convention that the man must surprise the woman with an elaborate proposal. Still, it’s worth updating some of these traditions or seeking out others that offer more realistic visions of the marital partnership most couples now hope to establish.

To craft a wedding that takes the best of different traditions and integrates those with the values of contemporary couples, it helps to reflect on where those traditions came from, when they came into being and what alternative traditions they pushed aside. Take the custom of the man asking the woman’s father for her hand in marriage, a tradition that wedding industry analysts claim has recently come back in style.

The tradition of the father “giving” the bride to the groom reflects the fact that until the middle of the 19th century, marriage permanently transferred legal authority of a woman from her father to her husband. An unmarried woman could escape her father’s control over her finances only once she turned 21. But in the 1950s and ’60s the majority of women married before turning 21, and for them the transfer from father to husband meant they never became fully adult in the eyes of the law. Until the mid-1970s, a wife still needed her husband’s permission to take out a loan, sign a lease, open a business or even apply for a credit card.

Some couples have modernized this ritual by asking both sets of parents to approve the match and get to know each other as in-laws. In one marriage I attended, the bride and groom, accompanied by their entire families, walked to meet each other, and then the couple proceeded together to face the officiant.

Such modifications actually draw on a very different, and even more ancient, marital tradition. Among the earliest hunting and gathering bands of the Paleolithic world, and still today among some of their descendants, marriage was a way of turning strangers into relatives. Weddings were about creating ever-widening relationships and mutual obligations among new in-laws and neighboring communities. At my son’s wedding, he and his bride “gave” both sets of parents away to each other, having us exchange leis to symbolize our commitment to the new network of relatives we had acquired.

Many of the most popular “traditional” wedding customs today actually come from a small sliver of history when women were bring pushed out of their central roles in economic and social life and offered idealization of their beauty and purity as (rather scant) compensation. The gasp of surprise, pretended or not, when presented with a ring; the emphasis on the size of the ring and the beauty of the bridal gown, the father walking the bride to the waiting groom, and later the groom lifting her over the threshold — all these rituals come from a time when women had to rely on men to take the initiative in all things and hope that their husbands would provide for them.

That’s not how medieval and early modern Europeans regarded marriage. Everyone knew that a man could not run a farm or business on his own, and in colonial America it could be hard for a man to get a license to open an inn unless he had a wife to be his co-worker. Wives were sometimes called “yoke-mates.” The old German wedding custom of Baumstamm sägen nicely sums up the idea that marriage depends on the woman’s contributions as well as the man’s. There, the first thing a bride and groom do after the ceremony is to each take hold of one end of a cross-cut saw and vigorously saw the log in half to demonstrate they can work together.

The word “Mrs.” was originally derived from the female equivalent of the title “master.” It designated a “mistress” — a woman “who governs” — whether married or unmarried. Only in the 19th century, at the height of what historians call “the cult of female domesticity,”did “Mrs.” came to indicate a woman’s marital status rather than her socioeconomic status. And that marital status was considered far more important than any of her individual achievements. Women increasingly lost even their first names when they wed, becoming only “Mrs. John Smith.”

Women’s understanding that marriage required them to subordinate their personhood to the role of devoted wife helps explain why so many women began to think of their wedding day as their last occasion to shine.

A name was not all women lost. As the perceptive French writer Alexis de Tocqueville explained, 19th-century American women “irrevocably” surrendered their legal independence and access to public life once they entered the bonds of matrimony. When one man heard that his childhood friend was engaged, he confided to his diary that the “idea of her being married seems to me much the same as her being buried.” Many women recorded similar fears in their own diaries.

Women’s understanding that marriage required them to subordinate their personhood to the role of devoted wife helps explain why so many women began to think of their wedding day as their last occasion to shine. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, her ornate white wedding dress with its long train created a sensation. Being a real queen, Victoria had to propose to Albert, a piece of pageantry that few women have adopted even now. But copying Victoria’s wedding dress — and later the three-tiered white wedding cakes that were introduced at her daughters’ weddings — was a different matter.

It’s often suggested that the white wedding dress caught on because it stood for purity, signaling that the bride had protected her maidenhood until the ceremony. But probably more important was its role as a uniquely female status symbol in a world where women could no longer become entrepreneurs or “mistresses” in their own right. Dresses with trains at least three yards long were what women wore when in attendance at the royal court, and white was the color debutantes wore when presented to the queen. The fact that white dresses were expensive to make and exceptionally difficult to keep clean in a world where rooms continually accumulated soot from fireplaces and most streets were unpaved only added to their cachet. As Bride’s Magazine put it in 1949, wearing such a dress could make a woman “queen of the day, surrounded by your ladies-in-waiting.”

Fifty years ago, wedding rituals that reinforced stereotypes of men as protectors and providers and women as delicate homebodies worked well for many couples. As late as the 1970s and ’80s, couples who followed stereotyped gender scripts after marriage reported higher relationship satisfaction than couples who experimented with nontraditional arrangements such as shared breadwinning, housework and childcare. But today, egalitarianism is an increasingly important predictor of marital satisfaction. The good news is that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, couples who share child care and housework equally report the highest relationship and sexual satisfaction. The bad news is that couples who follow traditional ideas about what a wife should do report the least satisfaction and the most conflict. So couples looking for happiness in the years after their wedding day might consider updating old ceremonies, or crafting new ones, that reinforce their commitment to equality from Day One.

Stephanie Coontz is the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” and is Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Author Photo: Pluto Janning on the Puget Sound, August 2019

We are nearing the end of summer, which means vacation season for families is ending. But for sociologists like me who study vacations and tourism in terms of second homes, the fun keeps going on and on.

The family vacation is changing, and companies in the business of housing families who are on vacation are noticing and revising their platforms to suit (and likely impact) the changes. Case in point: VRBO’s new platform allows extended families who are geographically separated – a big portion of their client base – to collaborate via an online shared platform about potential homes for an upcoming vacation stay where they can all be together. Companies that broker private home spaces in a virtual commercial space spend lots of time and money trying to figure out what kind of data may be useful to better meet client needs and to boost profits, and this business is not slowing down anytime soon.

