A briefing paper prepared by Maria Cecilia Hwang, Rice University; Carolyn Choi, University of Southern California; and Rhacel Parreñas, University of Southern California, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

The Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents has generated wide public opposition, with the United Nations condemning the practice as a violation of the rights of a child. Yet family separation is a central feature of international temporary labor migration policies that promote the recruitment of migrant workers but bar them from migrating with their families.

As we explain in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender in “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration,” family separation across international borders and vast distances has become the norm for many migrant workers across the globe. In the Philippines, around 25 percent of children live apart from one or both parents while in Moldova, approximately 31 percent of children under the age of 15 are left behind by both parents. Temporary migrant workers make up half the world’s migrant population, but most are classified as “unskilled” and therefore often categorically disqualified from sponsoring their families. This policy affects temporary migrants globally, including construction workers in the Middle East; farm workers in Canada, United States, and European countries; factory workers in South Korea and Taiwan; and domestic workers across the Middle East and Asia. As a result, in the absence of jobs back home, temporary migrant workers are forced to leave their children in order to earn a living for their families.

When Moms Migrate

Globally, men and women migrate at almost the same rate, but family separation affects women in distinctive ways that reinforce gender inequality. Because societies idealize mothers as the primary caretakers of their children, migrant mothers are often vilified for abandoning their children. For instance, New York Times article described the migration of Romanian women as a “national tragedy,” blaming women for the demise of the Romanian family and children’s delinquency.

In addition, the responsibility for maintaining transnational families often rests on women. Even when fathers are left behind with children as mothers seek employment in other countries, it is generally an extended network of women, including female kin and local domestic workers, who provide most of the childcare back home. As a result, family separation creates what has been called the international division of reproductive labor, meaning the global transfer of reproductive labor from one group of women to another group of women with lesser means. As depicted in the documentary Chain of Love, women from developing countries such as the Philippines leave their own children in order to financially provide for their families by assuming the childcare responsibilities of women in more affluent developed countries; in turn, older daughters, extended female relatives, or paid local domestic workers in the home country care for children who are left behind. This transfer of care not only reinforces gender inequality but also exacerbates hierarchies among women.

Finally, maintaining split-apart families from a long distance is a double burden for women. Not only are they expected to provide financially for their families even while paying for their own subsistence in the host countries, but advancements in telecommunication technologies have also created greater expectations for migrant mothers to provide emotional care and affirm selfless commitment to their children’s well-being from afar through telephone calls, SMS messages, and Skype calls. This can be especially difficult given time zone differences. These caregiving expectations do not generally apply to migrant fathers, whose responsibilities to their children continue to be judged by their ability to financially provide for their families.

No End in Sight                                                                                

The separation of migrant families is likely to continue. The International Organization for Migration has called for the global expansion of temporary labor migration programs, championing these programs as “win-win-win” situations. Supposedly, migrant workers gain higher earnings, destination countries fill labor deficits in areas of work shunned by their citizens, and origin countries ease their unemployment problem and benefit from remittances. Ironically, this triple “win” will result in more children being separated from their parents and increased gender inequality, as women are still expected to care for transnational families. Women will continue to be burdened with the responsibility of mothering from a distance and in a different time zone, while women who stay in the home country must devote more time in providing care for left-behind children.


Maria Cecilia Hwang, Henry Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Southeast Asian Studies, Rice University, maria.c.hwang@rice.edu. Carolyn Choi, PhD Candidate, University of Southern California, carolysc@usc.edu. Rhacel Parreñas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, parrenas@usc.edu. They are authors of “Women on the Move: Stalled Gender Revolution in Global Migration” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Stephanie Coontz offers reflections on the Council on Contemporary Families brief, Hiring-related Discrimination: Sexist Beliefs and Expectations Hurt both Women’s and Men’s Career Options, by Jill Yavorsky.

VR: You edited Jill Yavorsky’s brief on hiring-related discrimination, where she reports that both men and women are stereotyped in hiring decisions–and men suffer from this, though women suffer more. How does history play a role in this? 

SC: It wasn’t until 1972 that The Equal Employment Opportunity Act prohibited job discrimination on the basis of sex, and not until 1973 did the Supreme Court definitively rule that newspapers could not sort job ads, as had been done for decades, into “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female.” I studied New York Times ads from the 1960s where employers openly stipulated that applicants must be “pretty-looking, cheerful,” “poised, attractive,” “perky,” and even “really beautiful.” No ads for females stressed analytical abilities—only ads for males did. Many employers clearly agreed with the psychiatrist who argued in a 1962 Yale Review article that most young women “are incapable of future long-range intellectual interests” before they had married and raised their children – if then.

The fact that women are now considered equally capable of handling jobs that require education, analysis, and reason is a step forward. But as Yavorsky shows, employers still tend to believe that men are best suited for challenging jobs that require physical or mental prowess. Her findings likely underestimate the full extent of discrimination because many studies find that when jobs are described as requiring stereotypically male attributes, or the majority of workers pictured in the ads are male, women are discouraged from applying in the first place.

VR: What is your view of Yavorsky’s finding that women applying to men’s middle-class jobs experience fewer barriers in getting in the door–but they appear to face significant barriers once they are at work? 