VRBO studied user-interface data to uncover how spread-apart families select homes to share when they’re on vacation together. I collect data about vacation homes, too, but as a social scientist interested in the social construction of the meaning of home, family, and community, I study how the families who own the homes that are sometimes rented out to other families talk about these spaces. I have conducted semi-structured interviews of several dozen vacation homeowners from across the U.S. who represent a fairly wide range of affluence, from those who have a run-down cabin in the woods that is only used in mild weather and doesn’t have modern plumbing, to those who have a multi-million dollar property on a shoreline or in a mountain resort. Some of these property owners use the properties for vacation, some for investment to rent out only to people they do not know, and many are in between these formal categories. I have also conducted a content analysis of lifestyle television shows featuring families searching for vacation homes (and sometimes rental incomes), and field research of burgeoning tourist town meetings filled with heated debates about short-term vacation home rental regulations. In other words, I study the qualitative dimensions of how the meaning of vacation homes varies among homeowners when the properties are used by family members or friends, or by strangers, and I embed the meanings in broader neighborhood and community contexts.

Rather than solely looking at data on reported vacation home values and demographic shifts in the U.S. vacation home market, which are crucial if you want to understand the national picture of reported property statuses or taxes, I ask questions about what people actually do (regardless of what they report) and how they define what their vacation homes mean to them. As a family sociologist who studies material culture and the social construction of spaces and places, I capture meaning by asking about how spaces are defined, how home objects may matter, and how the home is defined in light of the larger community’s classification as a tourist destination or not. After all, formal classifications of second homeowner as fixed categories that require certain taxation rates and time limits for homeowners to reside there are limited in their capacity to capture the reality and dynamism of ownership across time, geographic space, and use.

Most importantly, I assess whether the meaning of vacation homes changes depending on which visitors count as “family.” I came up with this project, by the way, when I visited a relative’s condo that was sometimes used (for a small fee) by relatives of friends and friends of relatives, and I wondered if the homeowners took down the picture of my son before they let others stay there.

My research reveals that the simple classification of second homes into governmental classifications that are based on taxes and time spent there does not show what people actually do with, and believe about, their vacation homes. How the homes are used and framed by homeowners (and the companies they use to advertise) shapes the ebbs and flows of the sharing economy. As my interview responses reveal, sometimes people call a property their primary residence but do not actually live there and instead rent it out for others’ vacations. Sometimes people define a space six hours away as their family vacation home more than someone who has an accessory dwelling unit on their primary residence property that is rented out to tourists (which is, per governmental classifications, not considered a second home). Why? Because in the first instance, the home is never used by strangers, and in the second instance, the home is never used by family members. In both instances, they are defined as family vacation spaces. Maybe the definition of a second or vacation home is more based on who occupies it than where it is, whether it is part of a primary residence, or what its formal governmental classification is.

In addition to complicating formal classifications of properties and homeowners, my preliminary analysis reveals that vacation homeowners downplay the impersonal, selfish, and inauthentic in economic exchange that may occur with vacation homes, such as when a friends of a family member use it and a cleaning fee is required but mentioned only casually and handled informally. At the same time, homeowners emphasize the significance of social connections over economic gain when they talk about the vacation home, regardless of whether they use it or rent it out to other families in a formal exchange. They do this by focusing on cherished objects or spaces as significant for family connectedness in a time when geographic mobility and generational divides are viewed as increasing and the preservation of family “stories” and “values” are framed as threatened. Especially for those who keep the home for use within the family and close friends, this leads not only to nostalgia about past family vacation memories, but what I label as “imagined future nostalgia” for the next generations, who may or may not be interested in keeping or sharing the property with extended family members. For the older homeowners I interviewed in these situations, this is clearly framed as a geographically-situated genealogy project, not as a financial investment. For some of the people in my interview study, however, the desire to keep the family vacation home in the family for generations to come was a desire not shared by their children and grandchildren, who sometimes turned toward the idea of short-term vacation rental as a way to afford to keep the home while still being occasionally available for family that would have less time to spend together as their busy lives and geographic mobility seemed to increase with each generation. In this sense, the sharing economy is framed as an option for those who are not quite ready to get rid of the family vacation home, but can’t quite afford to keep it if it sits empty as their siblings, cousins, and other family members find it harder or less desirable to meet up during the few vacation days they may have each year.

In terms of lifestyle television depictions of families seeking vacation homes, I found both similarities and differences between homeowners who talked about their prospective vacation homes as family-only versus those who talked about them as simultaneous family vacation homes and investment properties. Those who wanted to use the vacation homes for investment purposes and not just as family-only spaces tended to focus on spaces and objects that would yield more guests and higher fees, whereas those who wanted to use the homes for their own families and nobody else tended to focus their comments on whether they could imagine family and friends enjoying themselves in the spaces. Those who mentioned investment opportunity included more frequent and explicit reference to money, whereas vacation-only families more frequently mentioned personal emotional connections to the spaces.  Finally, proximity to amenities and the owners’ primary residences mattered: for those using it only for family vacations, it was important to have access to the property be easy (in other words, not too far away from their primary residence). For those treating the vacation property as primarily an investment, proximity to amenities was highlighted as mattering more than proximity to the owner’s primary residence. After all, travel is becoming increasingly about experiences rather than just places.

Of course, regardless of homeowner type, the television representation of all vacation home searches had a lot in common: similar predictable plot formulas, a focus on renovation potential, and a desire for escape and leisure and increased closeness for whichever family occupied the space. And, despite the vacation home rental industry being available only to those families affluent enough to afford the fees, the produced message of these shows was to suggest that people from varying demographic backgrounds can access these homes (hence, the title Beachfront Bargain Hunt). Finally, with few exceptions, there was a striking absence of reference to the role of insiders and outsiders in terms of who counts as a local, as well as any community-level impacts such as housing affordability, tourism labor, and environmental degradation. In this sense, despite the visual and rhetorical focus on neighborhood and community, the aim of the shows is to emphasize these as sites for amenities and experiences, and to individualize family space use as private decisions that are removed from any responsibility for the communities in which the families may reside.

Today, private home spaces are increasingly public parts of the sharing economy. Of course, affluent members of society renting out vacation homes is not new in U.S. society (just watch season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a pop culture reference to this phenomenon; or just watch Dirty Dancing). Renting out parts of properties in order to make ends meet has also been part of the history of those who are less affluent. What I study is whether the new norms of families meeting up for vacations in rented-out private spaces that belong to private homeowners (as opposed to a set of cabins in the Catskills or a boarding house in Chicago), and the increase in entrepreneurialism via the sharing economy, have shaped the meaning of vacation homes differently than decades ago.