SC: This seems to be especially true in elite professions. As I point out elsewhere, the greatest wage discrimination by gender used to be in working-class and lower middle-class jobs, partly because of men’s greater rates of unionization. But as wage rates and job security in many traditional blue-collar jobs have fallen, we now see the opposite. Many women have established a firm foothold in mid-level middle-class jobs, and their wages have risen significantly. In the most elite professions, however, men’s wages have risen exponentially more, so that the biggest gender wage gaps are now at the top of the occupational ladder rather than at the bottom or middle.

Once women (and minorities) do get hired in traditionally male blue-collar jobs, they tend to be paid similar wages to men, accounting for seniority. But professional jobs where raises, promotions, and incentives rest on more subjective standards allow more free rein to sexist and racist biases.

VR: Men who apply for women-dominated working-class jobs appear to be subject to hiring discrimination, and Yavorsky suggests that as jobs shift to more service sector jobs, this could become a growing problem. Do you agree?

SC: On average, women’s wages still lag behind those of men with comparable education and experience. But more women than men have been upwardly mobile over the past 40 years, because working women have made slow but significant gains from a very low base, while men have lost many of the secure, well-paying blue-collar jobs once open to men without a college education. Between 1979 and 2007, the percentage of workers in middle-skill occupations fell, but for women the vast majority of this shift was due to their moving into higher-skill jobs as they got more experience and education. By contrast, a full half of the shift for men was into lower-skill jobs. Ironically, then, women’s historical disadvantages have incentivized many to seek more education to make a secure living, but men’s historical advantages have slowed their response to the changing job market. Many still believe they can earn a living wage without a college degree, or they assume that all female-dominated jobs will pay less and have less opportunity for advancement. As Yavorsky shows, employers exhibit the same stereotypes in reverse, discriminating against men even in – especially in — the mid-status, middle-class jobs that are expanding much more quickly than other sectors of the economy and that now pay more than many traditionally male-dominated blue-collar jobs. With most families requiring two incomes to get by, gender equality in hiring and promotion ought to be on the agenda of all people who make their living through wages, not just feminists.

Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter. 

photo by mastertux via pixabay

A short interview with Stephanie Coontz by Virginia Rutter on a new CCF study.

VR: You edited the new brief report on cohabitation trends from the Council on Contemporary Families. In it, Arielle Kuperberg reports that premarital cohabitation is more common—occurring before 70 percent of marriages. But what does this new research tell us about Americans’ intimate lives? 

SC: First of all, it adds to our understanding of how quickly the norms and dynamics of personal relationships are changing. Until 1970, couples who cohabited before marriage were 82 percent more likely to divorce than those who married directly. That extra risk is now gone. Similarly, until the 1980s, marriages in which wives had more education than their husbands had a higher risk of divorce than other couples. But since 1990 that extra risk has also disappeared. Despite constant claims to the contrary, it is no longer true that marriages where the wife earns more than her husband are at higher risk of divorce. Finally, couples where the wife did most of the childcare and housework used to report better sex lives than couples with a more egalitarian division of labor. Now the opposite is true.

Within couple relationships there are many signs of growing equality. But that leads to a second contribution of the paper, which illustrates the growing inequality among couples on the basis of higher education, and in turn on their prospects for earning a family wage.

VR: Cohabitation looks like it is useful and valuable to many—as Kuperberg shows in the reversal of that out-of-date link between cohabitation and divorce. (See her awesome Figure 3 for a visual of the reversal!) But some people don’t want to cohabit. What do you think of Kuperberg’s findings about religion, escalating inequality, and access to “direct marrying”?

SC: Despite the widespread social acceptability of premarital cohabitation, a minority of Americans, especially those with strong religious beliefs, continue to disapprove of the practice and prefer to marry directly. Kuperberg highlights the painful dilemmas facing those who hold more traditional values but lack the resources to act on them. While two-thirds of religiously-observant women with a BA or higher did not cohabit before marriage, this was true of only 14 percent of equally observant women who did not attend college — and of just three percent of religiously-observant women without a high school diploma. As Kuperberg suggests, this is almost certainly not because of different values but of different options.

I agree that this gap likely reflects the difficulties that less-educated couples face in meeting the increasingly high economic bar for marriage. And it is especially troubling that the gap used to be just between the least-educated women and everyone else but is now greatest between the most-educated women and everyone else. The same escalating inequality between the most highly-educated Americans and others who work just as hard but are paid drastically less is also seen in rates of non-marriage and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

This divergence is likely to continue, given recent evidence that, as yet, the only group to have recovered fully from the Great Recession is people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

VR: So what do you make of that? Growing equality within couples, and growing inequality between couples?  

SC: For one thing, it means that much family instability results not from people’s different values or “culture” but from their inability to meet the high interpersonal and economic expectations of marriage that most Americans now embrace. I am thinking of the economically insecure people who move in together rapidly and then don’t move on to marriage, resulting in a lot of churning; the growing numbers of people who are not seen as marriageable by others due to poor job prospects or low wages (low-income men right now have the worst marriage prospects); youths who lack the kind of life opportunities that give them incentives and tools to defer childbearing.

For another thing, when people feel that they are being excluded from the American Dream, they often embrace short-term coping mechanisms or compensating behaviors that make their personal lives and relationships even more difficult. And with higher wage inequality, fewer work-family protections, and a weaker social safety net than other advanced industrial economies, the U.S. imposes exceptionally heavy penalties on people who become single parents or do not complete higher education, leading to lower rates of social mobility – and higher rates of personal problems. As I’ve written elsewhere, the long-standing American myth that individuals succeed purely on their own, on the basis of their personal “grit,” actually undermines people’s ability to establish families that can thrive.


Stephanie Coontz is author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Follow her at @StephanieCoontz. Virginia Rutter is co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

Reprinted from Psychology Today

This column is another in the series of articles based on the new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender  edited by Barbara J. Risman, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough.

What do diapers, depression, and mothers have in common? That may seem like a trick question but the answer has implications for American social policy. Middle-class parents simply take for granted that diapers cost money, one of the many expenses of having a baby. But for poor mothers, who are often single parents, diapers, or rather running out of them, becomes a crisis that can trigger psychological stress, perhaps even postpartum depression. While parents are raising the next generation of American workers, we continue to ignore their needs, and pretend that every family has enough breadwinners to cover their basic necessities. But we know that single mothers, often struggling to live in poverty, face great obstacles. Our social safety net doesn’t provide them with security, and the jobs available to women without college degrees can’t support their families, even if they work so many hours a week they barely see their children. Perhaps poor mothers are the women in our society that are most disadvantaged by gender inequality.

To illustrate this, we introduce you to Patricia, a 32-year-old mother of three. She receives cash aid on the 2nd of each month and immediately buys the 120-count box of store-brand diapers at her local supermarket for $30. “It’s the thing we buy first because it’s the thing we can least do without,” she explained. Though she is grateful that the cheapest diapers do not give her daughter Sofia a rash, she worries that they hold less and leak more. Patricia stretches the box as far as possible. She lets 18-month-old Sofia go without diapers at home, closely monitors and minimizes Sofia’s liquid intake, rarely leaves the house, and “prays she doesn’t get sick because that means more diapers.” When that box runs out, Patricia can usually scrounge up enough change for the smaller $4.25 pack by collecting cans, selling some food stamps, or breaking her four-year-old son’s piggy bank with a promise to replace it. When she cannot, Patricia uses paper towels secured with duct tape. A victim of domestic abuse, Patricia has post-traumatic stress disorder and often goes without food, toilet paper, and tampons to save diaper money because she told Randles: “The kids come first. Providing those diapers means I’m a good mother who keeps them away from my trauma and money problems.”

Patricia’s struggle is not rare. Diaper need—lacking sufficient diapers to keep an infant dry, comfortable, and healthy—is an often hidden consequence of poverty that affects one in three families in America. A Yale University study in 2013 found that mothers like Patricia who don’t have enough diapers for their children were almost twice as likely to struggle with postpartum depression. Though the Yale study could not determine if diaper need caused post-partum depression, mothers Randles recently interviewed help us understand the connection. As Trista, a 28-year-old mother of three confided, “I experience extreme anxiety when I use a diaper. It’s worse than worrying about food because I can always eat less, be creative in the kitchen, and go to food banks. But when you run out of diapers, your child can’t do one of their most basic human things in a dignified and clean way. It more than anything makes me feel like a horrible failure as a parent.” Trista sold her blood plasma twice a week for four months solely to buy diapers for her two youngest children.

Forty-five percent of U.S. children younger than three—5.2 million—live in low-income or poor families that struggle to provide diapers as a basic need of early childhood. Yet, for the most part, U.S. social policy does not recognize diapers as a necessity. Diapers are categorized as luxury “unallowable expenses” under public programs that provide food for young children, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Though parents can use welfare cash aid for diapers, the $75 average monthly diaper bill would alone use between eight to forty percent of the average monthly state benefit. Only one state—California—currently offers diaper vouchers for welfare recipients, and most states still tax diapers based on the logic that, unlike drugs such as Viagra, diapers are not medically necessary.

This oversight is not unique. Most policy in the United States ignores the bodily needs of women and children. Most states also still tax feminine hygiene products. Diaper need and how mothers like Patricia and Trista manage keeping their babies clean and dry are deeply gendered issues. Mothers do most of the physical labor of diapering. Beyond this, poor mothers are more likely to be single mothers, and so do most of the planning and emotional labor for their children. But even mothers with partners told Randles about the stress of the cost of diapers and the work of managing diaper need. When Randles talked to middle-class mothers about how many diapers they had on hand, they casually responded with answers like, “a few boxes in the closet, an extra pack or so in the car, and drawers full near each of the changing tables.” Poor mothers were more likely to respond as Patricia did when she said, “I have seven in the house, two in my purse, and one that I’ve hidden in case of a dire emergency. Based on how often my daughter goes to the bathroom and the likelihood that she’ll pee twice as often as she poops, I know those ten diapers will last me exactly two days before I run out and have to figure out how to get more.” This degree of specificity was perhaps most telling about how diaper need can cause anxiety for poor mothers. The problem is not just that they have fewer diapers, but the amount of stress involved in calculating, saving, and sacrificing to stretch limited diaper supplies as far as possible. Diapers are not a luxury. The taken-for-granted ability to buy ahead, stock up, and not give much thought to running out certainly is.