My research, which is ongoing, touches on important fields of study, including how homes are defined as “priceless” places despite their presence in capitalist exchanges, how success in the sharing economy may be a new marker of privilege based on meritocratic efforts in entrepreneurialism, race and class inequalities and the “politics of exclusion” in housing affordability  and gentrification in tourist and other areas, and the social psychological and cultural impacts of the “vacation self” as we social scientists witness and study the changes in travel and mobility patterns across generations.

I wrote this post during the last weekend of summer, perched on the deck of my in-laws’ vacation home overlooking a calm piece of the Puget Sound, where it’s difficult to tell by looking at the water whether the tide is coming in or going out.  My family schedules a getaway a week or two before school starts if we can, because it allows us to elongate the summer, at least as we define it. Otherwise, when August 1st rolls around, I will start thinking summer is over and start fine-tuning my syllabi, and all of us will transition into school and work mode and forget that we also like to play games and splash in some water.

Four doors down from our extended family’s vacation home is a property that is listed on a short-term rental site. Nobody here has really talked about what that may mean, or whether they find this to be interesting, helpful, or troubling – except for the occasional murmur of “those people do not understand how to be on a beach filled with clams, tiny crabs, and oysters.” When neighbors have family members visit, everyone is excited to meet them. The couple next door, for example, knows my name (and, as of this trip, now knows my dog’s name). People make an effort to get to know each other along the shore, except at the place that is rented out to strangers. Those people are met with a friendly yet distant vibe. They are not locals, even as people like my in-laws who are only there part-time are not quite locals either.

I continue to ponder all of these preliminary findings and ongoing questions, and I wonder: when are these family members planning to display a picture of my son for all of the family-only visitors to admire? And what will happen to the picture if they decide to rent out the vacation home someday to people we don’t know?

Michelle Janning is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Her research focuses on the intersection of spaces, material culture, and interpersonal roles and relationships. She is expanding her focus to include the constructed meaning of neighborhood and community, especially as it relates to any dwelling homeowners consider to be a “second home.” Her work is featured at

In today’s labor market, women earn about 80% of men’s wages. This statistic and discussions of gender equity in pay have been covered by the media with renewed force in recent months, in part sparked by the U.S. women’s national soccer team suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination relating to unequal pay in March 2019. What factors contribute to the gender wage gap? Some argue that the time women spend out of work and the work lapses they experience for family and caregiving reasons explains part of the gender wage gap—that is, among other factors, the different employment trajectories men and women experience over the life course is one roadblock in reaching gender wage equality.

We investigate the linkage between employment trajectories and the gender wage gap in a forthcoming article in Demography. Using national data of the work histories of more than 6,000 individuals (NLSY 1979), we first identify six different employment trajectories from ages 22 to 50 (see Figure 1). We find that men’s and women’s levels of work attachment over the life course vary significantly; some follow steady work at high levels, others have low attachment to work either early or late in their careers, and some experience temporary declines in employment. Although steady employment trajectories are the most common overall; we find important gender, racial, and class disparities in the ability to secure steady work. For example, women are underrepresented in the group that follows a steady high level of attachment (36% are women), and women are more likely to experience low levels of employment either in the early career or temporarily around the late thirties. We also find that women across racial/ethnic groups and Black men are more likely than their counterparts to experience non-steady employment. Individuals who have experienced poverty are also at heightened risk of having lower and intermittent employment levels.


Figure 1. Employment trajectory groups of men and women across the life course

Source: NLSY 1979 data, from 1979-2014 surveys.


This analysis shows that relatively advantaged demographic and social groups are more likely to secure steady and high levels of work throughout their lives—which also have the highest wage pay off later in the career. We then ask: within employment trajectories—that have similar levels and timing of work attachment—how does the gender wage gap vary? We find that in the trajectory with highest levels of steady employment, the gender wage gap is the largest: among those who have steady and high levels of employment throughout their lives, women earn about 78.9% of men’s wages (see Figure 2). Men have higher wages than women across trajectories, but in non-steady paths this wage premium is reduced. In other words, men are relatively more penalized than women for not working continuously at high levels.

These findings suggest that even if women’s employment trajectories become more like men’s, the gender wage gap would remain persistent. This places women in a double bind; either they experience less gender wage inequality in low attachment trajectories, or access relatively higher wages in steady work paths that have a larger gender wage gap.


Figure 2. Predicted wages by trajectory and gender.

Note: The model includes a set of individual, family, and work characteristics. Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.


Why are men relatively more penalized than women for following non-steady employment trajectories? Non-steady and lower attachment paths are commonly associated with women who experience work lapses due to caretaking and family responsibilities. Employers might perceive men who follow these paths as violating breadwinning norms and expectations about what an ideal worker’s employment trajectory should be. Weisshaar’s recent article in American Sociological Review shows that in the hiring process, family-related work lapses are penalized relative to continuous work and even compared to unemployment spells. Both mothers and fathers who had family-related work lapses are penalized, but in highly competitive markets, fathers seem to fare worse. Fathers who had family-related lapses are also perceived to be less committed and reliable than mothers—suggesting that the role of employers’ preference could be a partial explanation of the reduced wage premium we find for men who follow non-steady employment trajectories.

Advancing towards equal pay will require cultural, policy, and workplace changes. Expanding work opportunities to create equal access to steady employment throughout the life course is important—and paid family leave policies taking effect in some states are a good start. But our work shows that encouraging women to work more will not be enough. We also need to ensure equal wages for similar work—as fought for by the U.S. women’s national soccer team—and to change workplace policies and cultural gender expectations around caretaking so as to reduce the penalties associated with family-related work lapses and parenthood.

Tania Cabello-Hutt is a PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @TaniaHutt and reach her at tcabello@unc.eduKate Weisshaar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @kateweisshaar and reach her at

Deborah J. Cohan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina- Beaufort whose work has appeared in numerous academic and non-academic publications. She is the author of the popular blog “Social Lights” for Psychology Today, is a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed, and is frequently quoted in major media outlets. Here we ask her questions about her new sociologically inspired memoir, Welcome to Wherever We Are. Learn more about her at

BJR: What made you, a sociologist, decide to write a book about your own life experiences caring for your ailing father?

DJC: I have been actively reading and formally studying memoir in earnest since I was at the end stages of my dissertation in graduate school. I found myself growing impatient with various aspects and profound limitations of academic writing and was looking for a creative outlet. Ever since I was a child, writing was something that felt available and important to me. However, growing up, I was less of a reader because all that was shoved down my throat in school was fiction. And, my dirty secret is that I still don’t read fiction! Once I discovered memoir though, it all made sense. At its best, memoir is essentially a very creative sociology.

The analytical and interpretive properties of both sociology and memoir are quite similar. Sociology is about giving people the tools and the vocabulary to seek multiple truths about individuals, societies and the social forces that constrain and support their very being; sociology offers us the opportunity to then take this information to question, reflect, re-evaluate and put the pieces of our own lives together again, to see how the private “I” fits into the larger public “eye.”

Memoir involves possessing the sociological imagination, connecting biography to history, and understanding how private troubles of one’s personal milieu are indeed public issues related to the social structure. Memoir is about excavating identity and salvaging a sense of self. It is also about the power of finding and using one’s voice.

It is qualitative and ethnographic. The best memoir writers take the particulars of their own lived experience and write their hearts out in a way that connects with others and the larger project of what it means to be human.

Sociological theory, and feminist analysis, which I rely on heavily, helps us to uncover truths no matter how discomforting or disquieting they can be or how deeply one must probe to discover them, and yet this journey toward truth is often enlightening, magical, and transforming. Sociology gives us the opportunity to re-think our place in history, to imagine the future direction of the world, and perhaps to dream about how we might engage in tikkun olam, a Hebrew expression for repairing and healing the world. Memoir has become an extension of all of that for me. The writer Dorothy Allison said: “…Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that to go on living I have to tell stories, that stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”

Long motivated by a continuous thread I have followed since I began college, both my academic writing and my memoir tell stories at the intersections of gender, family, home, identity, race, class, violence, trauma, grief, loss, rage, creativity, social justice, and social change. These tend to be the issues I write about regardless of genre, and I have published a book, academic articles, book chapters, essays, articles for the mass media, and poetry. The breadth and depth of my writing showcases fluency and versatility with genre because of my belief in the promise of sociology and how we must make ourselves relevant in public discourse. I consider myself an interdisciplinary sociologist, a feminist sociologist, and a public sociologist—creating and applying sociological insights for public knowledge and for the public good.

BJR: Are there any sociological lessons that you can share from the story you share in this book?

 DJC: That’s a great question and there are so many!

In sociology, we often say that things are not always as they seem. This is most definitely true. My book sheds light on how abuse is not black or white, and that there is multidimensionality to abusers. In my case, my father was both adoring and abusive; both are my lived realities. Also, in the book you learn that I was raised in an upper middle class Jewish home, and domestic violence is still very much cloaked in silence, secrecy and shame in households like that. The book punctures assumptions around abusers, survivors, marriage, divorce, social class, etc.

Back in college, I got interested in homelessness among children and adults. I wanted to understand the structural conditions that lead some people to a life on the streets. We know there is a connection between homelessness and violence. As time has unfolded, I have found myself compelled by how traumatic experiences of violence leave us homeless, even metaphorically, in our bodies, in our relationships, and just in our very existence. Writing memoir about family violence became a way to come home to myself.

Sociologists are concerned with how relationships come together and break apart. Sociology consistently asks how we form connection and community with one another and how we become alienated from each other. Studying intimacy and violence provides rich ground for examining these dynamics and processes.

Also, in sociology, we aim to understand why people are cruel to each other, especially in a context of intimacy, sexuality, family, and love.  Domestic violence cuts to the core of human experience of intimacy, vulnerability and relations of domination.

Furthermore, many of us have an interest in social justice and social change and operate from the assumption that sociological writing is not just about creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake but that it is also about forging solidarity with suffering human beings. Domestic violence and violence against women offer us the possibility to think about the nexus of relationships between social problems, personal healing and recovery, and social change.  As sociologists, we are trained in asking questions and observing the complexities and nuances of human behavior, and domestic violence cases like what I experienced provide an opportunity for deep, ongoing sociological inquiry.

BJR: Given the connection between the personal and the political, can you help the reader understand if there are any implications for social policy from your experiences as a caregiver?

DJC: I hope that the book compels readers to think about ways that we can talk more honestly about domestic violence, and especially how to have those conversations intergenerationally. When I began caregiving for my father, I was in my thirties and not yet on the tenure track and cobbling together a series of contingent academic jobs back and forth in two states. I spent a lot of money I didn’t have to travel to see him and I remember thinking how fabulous it would be if there were grants for people in my situation, simultaneously doing public service with teaching and also intense caregiving. I felt choked by my living expenses, student loan debt, and caregiving bills. It was clear to me then—and remains so—that we need a much greater, supportive infrastructure in our social institutions to help people navigate this and to buffer against the extreme loneliness that people face in these distressing and grief-filled circumstances. Growing up, I was one of very few only children with older parents. Now that this is an increasingly common demographic, it seems like as a society we will have to better offer support as people reconcile the dilemmas of aging and caregiving from the complicated context of tiny and tender family dynamics.

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

In Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, Caitlyn Collins investigates the ways in which policy impacts the experiences of working mothers. Through rich, in-depth interviews and observation, Collins conducts the very first systematic comparative study looking at women’s lived experiences with work-family policies. Through the participants’ own words and careful review of policy and existing research, Collins weaves together a compelling and nuanced investigation of the ways policy impacts women’s lived experiences. This five-year study articulates the ways both government and cultural support work to bring about what Collins calls work-family justice, an assurance that all citizens have access to opportunities to participate in both family care and paid work. This book examines the ways and the extent to which support systems fluctuate from country to country. Collins makes clear the importance of cultural values, which at least equal in importance to written policy in terms of creating work-family justice. Collins shares that policies alone cannot solve the struggles of working mothers. Rather, our cultural beliefs about gender, work, and motherhood must shift to fully address these challenges.