The near political invisibility of diaper need and mothers’ efforts to manage it reflect what Risman calls the gender structure, or how gender inequality affects all aspects of our of  lives. Women’s continued primary responsibility for unpaid care, including diapering, remains a linchpin of inequality. As a society we continue to devalue the care of others. For poor mothers, most likely to be single, the social, economic, and political devaluation of care creates an overwhelming burden. By failing to account for the real needs of families, parents, and children, social policies enforce gender inequality and lead to children’s suffering. In the United States, we pretend as if individual parents alone should be responsible for children. Parents are tasked with meeting all the practical and emotional needs of families. But we need a village to support today’s children, especially those born into poverty. Policies intended to support families must take into account that mothers, often by themselves, are the ones struggling to keep their children fed, dry, clean and clothed. The invisibility of the need for diapers provides a clear case of how ignoring gender inequality in social policy can have disastrous effects for women, and their children. We’ve successfully confronted similar problems before through targeted gender policies such as WIC that recognize the basic needs of mothers and their families. For the sake of Patricia, Trista, and the millions of mothers like them, it’s time we do it again with diapers.


Jennifer Randles is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Fresno State. 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 an opinion piece I recently wrote for CNN on the midterm election results, I argued that although the gender gap in support for Democrats remains huge, what should really worry the GOP is that the gap is narrowing. I add new evidence about the midterm results in this blog.

This November, American women voted for Democrats over Republicans by an unprecedented margin of 19 points, twice the margin by which they favored Democrats in 2016. The gap between male and female voting preferences was 23 points. Yet this gender gap was only one point higher than in 2016, because although women have moved faster and further than men, this November a significant section of men moved in the same direction – away from the racism, sexism and fear-mongering promulgated by Trump and his enablers.

Focusing narrowly on the size of the gender gap over the past two years not only understates the setbacks the GOP has experienced with men. It also obscures significant changes in the racial and class make-up of Democratic voters. In 2016, the Democratic advantage with female voters was largely due to the votes of nonwhite women. Overall, white women favored Republicans by 12 points. Only a bare majority of white female college graduates (51 percent) voted for Hilary Clinton; a large majority of white women without a college degree chose Trump. This November, by contrast, 59 percent of college-educated white women voted Democrat, and although the majority of white working-class women still voted Republican, they increased their support for Democrats by 13 points, enough to create an even split in votes for Democrats and Republicans among all white female voters.

White males without a college degree remained strongly Republican, but their support was much less solid than in 2016. In Michigan and Wisconsin, the Republican margins of victory among white men without a college degree were at least 20 points lower than two years ago.

Meanwhile, in the highest youth turnout in 25 years, more than two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds voted Democratic, producing a record-breaking victory margin of 35 percentage points for Democrats.

Breaking down the vote by age sheds a different light on white voters’ preferences, countering the idea that whites are inescapably tethered to the GOP. One 2018 exit poll found that whites aged 18 to 29 favored Democrats by a margin of 13, while whites aged 30 to 44 moved from a majority for Republicans in 2016 to an even split. A different study showed whites aged 30 to 44 moving from a 21 point margin for Republicans in 2014 to a 9 point margin for Democrats in 2018.

For those of us concerned about how best to counter the newly emboldened racists and misogynists in America, the midterm results are not all good news. In Georgia, white women without a college degree voted for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, at a higher rate than their male counterparts. In fact, a higher percentage of these women voted for Kemp than they did for Trump two years earlier.

Additionally, in several conservative states the polarization that elsewhere turned many voters off the GOP resulted in gains for rightwing candidates, with rural, conservative, and evangelical voters mobilized by issues such as the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. In Missouri, the incumbent Democrat Claire McClaskill went down to defeat after losing ground in every rural county compared to her previous two campaigns. In North Dakota and Texas, significant numbers of voters said that the candidates’ position on Kavanaugh was an important factor in their vote, and of those who said this, more than 60 percent voted Republican.

Even where Democrats won big, the “blue wave” is unlikely to wash away the economic, racial, and gender inequalities that long predated Trump and his Tea Party supporters. Suburban liberals tend to be supportive of same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and equal opportunities for women and racial minorities, but reluctant to tamper with the educational, financial, occupational, and regulatory institutions that perpetuate their advantages in a stratified society.  As Lily Geismer points out, they are especially concerned with preserving higher property values and lower taxes. Thus, while voters in all 7 Congressional districts of the formerly solidly Republican Orange County, CA, elected Democrats, they also voted for an initiative to repeal a gas and diesel tax designed to support public transportation (an initiative that failed statewide) and against a measure to make housing more affordable.

Nevertheless, the elections show that people’s views can change and that we should not write off everyone who voted for Trump or whose anxieties about social and economic change have fanned their racist or sexist biases. We will never win over hardcore racists or misogynists, but in many people, racial and gender prejudices coexist with a more general endorsement of fairness, and their biases can be overcome — or at least neutralized — by the kind of persuasive efforts that so many candidates and progressive activists put into this election. As evidence, consider Georgia, where gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – a Black woman – did better among college-educated white women than Hilary Clinton did in 2016, winning 43 percent of their vote, compared to the mere 34 percent that Clinton garnered. And although voters in Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, and Missouri elected Republicans, they voted respectively to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions, to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, and to reduce partisan gerrymandering.