Collins discusses the current state of family policy and support in the United States as well as how the U.S. compares to other Western industrialized nations. Collins makes the key point that the current meager provision of federal support for families is by design, but by accident. She explains that U.S. stands as one of the nations “with no mention of the word ‘family’ in its constitution,” “no federal body dedicated specifically to family issues,” and “no explicit national family policy” (2). This book is particularly effective at illustrating the ways in which the cultural ethos of individualism in the United States places the responsibility for the care and feeding of the family squarely on the shoulders of the individual, and presents parenthood as a lifestyle choice. Collin raises the important point that while we see the act of childrearing as a private, individual one, in reality children grow up to be taxpayers and workers. Thus, citizens who were raised well actually function in the country’s best interest. However, the insistence of the U.S. on relying upon the market to solve individual problems has led to a privatized approach, where the most privileged members of our society hold access to the greatest number of work-family policies, leaving the most vulnerable among us having the least support. Generally speaking, we expect women in the U.S. to solve their own work-family stressors because, after all, we’ve told them they can “have it all.” Collins relates the previous studies showing the ways that family policies can actually hinder women’s progress at work, as well as gender relations and beliefs.

Collins’ study includes in-depth interviews with 135 working mothers living in the capital cities of Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Her fieldwork entailed a summer spent in each city, where she both observed and participated the lives of the women around her. Collins focused on middle-class mothers noting that Pamela Stone wrote that middle-class mothers are the “miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss” (24). While the interviewees in Europe lacked racial diversity, her stateside sample included more than half of respondents identifying as a racial/ethnic minority.

This book examines the differences in lived experiences of working mothers by social context and location, and discusses solutions to the challenges of working mothers. Collins found that what mothers who work expect and want with regard to their family and work lives depends on their social context. Collins points out that the important factors for both comprehending and solving the conflicts faced by working mothers rely not upon social policies alone, but the larger social context and beliefs about parenthood, equality, and employment. She also discovered that who mothers blame for their unmet expectations varies widely depending upon where they live. US working mothers blame themselves, while mothers abroad blamed external forces (e.g. government, cultural forces). Also dependent on social context are the solutions employed by working mothers. Mothers in Italy, western Germany, and the US feared utilizing the policies available to them because of the resulting stigma they would endure. Working mothers in Sweden are the most satisfied. While Collins explains that she let Sweden quite optimistic about the ways that work-family policies can help further gender equality, she is careful to point out that merely importing Swedish policies to the US won’t work without addressing our cultural attitudes about work, gender, and parenting. Rather, she explains that any work-family policies require an environment that’s supportive of gender equality because policy alone won’t help mothers balance careers and responsibilities at home.

Collins contends that we must enact policies in packages, providing the example of paid parental leave policies alongside policies increasing availability of childcare. She also emphasizes the importance of building consensus when enacting new legislation. Ultimately, Collins explains that in Sweden policies enjoy success because of a cultural sense of shared responsibility with regard to childcare and work inside the home. Until we shift our view of raising children in the US from our current notion of it as a “lifestyle choice” to one of contribution to the continuation of society, no policy alone can alleviate the plight of working mothers in the US. Beyond policy, Collins shows that workplaces must increase flexibility in terms of both where and how we work, but also the ways we assess productivity, how we compensate workers, and that we will need to stop seeing men as the ideal worker. Instead, we must realize that everyone comes to work with outside lives, interests, and responsibilities requiring their time and attention. In other words, we need to reconceptualize work in the United States. Collins posits that creating work-family justice in the US will demand cultural shifts in our definitions of parenthood, our work structures, and our commitment to families and parents. She is fully aware that this is a monumental task. To begin to address this problem, Collins explains that we must begin to realize that the existing inequalities that result in differing experiences of work-family life, and further recognize that these are conditions we can address. Across social contexts, the working mothers in Collins’ study shared one single cause of stress: “the pressure to live up to an idealized definition of motherhood” (263).

Collins’ highly readable book provides a thorough analysis of the ways that cultural ideas about gender, work, and motherhood converge to create or alleviate burdens for working mothers. Her participants provide rich, moving, and generous accounts of their lived experiences, that require readers to explore their views on gender, motherhood, fatherhood, and work. With its focus on motherhood, employment, and gender, Making Motherhood Work is a useful resource to examine the ways gender politics and cultural ideas regarding employment and motherhood come to bear on women’s lived experiences.

Alicia M. Walker works as an assistant professor at Missouri State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her previous book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife, investigated women’s participation in outside partnerships. Her forthcoming book focuses on men’s participation. Follow her on Twitter @AliciaMWalker1

Sociologist Arielle Kuperberg conducted new data analysis exclusively for this CCF briefing report that shows how cohabitation has changed from 1956 to the present. This new brief also includes findings from her forthcoming journal article in Marriage and Family Review. Historian Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s research director, reflects on what Kuperberg’s discoveries tell us about the state of close relationships in this interview on American Intimacy in Times of Escalating Inequality.

The most common path to marriage these days includes cohabitation, according to research presented to the Council on Contemporary Families by sociologist Arielle Kuperberg (UNC-Greensboro). In “From Countercultural Trend to Strategy for the Financially Insecure: Premarital Cohabitation and Premarital Cohabitors, 1956-2015,” Kuperberg reports how cohabitation raised eyebrows forty years ago. She shows that in the past decade, though, an overwhelming majority of Americans approve of it. There’s an asterisk: For a highly religious minority for whom “direct marrying” might be preferable, living together before marriage has as much to do with economic resources as with values. Kuperberg’s report offers three big findings:

Cohabitation before marriage is the norm. Kuperberg reports that 70 percent of marriages start with living together. Furthermore, only 17 percent of Americans disapprove of “premarital cohabitation.” And it is with good reason, she shows, since cohabitation has ceased to be a risk factor for divorce.

Since it’s so common, who is least likely to cohabit least before marriage? College graduates—who married directly 40 percent of the time between 2011 and 2015, twice as often as people without a college education. To be clear: A majority within all educational groups—including college graduates—cohabit before marriage. Not only do less-educated people cohabit more; Kuperberg notes that “working-class couples move in together earlier in their relationships than college-educated couples, often because of financial difficulties or housing needs.”

More religiously observant people are the most likely to be direct marriers—but only if they can afford it.Among highly religious college graduates, only 35 percent cohabited before getting hitched (versus 60 percent overall). Yet, equally religious people who did not have a high school degree lived together before marriage 97 percent of the time. The greater practice of premarital cohabitation among people with less education—and most likely lower incomes—may have to do with access to resources.

Cohabitation is no longer a countercultural trend, but instead is an unremarkable practice. In the past, worry about propriety and reputation created strong cultural pressures against living together before marriage. That is no longer the case. Now, economic inequality seems to shape the choices of religiously observant people with low levels of education, who tend to have lower incomes than equally observant people who have completed college. What Kuperberg’s study adds up to is that there may be less choice about close relationships than meets the eye today.


Arielle Kuperberg, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro;

Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College,; 360-556-9223.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families

In the early 1960s, fewer than 3 percent of women who married for the first time had lived with their husband before the wedding. As late as 1968, news of a college student living with her boyfriend touched off a national scandal. As you can see in Figure 1 (below), even by the end of the 1970s, fewer than one-third of first marriages began after premarital cohabitation. Since the mid-1990s, however, cohabiting before marriage has become the norm. Between 2011 and 2015, around 70 percent of women marrying for the first time had lived with their husband before marriage, and a 2015 national poll of U.S. adults found that only 17% believed living together outside of marriage was not an acceptable way of life.

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1946-1985, N=4,356) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,480) and based on women <36 at first marriage. 

As I show in a new article in the journal Marriage & Family Review based on an analysis of national data on more than 13,000 women who married between 1956 and 2015, the characteristics of couples who live together before marriage have changed over time. Despite the widespread acceptance of premarital cohabitation, its practice has changed in ways that reflect a growing divide between Americans with a college degree and those with some or no college education. This change has interacted with differences in premarital cohabitation between more- and less-religiously-observant Americans in some surprising ways.

Early cohabitation rates: Only small differences between more- and less-educated Americans.Throughout the earliest period, from 1956 to 1985 (see Figure 1), when premarital cohabitation was still practiced by a minority of couples, the few couples who lived together before marriage generally belonged to one of two distinct groups. One was composed largely of couples with the lowest level of education: 27 percent of premarital cohabitors had less than a high school education when they moved in together. But an even larger group of early cohabitors had higher levels of education; 31 percent of cohabitors had at least some college education when they moved in together.

Whether college grads or people without a high school degree, cohabitors transgressed powerful social norms when they decided to live together before marriage. This is likely for different reasons: The least educated women may have delayed marriage until they were more financially stable or to save money for a wedding, while more highly educated women were more likely participating in a new countercultural trend that stemmed from the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Still, overall there were no significant differences between rates of premarital cohabitation among couples with different levels of education during the period from 1956 to 1986.

When rates of cohabitation began to change by education. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, premarital cohabitation began to grow most rapidly among the least educated Americans. Between 1986 and 2000, premarital cohabitation rates grew more quickly among couples who had not completed high school than among any other group. At the next levels of education, differences in cohabitation rates remained small. Their rates grew more slowly, and there wasn’t a big difference among couples with at least a high school degree over this time period.

All that growth meant that, starting in 1995, a majority of first marriages have begun with premarital cohabitation. Here’s where a new educational divergence occurred: Since 2000, cohabitation rates of the most educated couples have grown markedly more slowly than those of all other educational groups – people with high school diplomas and even ones with some college. By 2011-2015, women who married directly, without first cohabiting, were a minority in every educational group. Even so, marrying directly was twice as common among women with a college degree as among women who had a high school diploma or less. More than 40 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree married in the so-called “traditional” way, without having first cohabited. But fewer than 20 percent of women who had never attended college did so.

In other words, although acceptance of premarital cohabitation is equally high among highly-educated as among less-educated Americans, the actual rates of cohabitation among couples with a bachelor’s degree or higher are much lower than those of any other educational category. College-educated couples, often considered the group most likely to challenge traditional relationship and sexual norms, are now the group most likely to practice the traditionally “respectable” route to marriage – with women moving in with their husbands only after the wedding.

Religion, Education, and Cohabitation. Direct marriers became an increasingly select group in another way as well, as you can see in Figure 2. Not only did they tend to be more educated than average, they were also more religious. In 2011-2015, 73 percent of women who married without first cohabiting attended religious services at least once a month, compared to only 46 percent of premarital cohabitors. While almost a third (29 percent) of women who cohabited before marriage never attended religious services, this was true of only 10 percent of women who married directly.

In a new analysis for this report, I found that the education gap in premarital cohabitation was even larger among women who attended religious services at least once a month than among women as a whole (see Figure 2). Among women who had a college degree and regularly attended religious services, only 35 percent cohabited before marriage. By contrast, among women who did not attend college but attended religious services regularly, a full 86 percent cohabited before marriage. The difference is even greater when we look only at equally-religiously-observant women with no high school degree, 97 percent of whom cohabited before marriage!

These figures suggest that in today’s social and economic environment, it has become harder to act on one’s personal values in the absence of the good economic prospects conferred by a college education. The majority of young adults today believe that living together before marriage is okay, and research from the early 2000s found that these rates do not differ by education. But among those who do not share this acceptance of cohabitation yet lack the high levels of education associated with stronger labor markets and greater financial stability, contemporary economic circumstances make it harder to live up to their values. The highly religious may sometimes marry even without that financial stability due to the strong social disapproval of their peers and a belief that “God will provide.” But others facing financial insecurity resulting from their low levels of education are more reluctant to make that leap, even when they would prefer to marry directly.

Note: Numbers calculated from the National Survey of Family Growth and based on women <36 at first marriage.  (N=553; Frequent Religious Service Attenders, N=315)

Even More Evidence that Resources Influence Romantic Decisions. In addition to being more likely to cohabit before marriage, recent research finds that working-class couples move in together earlier in their relationships than college-educated couples, often because of financial difficulties or housing needs. Among college-educated couples, financial difficulties seldom play a part in the decision to cohabit. Increasingly, then, the ability of couples to make decisions about cohabitation and marriage based on their values seems to depend upon their financial circumstances. And this can have consequences for relationship stability. As I show below (Figure 3), premarital cohabitation no longer predicts divorce, but moving in together rapidly does increase the possibility that a relationship will dissolve without moving on to marriage.