Furthermore, while race-baiting, immigration fear-mongering, and hostility to feminism have fired up conservative Republicans, they have moved many Democrats to be more supportive of racial and gender justice than they were in the past. And many people who tolerated racism and sexism in the candidates they voted for in 2016 seem to be rejecting such candidates today. Political scientist Brian Schaffner found that in 2016 a voter’s approval or disapproval of hostile sexism had little predictive power on whether he or she voted for a Republican House candidate. But this November, Schaffner reports, “less-sexist voters punished Republican House candidates in a way they did not in 2016.”

Similarly, while the 2016 Trump campaign benefited from an influx of new white voters mobilized by hostility to immigrants, Blacks, and Muslims, in 2018 the GOP did not win enough new converts on these issues to counter the loss of voters they offended. Evidently the GOP has already cornered the market on racists and misogynists. It is now losing ground among people whose prejudices, while still real, are not so carved in stone.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She also serves as Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit, nonpartisan association of family researchers and practitioners based at the University of Texas at Austin. The author of 7 books on families, marriage, and gender relationships, she has published dozens of articles in the NYT and elsewhere, as well as in scholarly journals such as Journal of Marriage and Family. She is the recipient of CCF’s first and only “Visionary Leadership Award,” The Families & Work Institute’s “Work-Life Legacy” Award, and other awards from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Illinois Council on the Family, and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.

Kwanzaa altar


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Is This About More Than Just My Family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of new book by Rosanna Hertz and Margaret Nelson


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

A Research Brief Prepared for the University of Texas at Austin Population Research Center

End-of-life planning enhances the quality of later-life caregiving, health, and death. Ideally, informal planning—conversation with loved ones about future care and end-of-life preferences—and formal planning—wills, healthcare proxies, advance care directives, and other legal documents—begins long before the end of life process. Planning is most beneficial when implemented in midlife before people are confronted with debilitating conditions or difficult decisions. Yet only about one-fourth of adults in midlife have advance care directives.

The institution of marriage, particularly heterosexual marriage, involves socially established and legally sustained patterns of norms, roles, values, and behaviors that provide spouses with informal guides to their roles and obligations. Yet norms about husbands and wives taking care of each other “in sickness and in health” may interfere with actually discussing and planning such care prior to serious illness or infirmity. Indeed, studies repeatedly show that heterosexual married couples often do not know each other’s wishes, do not always provide care for each other or receive adequate care from children and extended family, and sometimes even face interference from families.

On the other hand, the institution of marriage is less-established for same-sex couples—marriage only recently became a right and the spouses do not necessarily conform to the marital norms often seen in different-sex couples—which may change the incentives for end-of-life planning. For example, same-sex couples may be less likely to expect end-of-life care from a spouse and therefore be more likely to discuss their expectations for the end of life. In addition, same-sex spouses may worry about encountering discrimination that could lead to family interference and lack of family support and therefore take proactive steps to protect themselves at the end of life. Conversely, they may be wary of going to a lawyer or asking for help from family members because of those same fears of discrimination.

Therefore, formal and informal end-of-life planning unfolds differently for same-sex and different-sex spouses due to different incentives and disincentives that result from the institutional aspects of marriage and higher levels of discrimination against sexual minorities.

The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 90 spouses at midlife in 45 gay, lesbian, and heterosexual marriages. All respondents were Massachusetts residents at the time of the study (2012–2013); Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2004. At the time of the interviews, same-sex marriage was not federally protected and was not legal in the majority of U.S. states.

Key Findings

  • Informal planning conversations and formal end-of-life plans differ for same-sex and different-sex couples. Same-sex spouses devote considerable attention to both informal and formal end-of-life planning, while heterosexual spouses report minimal informal or formal planning. Two key motivators explain this difference:
    • Weaker legal protections for same-sex relationships: Greater engagement in end-of-life planning among gay and lesbian couples has been largely motivated by the weaker legal protections around same-sex relationships, especially prior to legalization of same-sex marriage across the U.S.
    • Concerns about family interference and a lack of family support:
      • Same-sex couples—especially lesbian couples—expressed concerns about family interference and about a lack of support from extended family at the end of life.
      • Heterosexual couples were largely unconcerned about the potential for extended family going against their end-of-life wishes. Therefore, heterosexual couples may be unprepared if they do encounter family interference.
  • Couples have different assumptions about what their spouse knows and what family will do at the end of life.
    • Heterosexual couples tended to assume that their spouses knew their wishes and that family members (especially adult children) would provide end-of-life care.
    • Gay and lesbian couples did not make these same assumptions and instead relied on multiple explicit conversations with spouses and friends about their plans and wishes.
      • Same-sex couples often created plans for multiple hypothetical scenarios and worked with lawyers to put legal protections in place.
      • Most gay and lesbian couples did not discuss being concerned about lack of family support. Rather, they talked about building strong friendship networks and having explicit conversations with those friends about providing future care.

Thomeer brief figure

Click here to expand figure

Policy Implications

The norms and expectations of heterosexual marriage serve as disincentives for different-sex couples to plan for later-life care and end of life. On the other hand, while gay and lesbian couples may be better prepared for death, their greater planning for end of life may reflect valid concerns about the need for more protection. Recent state initiatives—such as Florida’s proposed bill that would allow hospices to refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults—indicate that the end of life may actually be a time of heightened discrimination for gay and lesbian couples. Initiatives should aim towards more equality at the end of life. Indeed, policymakers should develop end-of-life planning incentives for all—as well as those not in long-term relationships—which would have the potential to increase well-being for the dying and the bereaved.


Thomeer, M.B., Donnelly, R., Reczek, C. & Umberson, D. (2017). Planning for Future Care and the End of Life: A Qualitative Analysis of Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Couples. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 58(4):473-487.

Suggested Citation

Thomeer, M.B., Donnelly, R., Reczek, C. & Umberson, D. (2018). Same-sex couples devote more attention to end-of-life plans than heterosexual couples. PRC Research Brief 3(8). DOI: 10.15781/T2RF5KZ8Q.

About the Authors

Mieke Beth Thomeer (mthomeer@uab.eduis an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Rachel Donnelly is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Corinne Reczek is an associate professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Population Research at The Ohio State University; and  Debra Umberson is a sociology professor and director of the Population Research Center at UT Austin. Thomeer and Reczek are also former Population Research Center NICHD Predoctoral Trainees.


This research was supported, in part, by an Investigator in Health Policy Research Award to Debra Umberson from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; grant R21AG044585 from the National Institute on Aging (PI: Debra Umberson); grant P2CHD042849 awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and grant T32 HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, awarded to the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

We have a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family about cohabitation and marital dissolution (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2018). You can find the prepublication version of our paper here or linked from Rosenfeld’s website here. We used the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), and we found, as many other researchers have found, that premarital cohabitation is associated with a higher risk of marital dissolution at ten years’ marital duration. We also discovered that in the first year of marriages, couples who had cohabited before marriage had a lower rate of marital dissolution, presumably because the cohabiters had the benefit of experience at living together.

Kuperberg’s blog post argues for a specific operationalization of age of relationship’s initiation. For married couples who did not cohabit before marriage, she defines the age at marriage as the beginning of the relationship. For couples who cohabited before marriage, she defines the age at cohabitation before marriage as the age of relationship initiation. Since cohabitation precedes marriage (for those who cohabited before marriage), Kuperberg defines the cohabiters as having an earlier relationship start. The earlier relationship start, in her view, explains away the difference in later divorce rates (and see also Kuperberg 2014 where a similar argument is made). Kuperberg’s way of operationalizing the age of relationship initiation is not standard in the scholarly literature on cohabitation and divorce, but it is interesting and worth examining.

The earlier people marry, the less time they have to gather information about potential partners, and the less time potential partners have to gather information about them (Oppenheimer 1988). People who marry later are more established in their careers and presumably more mature at the time of marriage. Earlier age at marriage is associated with higher subsequent rates of divorce.

Since premarital cohabitation typically precedes marriage by a year or two, the age at first cohabitation is earlier than the age at first marriage. Nonmarital unions have much higher breakup rates than marital unions (Cherlin 2009; Rosenfeld 2014). Expectations of sexual exclusivity are different before and after marriage. In the NSFG data it is unknown when relationships started, when couples made the promise to marry, or when (if ever) couples first made the promise of sexual exclusivity. It is safe to assume that most couples who married but did not cohabit before marriage had a period of engagement before marriage, but the length of that engagement is unknown in NSFG. The age at first marriage (for couples who did not cohabit before marriage) is therefore not functionally the same point in the relationship, in terms of commitment and search and exclusivity, as the age at first cohabitation (for couples who cohabited before marriage).

For couples who did not cohabit before marriage in Kuperberg (2014), their cohabitation began when the marriage began. Treating the beginning of the cohabitation as the age when the relationship started would be consistent (for cohabiters and for non-cohabiters) if the outcome variable included breakups of cohabiting couples as well as breakups of marriages. In Kuperberg (2014), the outcome is divorce, meaning only married couples were at risk for breakup in Kuperberg’s analyses. Cohabiting couples started their relationships earlier but were not at risk of divorce until they were married. Using age at first cohabitation as the age the relationship started in combination with an outcome variable that ignores cohabitation breakups potentially biases the effect of cohabitation to be less associated with marital dissolutions. This is why Kuperberg’s analyses show no effect of premarital cohabitation on later risk of divorce.

If the NSFG included a similar commitment age for the non-cohabiters, perhaps the age at which the couple were engaged to be married, then the age of commitment to marry could be consistently controlled for across the subsamples of cohabiters and non-cohabiters. Unfortunately, NSFG did not include consistent measures of age at engagement for all women who subsequently married.

We agree with Kuperberg that controlling for age of first cohabitation or age at first marriage (whichever came first) appears to lower the effect of premarital cohabitation on later risk of divorce. Depending on what other controls are included, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and later divorce can be reduced to zero. We don’t agree that Kuperberg’s approach is the correct or the only reasonable approach.

Table 1: Replacing age at marriage with age at first cohabitation or marriage

M1: Original Model, Rosenfeld and Roesler (2018) Table 2, Model 5 M2: Replacing age at marriage (categorical) with first age of cohabitation or marriage (categorical)
Log odds ratio coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s effect on the marital dissolution rate (SE in parentheses) 0.29*** (0.03) 0.16*** (0.03)

Source: NSFG data on first marriages for women age 44 and under, NSFG wave 1988 and later.

Note: Additional controls not reported above: marital duration  (1df), year of marriage (1df) marital duration first calendar year dummy variable (1df), premarital cohabitation interacted with first year of marriage (1df), age at marriage for M1 (for M2 and M3, age at first cohabitation with spouse) (categorical, 3df), presence of children under 18 (1df), calendar decade (5df), educational attainment (3df), race (2df), stable family of origin (1df), mother’s education (3df), NSFG wave (5 df). N of couple-years is 216,455. N of couples is 24,888.

*** P<0.001; ** P<0.01; * P<0.05; + P<0.10, two tailed tests.

Table 1 starts with the association between premarital cohabitation and later odds of marital dissolution from Rosenfeld and Roesler’s (2018) Table 2, Model 5. The log odds ratio coefficient was 0.29, and highly significant, indicating couples who cohabited before marriage had an odds ratio of marital dissolution of e0.29=1.33 times higher, after the first year of marriage, compared to couples who never cohabited before marriage. If we replace age at marriage with age at marriage or age at first cohabitation (whichever came first), then the coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s association with marital dissolution drops from 0.29 to 0.16, but remains statistically significant.

Table 2: Replacing age at marriage with age at first cohabitation or marriage, while also controlling for nonmarital cohabitations

Original Model, Rosenfeld and Roesler (2018) Table 3, Model 4 Replacing age at marriage (categorical) with age of cohabitation or marriage (categorical)
Log odds ratio coefficient for premarital cohabitation’s effect on the marital dissolution rate (SE in parentheses) 0.13*** (0.03) -0.01 (0.03)

Source: NSFG data on first marriages for women age 44 and under, NSFG wave 1995 and later.

Note: Additional controls not reported above: marital duration (1df), year of marriage (1df) marital duration first year dummy variable (1df), premarital cohabitation interacted with first year of marriage (1df), age at marriage or age at first cohabitation (categorical, 3df), presence of children under 18 (1df), calendar decade (4df), educational attainment (3df), race (2df), stable family of origin (1df), mother’s education (3df), NSFG wave (4 df), nonmarital cohabitation (2df). Premarital cohabitation is cohabitation with the woman’s first husband before marriage. Nonmarital cohabitation is prior cohabitation with men other than the man who would later become the woman’s first husband. N of couple-years is 167,723. N of couples is 19,777.

*** P<0.001; ** P<0.01; * P<0.05; + P<0.10, two tailed tests.

Table 2 adds additional controls for nonmarital cohabitation. If we control for nonmarital cohabitations, which are much more strongly associated with marital dissolution than are premarital cohabitations (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2018; Teachman 2003), the association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution is reduced to a log odds ratio coefficient of 0.13. The smaller association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution in Table 2 (compared to Table 1) allows us to replicate Kuperberg’s central finding. In Model 2 of Table 2, controlling for age at first cohabitation reduces the association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution to zero.


While we agree that using the age of first cohabitation instead of the age of first marriage can reduce the apparent association between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution to zero, we do not agree that this is the best or the only reasonable approach. As we are examining marital dissolution (rather than relationship dissolution), the beginning of the marriage is a start time that has consistent meaning for all couples whether they cohabited before marriage or not. The beginning of cohabitation (for couples who cohabited before marriage) is not the same relationship decision point as the beginning of the first marriage (for couples who did not cohabit before marriage). Whether one chooses to control for the age at marriage or the age at first cohabitation depends on one’s substantive interpretation of the meaning of relationship milestones. We appreciate Kuperberg’s thoughtful and innovative work. We disagree with her conclusions, because we do not think that age at first cohabitation is a consistent relationship milestone for couples who did and who did not cohabit before marriage.


Cherlin, Andrew J. 2009. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. New York: Knopf.

Kuperberg, Arielle. 2014. “Age at Coresidence, Premarital Cohabitation, and Marriage Dissolution: 1985-2009.” Journal of Marriage and Family 76:352-369.

Oppenheimer, Valerie Kinckaid. 1988. “A Theory of Marriage Timing.” American Journal of Sociology 94:563-591.

Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2014. “Couple Longevity in the Era of Same-Sex Marriage in the US.” Journal of Marriage and Family 76:905-918.

Rosenfeld, Michael J., and Katharina Roesler. 2018. “Cohabitation Experience and Cohabitation’s Association with Marital Dissolution.” Journal of Marriage and Family.

Teachman, Jay. 2003. “Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution among Women.” Journal of Marriage and Family 65 (2):444-455.



The stories that news headlines tell might suggest that parenting in contemporary society consists of scrutinizing how much helicoptering is too much, worrying about screen time, and lamenting the vast chasms of inequality that result in so many different kinds of childhoods. Many of these stories are true, some are based on rigorous social scientific research, and a few may even call people into action to create social change so that parents and children thrive rather than suffer. But if all we did was examine what’s going on with parenting today by looking at news media, we’d miss important new research findings that complicate all of the often-oversimplified headlines.

Because I was dissatisfied with how I saw parenting depicted in our social and news media feeds, I gathered a group of stellar researchers and practitioners to tell a detailed, timely, and untold story about the topics contained in the headlines. The result is a book that I edited entitled Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research. Each chapter, authored by stellar researchers and practitioners in sociology, psychology, and economics, starts with a provocative news headline, and then delves into what the research says about how parenting is really happening in contemporary society. Imagine a headline saying “This is bad for your kids!” Now imagine a fantastic collection of chapters that scrutinize what “this” means, what “bad” means, and whose kids we’re really talking about. This post summarizes the key general takeaways from this new collection of research findings, with links to the web pages of authors whose work is featured.

Let’s start with the notion that parents are evaluated more than ever, and more visibly than ever, based on how much (and what kind of) effort and intentionality they use in their parenting. The concepts of helicopter parenting, intensive parenting, and concerted cultivation need to be complicated (and actually, differentiated from each other) in light of new research findings, even as the existence of helicopter parenting constitutes a type of moral panic (albeit one that reproduces privileges among those elite parents who preserve their privilege to hover even if they’re critiqued). If we only focus on some sort of universal hovering technique of all parents in all places, we miss variations within families (maybe each child requires different hovering techniques, maybe each developmental stage does, too). And we miss the fact that age of children and parents matter (maybe some parents’ efforts to hover enough so that kids thrive into their adulthood may end up making those kids be so successful that they fail to come home for the holidays, thus oddly disappointing the aging parents). So, not all hovering looks the same, is performed the same way, or has the same impact.

When it comes to how well parents are doing, there’s plenty of research out there that examines the fact that parents are less happy than non-parents, some of which is interrogated in the book. What’s important to add to this is an elaboration that it is due to a lack of available family friendly policies that this gap is particularly pronounced in the U.S. And even in countries where progressive policies may be enacted, there can be a cultural lag whereby people are reluctant to take advantage of the policies for fear of being stigmatized. And what about time that parents may be able to spend doing leisure activities? Turns out that overall leisure has declined and a bigger share of mothers’ leisure time is now spent with children. So, the story we can tell about parental well-being in the U.S. especially is that we lack supportive policies, and even in the face of supportive policies, gendered cultural values about who is supposed to parent impact likelihood to take advantage of policies as well as who gets to be present during leisure activities that are not part of the calculation of work-family balance.

Any story of contemporary parenthood requires a focus on social inequalities. In addition to the gender inequalities noted above, any family studies book will highlight how parents’ and children’s lives are impacted differently based on group status. Of course socioeconomic status impacts parents’ access to valuable resources. But parents and teachers also play a role in how children interpret their own living conditions, including when children living in poverty may have mixed ideas from, on one hand, family and neighbor stories about how hard it is to make ends meet, and on the other hand, teachers’ voices saying how important it seems to work hard to get out of poverty or fellow classmates’ voices talking about how important it is to have the latest video game or shoes. In addition to social class, one of the ways that intentional efforts by parents to turn their parenting into a concerted project that has been largely absent from past research relates to immigrant status. For example, visa restrictions that disallow paid employment impact how much parenting becomes an intense part of life that otherwise would be filled with paid employment in a home country. And what about immigration as it may relate to adoption? When we think about becoming parents, it is more crucial than ever to remember that crossing national borders in an adoption process can also occur when immigrant parents are deported and children are left behind to be fostered, a situation that challenges traditional notions of children’s rights and parenthood. Clearly race and immigrant status matter in the lived experiences of today’s parents and children. In fact, talking about race with children varies depending on parents’ race. White parents are more likely than non-White parents to avoid talking about race with their kids, in part because they have the privilege to ignore this – a result of still-present colorblind ideology. As more conversations occur about privilege in our society, it will be important to investigate how and whether this racialized form of parent-child communication may change. And finally, when it comes to inequality, the notion of who is legally allowed to partner and parent matters. Since same-gender marriage is legal, researchers will need to continue to investigate ways that children of these parents are faring well (which they are). This is especially crucial, because, despite the legality of family formation in this way, cultural values associated with heteronormativity and repronormativity prevail, even when people imagine their own LGB children’s future parenting and family lives.

In no uncertain terms, and despite unequal access to resources, cultural support, or family-friendly policies, people still overwhelmingly want to parent, and they want to see their children become parents, too. Importantly, in all of these research findings, the specific groups studied have experiences that intersect with other inequalities. It is never just about class, citizenship, race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. It is always about all of these.

What a rewarding adventure it has been to be the curator of this collection of new takes on not-so-new questions about parenting and parenthood, all of which have been presented here in a far-too-cursory manner. If family scholars and practitioners wish to have their work be part of the national (and international) conversation about what’s best for families, look no further than the latest research that these authors have conducted.

But always look beyond the news headlines.

Michelle Janning is Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences, and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College. Her research connects material culture and spatial design with family roles and relationships. She is the author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2018), and is the editor of Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research (Praeger, forthcoming). In the book discussed in this post, Janning also includes a chapter on the role of technology in contemporary parenting. Her work is featured at www.michellejanning.com.