The Relationship of Cohabitation and Divorce Reversed over Time. In a new analysis prepared for this report and shown in Figure 3, I find that the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce has also changed over time. Not surprisingly, those who were willing to transgress strong social norms to cohabit from the 1950s to 1970 were also more likely to transgress similar social norms about divorce. Indeed, in that earlier period, people who lived together before marriage were 82 percent more likely to divorce than people who moved in together only after marriage. But as cohabitation became more widespread, its association with divorce faded. In fact, since 2000 premarital cohabitation has actually been associated with a lower rate of divorce, once factors such as religiosity, education, and age at co-residence are accounted for.

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1956-1985, N=3,594) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,420) using Cox regressions and based on women <36 at first marriage. Controls for age at coresidence, age at coresidence squared, raised not religious, religious attendance, race, education at marriage, mother’s education, prior cohabitations, lived with both biological parents at age 14, birth prior to coresidence, began coresidence while pregnant. **p<.01

But the likelihood of divorce, other research shows, also varies by education and economic stability. Regardless of whether people live together before marriage or not, college-educated couples have far lower rates of divorce than couples with a high school diploma or less. On average, women with a high school diploma or less have a 60 percent chance of a marriage ending in divorce within 20 years. The chance that a woman with a college degree will divorce within the same time period is nearly three times lower — about 22 percent.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is also the editor of the CCF blog @ The Society Pages. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg and reach her at

Is cohabitation the new conventional model of family?

Marriage rates today are at an historic low, as couples tie the knot less frequently (and at older ages) than in the past. Other trends portend a “liberalizing” of the American family as well. There are currently high rates of births outside of marriage, support for decoupling parenthood from marriage is at an all-time high among millennials, and divorce is up among those in mid-life. Couples who have children without being married, get divorced, or delay or forego the institution or marriage are not living lives of solitude, however. They are living together outside of marriage. In fact, as of 2016, 18 million people lived together in cohabiting unions.

At one point in time, cohabitation was considered to be the union choice either for those too poor to marry or the avant garde who eschewed marriage. Now, however, the majority of recent marriages were preceded by cohabitation.  With so many couples cohabiting (or having cohabited), it is  quite likely that the views cohabitors hold, on a range of issues – from maternal employment to how couples should divide housework – are quite similar to those of married couples. So, are cohabitors the new traditionalists?

In fact, in our research with Daniel Carlson, we find that around 40% of the cohabiting couples we studied did have quite conventional work orientation more similar to Leave it to Beaver than not. That is, they had fairly traditional ways of thinking about their both their own careers and their jobs in relationship to those of their partners’. For these couples, most intend for both partners to work, but view the man’s job as more central – he is the one whose career gets top billing in the family, whose job determines where couples will live (or if they will move), and who receives more privileges (such as being able to do less housework), as a result of his job.  For these couples, this “King of the Castle” view holds whether or not his job is actually more prestigious, better paying, or requires more hours per week.  Many of these couples planned for the female partner to become the primary parent in the future, working part time or leaving the workforce for a period of time to be with children. Based on this, yes, cohabitation is the new conservative model of family. Such views (as well as behaviors) are not randomly dispersed throughout the sample, though.  Adherence to these more conventional arrangements are more often held by middle class, college-educated couples (who generally do not yet have children) than by their less educated peers who work in service sector jobs.

Lest we think that women with college degrees are the new Stepford Wives, however, it’s important to note that roughly 20% of the couples we studied are following a far more egalitarian pathway- or even reversing convention entirely. Again, more common among the college educated, a number of couples are those who equally privilege one another’s careers, taking turns advancing up the ladder, for example, or, in rare instances, even see the female partner’s more specialized job and greater earnings potential as the one which should receive the most focus.

So what of their service class peers- couples in which both partners tend to have a high school diploma or some college education? They have much more variation in their work orientations. These couples often consist of partners for whom work is a low priority or those in which at least one partner few plans for advancement but is a stable worker. This makes sense given that the types of jobs that service-class individuals tend to be in. After all, financially and practically it is difficult for those working in fields like retail and telemarketing to move up through the ranks- or ultimately be able to afford to have one partner stay home part time with children.

How are couples to navigate this Brave New World of family formation and negotiation of work and family roles?  Couples who have clearer social scripts to follow (whether that be “traditional breadwinner/homemaker” or “egalitarian power couple”) tend to experience greater relationship stability than those who do not, in larger part because they have societal expectations to fall back on and are not trying to constantly renegotiate gendered norms anew. Whether they are moving toward a marriage like the Cleavers’ or more like the executive and physician couple, The Johnsons of TV’s “Blackish” it is not surprising, then, that the college educated are moving into marriage at higher rates than their peers. As we argued in our most recent work, “unless there is a change in the nature of jobs available for those without college educations, the divergence in marriage rates- and relationship satisfaction- between service-class and middle-class cohabitors is likely to continue.” Rather than focusing on marriage as the panacea for all that ails today’s families, a more productive approach would be to make it easier to be partners, workers, and parents – by providing paid parental sick leave, easier pathways to educational attainment and off-routes that are not laden with crushing debt, and affordable childcare.  What today’s alternative families need, after all, are not all that different from what their more traditional counterparts – married couples – also seek.

Amanda Jayne Miller is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Indianapolis. Most of her scholarship focuses on the intersections of gender, social class, and families including research on change and gendered beliefs and behaviors across cohorts, couples’ household divisions of labor, contraceptive and fertility practices and plans, and relationship progression. Her award-winning book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships , written with Sharon Sassler, looks at how these issues play out among couples who are living together unmarried.

Sharon Sassler received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University in 1995, and joined the Cornell faculty in 2005, where she is a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management.  Trained as a social demographer, Sassler’s research examines factors shaping the activities of young adults and their life course transitions into school and work, relationships and parenthood, and how these transitions very by gender, race/ethnicity, and social class. Her 2017 book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, examines how new family forms are contributing to growing levels of family inequality in the United States; it won the American Sociological Association Family Sections’ Goode Book Award in 2018.

Amy Blackstone is a professor in Sociology and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. I recently interviewed her about her new book, Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence (Dutton, 2019). Amy and her husband Lance blog at we’re {not} having a baby!.

BJR: Can you explain why you think that American needs a social movement to support childfree adults? 

AB:  It might seem strange to hear that childfree people need the support of a movement but until we live in a world where childfree people can share their status without receiving patronizing responses (e.g., “Oh, you’ll change your mind one day,” and “That’s selfish!” and “But you’re missing out on the most fundamental part of being a woman!”), where they are not immediately presumed to be less-than or to be miserable and lonely and selfish, I think a movement is needed. Beyond these stereotypes of childfree people, there are also structural, institutional issues that a movement can address. In the United States, we have a tax policy that penalizes poor working non-parents. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which was designed to lift people out of poverty by ensuring that they don’t begin owing income tax until their earnings exceed the poverty level, does not apply equally to parents and non-parents in poverty. Many non-parents begin owing income taxes while still below the poverty line. We also need to change how we think about reproductive health and who is responsible for it. For example, vasectomy is safer, more effective, and less costly than tubal ligation but vasectomy rates are half those of tubal ligation rates in the U.S, and one-fifth the rate of tubal ligation worldwide. Much of this has to do with cultural lore linking men’s fertility to masculinity, and to the belief that birth control is women’s responsibility alone. Finally, many of the childfree women and men I’ve interviewed tell me that they are often overlooked in policy and conversation about work/life balance. Though we all need and deserve balance, we sometimes forget that people without children also create family and have personal lives they need and want to nurture. 

BJR: Does your research suggest that childlessness is different for women and men, and if so, why do you think that is? 

AB: Though my research focuses exclusively on people who have made the choice not to have children, or childfree people, much of the existing research does not distinguish childfree from childless, a term that refers to people who want children but can’t or don’t for any number of reasons. In my own research on childfree people, I did find differences between women’s and men’s experiences. Women felt more pressure to become mothers than men did to become fathers, and they received more negative feedback about their choice than did men. I think that this is because of our strong cultural attachment to, and belief in, the notion of maternal instinct. We assume that women are wired to want kids, though there is no scientific evidence to support this idea. Instead, girls are taught from a very early age that motherhood is their destiny, and that it is the singular most important and fulfilling role they will have. One need only take a stroll down the “girls” aisle of any children’s toy store to see this. Boys are certainly reared to believe they will become fathers one day, but fatherhood is not presumed to be “in their nature” in the way that motherhood is for girls. 

BJR: What are the policy implications of your research on childlessness? 

AB: There are so many! As mentioned, one policy that needs to change is how the Earned Income Tax Credit works. Non-parents should have the same opportunity as parents to lift themselves out of poverty. In my book, I also describe how inheritance laws disadvantage non-parents in some states. Another area that I heard about over and over again in my interviews is work/life balance. Employers and policy makers must understand that the “life” part of that equation does not always mean kids — and this is true for parents and non-parents alike. And we need to think much more creatively about how we age and how we prepare for old age. This isn’t just an issue for non-parents; research shows that most parents do not have adult children who will provide intensive care for them as they age. We also should be educating children to understand that parenthood is a role best fulfilled when it is chosen — and that non-parenthood can be a fulfilling life path as well. Recently, policy makers and others have expressed concern over declining fertility rates among women born in the United States. What these conversations overlook is that our population is actually growing, and we have immigrants to thank for that. Rather that pushing people who don’t want to become parents into doing so, we should be looking for ways to welcome – not turn away – people who wish to immigrate to the U.S. Finally, there are many policy implications having to do with reproductive justice. Who gets to decide when, whether, how, and to how many children we become parents? These are questions that seem to be on everyone’s mind these days, and how and by whom they are answered has very real consequences for everyone, including childfree people.

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. 

Although the “gayby boom” that began in the 1990s ushered in many new possibilities—socially, legally, and politically—for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families, attention to the reproductive challenges they face has not kept pace.

In my new book, Reproductive Losses: Challenges to LGBTQ Family-Making, I explore the distinctive issues that pregnancy and adoption loss raise for LGBTQ individuals and couples. Most Americans still believe that reproductive loss is relatively rare (<5%). But according to experts:

For LGBTQ people the stakes for contending with reproductive loss are particularly high. The loss of a child during adoption or pregnancy is often intertwined with discriminatory laws and policies, homophobic/transphobic assumptions by family and/or healthcare and adoption professionals, and the rising costs associated with assisted reproductive technologies and adoption. Yet few resources exist to support LGBTQ people faced with reproductive loss.

Most support resources are aimed at heterosexual married couples (usually also depicted as white, affluent, and Christian) and books on LGBTQ family-making devote only a sidebar to discussing pregnancy or adoption loss, if they discuss it at all. When I interviewed over 50 LGBTQ people who had experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, failed adoptions, infertility, and sterility—including those who carried pregnancies, non-gestational and adoptive parents, and families from a broad range of racial/ethnic, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds—most reported feeling isolated in their experience. As one participant confided to me when we spoke, “I thought I was the only gay person ever to experience the grief of losing a child.” While the belief that they were alone is due in part to pervasive cultural silence surrounding reproductive loss generally, it is amplified for LGBTQ people by outdated assumptions about what makes a “real” parent and who should mourn reproductive loss.

This book shares their stories. It highlights LGBTQ experiences with communal support and personal resiliency, as well as the effects of encountering adversity and discrimination. The book’s open-access companion website also includes their advice for coping with loss and supporting bereaved LGBTQ people, as well as photos that participants shared of commemorative tattoos, memorials, personal remembrances, birth and death announcements, and other ways of memorializing reproductive loss: Visitors can contribute additional stories and images to this digital archive and my hope is that it can serve as an expanding resource for LGBTQ+* people and families.

Reproductive Losses and its companion website are aimed at a broad audience—including healthcare and adoption professionals, social workers and psychologists, bereaved LGBTQ families, and family and friends who support them.  As the “gayby boom” shows no signs of slowing—and spans a diverse array of families racially, socioeconomically, and religiously—developing more inclusive resources to address the reproductive challenges LGBTQ families face is essential.


Christa Craven is the incoming Dean for Faculty Development at the College of Wooster in Ohio and teaches in Anthropology and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. In addition to Reproductive Losses: Challenges to LGBTQ Family-Making (2019), she is the author of Pushing for Midwives: Homebirth Mothers and the Reproductive Rights Movement (2010) and a textbook with Dána-Ain Davis, Feminist Ethnography: Thinking Through Methodologies, Challenges & Possibilities (2016). For more information on her research and teaching, see: