A therapist colleague got a call in the middle of the night from a mom in his practice.  The woman was frantic.  Her daughter’s anger had escalated into physical attacks.  The mother had locked herself in her room – not knowing who to call.  The friend asked me if I could recommend resources that he could give the family.  He was familiar with my research and new book “Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change” which will launch on February 2nd, Rowman & Littlefield. 

Difficult is the first book to speak to and name the experience of older mothers of troubled adult children who have become the default safety-net in the face of a failed mental health system, limited substance abuse treatment, and sky-rocketing rents.  Little known face – the most likely perpetrator of what is called elder abuse is a dependent adult child living at home suffering with mental illness and/or substance use disorder.  Vulnerable adults who cannot manage, or afford to, live on their own turn to their families.  But the shared household arrangement often only benefits the adult child.  Most cases of elder abuse do not get reported in part because older parents do not want their troubled adult children to go to jail.

My work is based on several years of qualitative research with older women (all over 60) who self-identified as having adult children whose problems were negatively impacting their quality of life.  After analyzing their stories, I coined the name “difficult adult child” to capture the dilemmas that each of the women reported about the complex difficult mothering that emerged for them when their adult child who had returned home because they could no longer support themselves. The older mothers (and fathers if available) do not feel appreciated for the sacrifices they are making by re-opening their homes to their children later in life. Each mother shared with me her feelings of helplessness regarding the conflict whose needs take priority – mine or hers?   

While this book will be extremely helpful to therapists and physicians who often do not sufficiently understand the stress that older parents with difficult adult children experience, Difficult is also written for the parents of challenging adult children.  There are chapters on mental illness, substance use and family violence that offer accessible psycho-education and resources for getting help.  This is a book you can suggest to your clients. It will help them see that they are not alone. 

So many families who have adult children who are “off-time” in their development and/or engaged in deviant or stigmatized behavior, keep their adult children’s troubles secret and often blame themselves.  The book is empathic to the terrible conflicts that parents feel when their adult child’s life is stopped by mental illness and/or substance abuse problems.   Beyond allowing mothers and fathers to feel less alone, there are several chapters that offer readers a way to use the Stages of Change model applied to changingtheir  relationship with an adult child; and there is a large section devoted to resources for self-care, getting social support, and staying safe. 

  Difficult is not about “boomerang kids” who will bounce back into independent living.  Instead, the book shines a light on a large, usually unseen, population of parents who often feel that their adult children’s problems have no solution.  The book presents the deep feeling of being “torn in two” that each woman is living with.  Each felt that she had no choice but to support her adult child when they were in crisis and had invited them to move back into the family home.  As clinicians, helping women see their problem as connected to other mothers and not a result of their unique failure in parenting can be empowering. 

The book can be ordered on-line from your favorite on-line book seller.

Judith R. Smith, PhD, LCSW, is a senior clinical social worker, therapist, researcher, and professor at Fordham University. She is a leader in gerontological research focusing on women’s experiences as they age. Her book, “Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change” Rowman & Littlefield, will be available Feb. 2022.  Follow them on Twitter @JudithRSmithPhd


Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Reposted with Permission from the Gender & Society Blog.

“Um to me, being a Black girl is fighting the stereotypes that people have, like about all of us being loud and obnoxious, ghetto, ratchet, promiscuous, and all that.”

Following a Saturday morning arts-based workshop with Deborah, Christa, Unique, Philippi, and Nicole (self-designated pseudonyms), I interviewed girls about their workshop experience. I was also eager to learn about how they defined Black girlhood. Sitting upright in her seat, looking up at the ceiling and then eventually lowering her gaze to meet mine, Unique candidly shared her thoughts. She expressed frustration that despite being smart, serious about her education, and performing an unproblematic comportment, she felt unseen and overshadowed by the negative stereotypes. While it could prove useful to examine the racialized characteristics and the larger archetypes they support—like the thot, welfare queen, hood rat, and even older relics like the jezebel— it is also essential  to hear the reality that fighting is quotidian to being a Black girl.

When a Black girl is bullied and forced to choose between uninterrupted education and self-definition a fight follows. For example, when a Black girl is invited to the front of the room only to be sent back to her seat in tears with a braid missing or denied the experience of taking yearbook photos or required to remove beads in the middle of a game, a fight follows. As anti-Blackness and racialized expectations of femininity converge with loose and subjective interpretations of policies and regulations, Black girls must decide with whom or what they want to brawl. Although frequently attached to girls at each other’s throats, this truism is evidence of how Black girls’ embodiment is marked problematic, something to be policed, a reason for her confinement.


“I understand hair clips and stuff that’s like on my forehead and stuff. I understand that, cuz it applies to everybody. But ask yourself, who else wears beads? Who else wears things that hang off braids in your hair?”

On April 19, 2021, high school sophomore and softball player Nicole Pyles became the target of anti-Black and gendered microaggressions. After playing a full inning and hitting a double, her beads were suddenly an issue. Nicole’s teammates collaborated to use some bands to secure the beads, and she tucked them into her sports bra. Allowed to return to the field, she helped her team strike out their opponent until it was her turn at bat.

In Nicole’s statement during an interview with The News & Observer, she made plain that the decision to label her hair a problem at this particular moment was both unethical and unnecessary. In addition to playing the first inning of the game on April 19, Nicole had played the first four games of the tournament with no issue.

The coach of the opposing team first brought attention to her hair, claiming it obstructed her jersey number, and then an umpire gave Nicole the ultimatum to remove the beads or sit out of the game. To Nicole, these were fighting words. Appalled by the demand and aware that the call wasn’t really about following a rule, she firmly and candidly communicated, “And so I made the decision that I was gonna remove my beads and I was gonna play my game.” The groundedness of Nicole’s deliberation can be understood as a transgressive act, one wherein a boundary is crossed in the name of a benefit, a desire, and in this case, an insistence on doing what she came to do: play (and win) her game.

Only the opposing team’s coach knows his true motivations for rigidly enforcing the rules at that particular moment. However, it would not be the first time a Black girls’ adornment or expression of self has rattled others, nor the first injustice endured due to hair stylization. They changed the game on Nicole. Under pressure from the other team’s coach, the umpire decided to invoke the code, placing full responsibility and blame on Nicole and her coach in the final hour of the tournament. Perhaps they bet on her having a different response to their push, that she would get rightfully indignant, loud, or disheveled. Being a Black girl requires us to choose our opponents carefully. Nicole decided to place her undivided attention on the game and fight her battle off the field.


In the face of varying textures of injustice, Black girls are inviting us to practice reliability. While there was no physical altercation on the field, the restriction of beads in the rules and the after-the-fact argument that her number was covered by her hair revealed the foul play afoot.

From over a decade of work with Black girls, reliability emerged as a pedagogy and tenet, a way to represent Black girls and the lessons they gift. Returning to Unique’s statement about fighting stereotypes and Black girlhood, to practice reliability with Black girls requires that their self-definition is welcomed. It is to ensure that rules and policies involving their livelihood are based on actual concerns of harm. To practice Black girl reliability in Nicole’s case would have meant breaking out into the game ‘Little Sally Walker’ cheering, “Gon’ girl, do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang, switch,” because she was on her game and her beads weren’t bothering nobody.

It would have meant leaving her be and believing in Nicole’s assessment of potential injury, her hair, and the game she came to win and wanted to play. When we say Black girls’ names, let it be in exaltation. Black girls everywhere are demanding that we see the injustice in denying their flavor, especially in spaces where they aren’t expected to be or shine. It’s up to all of us to listen.

Read Hill’s piece in the #SayHerName symposium here.

Dominique C. Hill, PhD, is a Blackqueer feminist whose written and performed scholarship interrogates Black embodiment with foci in girlhood, education, and artistic expression. Hill, in research and praxis, seeks to extend the field of Black girlhood studies as an assistant professor of Women’s Studies at Colgate University.

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Reposted with Permission from the Gender & Society Blog.

Who Pulls the Purse Strings—Why Does it Matter?

How partners manage their money is a key part of everyday family life. Money management illustrates the checks and balances of power that are crucial to understanding couple relationships. As financial management provides essential access to money in the household, gender inequalities in household financial management can lead to inequalities in partners’ living standards, health, and well-being. A few recent studies have also shown that gendered dynamics of partners’ money management also matter for relationship satisfaction.

The uneven pace of the gender revolution between the public and domestic spheres presents a major puzzle for understanding how gender equality at work translates into gender equality at home. Household financial management is an important, but often overlooked, link in this translation. In my previous research, for example, I have found that women were only able to translate their earnings into a reduction in their housework time when they participate in or control financial management in the household.

Context: Changing Couplehood and the Gender Revolution

Over the past decades, couple relationships have evolved as has the gender revolution. Popular media and scholars alike have predicted a decline in partners’ material interdependence and an “individualization” of couple relationships, as women’s labor force participation and economic status increases. However, it is less clear whether the “individualization” of couplehood is also reflected in how partners manage their money. Has the gender revolution given women greater power in household finances? As couples have different economic options, it is important to explore whether and how trends of household financial management differ between low- and high-earning women and couples.

The Research

In my paper, published in Gender & Society, I have analyzed data from 11,730 heterosexual couples from a nationally representative sample of the UK population. I have examined changes in financial management for cohorts of couples born between the 1920s and 1990s.

My findings show that the gender revolution in who pulls the purse strings has followed divergent paths. Over time, low- and high-earning women have come to take more control of the finances in their relationships, but in different ways.

As high-earning women develop a sense of autonomy from their earnings and can afford the transaction costs associated with keeping separate purses, their empowerment in household finances is primarily characterized by a trend of “individualization,” as reflected in a decrease in joint financial management and an increase in independent management, such as separate bank accounts. Further, the trend of “individualization” is primarily found among men and women with about equal individual income: the decline of joint financial management is particularly prominent among women with equally high earnings as their male partners.

Women with low earnings have seen more subtle changes. More recent groups of low-earning women now keep their own spending money rather than receive a housekeeping allowance, which gives them more freedom of choice on how the money is spent.

Changes have also taken place for men. More recently, men have become less likely to adopt a “back-seat” management of the finances, where they give their partners a housekeeping allowance to manage the delegated and onerous chore of making the money stretch to cover daily expenses. Rather, men have stepped up to share the chore of everyday money management. Taken together, these trends show a subtle relaxation of male control over household finances for women with low earnings.

Implications of the Findings

My findings lead to some room for optimism. I found progress toward, but not yet full achievement of, gender equality in how couples manage their money. The tale of two (divergent) gender revolutions by social class underlines the importance of an intersectional lens on gender equality in couples.

While some sociologists have long argued that modern couple relationships increasingly incorporate the ideals of equality and individual autonomy, how these ideals are achieved differs considerably between low- and high-earning women and couples. My findings draw attention to the role played by material conditions in shaping the way gender equality is achieved in couples’ money management. I show that (income) equality between high-earning partners is at the core of the “individualization” of couple relationships.

Yang Hu(Twitter: @dr_yanghu) is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on changing gender and work-family relations and their intersections with population mobility in a global context.

Young woman with a raised fist protesting in the street

As people come to oppose one type of inequality, are they more likely to also begin to oppose other types? To find out, we analyzed nationally representative data from the General Social Survey (1977 – 2018), documenting whether shifting gender attitudes over that period coincided with changing racial attitudes. In this brief report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families we summarize the key findings of our forthcoming article in the American Sociological Review.

Racist and sexist attitudes were extremely widespread in the early 1970s. Two-thirds of Americans believed that women should devote themselves to homemaking and that they could only raise children successfully by foregoing paid employment. And among the White population, there was a widespread belief that disparities between Black people and White people resulted from individual deficiencies rather than discrimination, with only 40 percent attributing these disparities to discrimination.  

Interestingly, however, these views changed at very different rates in the ensuing years. In 1977 only a third of Americans rejected the notion that wives should stay home while husbands worked for pay, but opposition rose steadily after that point. By 2018, three-quarters rebuffed that notion. By contrast, the percentage of Americans attributing inequalities between Black and White people to racial discrimination, as opposed to in-born racial differences, actually declined for several decades, reaching a low of 32 percent in 2004, substantially below the 40 percent figure of 1977. By 2012, however, some new patterns emerged.

We identified four configurations of racial and gender attitudes over this period. We measured racial attitudes with a set of survey questions designed to capture whether individuals felt racial inequality is due to structural factors like discrimination and unfair educational opportunities, or whether it is due to individuals’ deficient motivation. We inferred people’s views on gender by using questions that measured their opinion on whether women were as suited as men for politics and whether they thought women should primarily focus on raising families while men focused on their careers. We assigned people to one of four distinct groups describing their combination of beliefs about race and gender inequality. One group held universally progressive attitudes that supported gender equality in politics and in the home, while also attributing racial inequality to discrimination rather than individual deficiencies. Another group held universally conservative attitudes that endorsed conventional gender arrangements based on male breadwinning and female homemaking alongside beliefs that racial inequality was due to individual flaws. Two remaining groups held contradictory opinions. One held progressive gender attitudes but conservative racial attitudes. The other was the converse.

Note: Racial Structuralism/Gender Egalitarian attitudes are those who support gender equality and attribute racial inequality to discrimination. New Racialism/Gender Egalitarians support gender equality but do not agree racial inequality is mainly due to discrimination. Racial Structuralism/Gender Ambivalent perspectives hold conventional attitudes about gender in the family while also acknowledging racial discrimination. New Racialism/Gender Traditionalist attitudes are conservative across race and gender, opposing gender equality and denying racial discrimination.

The bad news: For most of the past forty years, Americans’ growing understanding of gender inequality as a social problem was not matched by the same growth in their understanding of racial inequality. Although one might think recognizing inequality in one area would open people’s eyes to other inequalities, that did not happen for several decades. A very large proportion of people discarded their old prejudices about gender without shedding their prejudices about race.

Compared with people who endorsed conventional gender arrangements, people who supported women’s leadership and gender-equal divisions of household labor back in 1977 (27 percent of the population), were also quite likely to attribute racial inequality to discrimination. Of these gender egalitarians, 56 percent agreed that racial inequities were also due to discrimination and educational disparities. But as gender equality became more mainstream, the proportion of people recognizing gender inequality AND racial inequality fell. By 2004, the number of Americans supporting gender equality in politics and the home had grown to 62 percent, but only 38 percent of these gender egalitarians thought racial disparities were mainly due to discrimination, though of course the total numbers had increased. As of 2012, nearly three-fourths of survey respondents endorsed gender equality in public leadership and in the home, but six-out-of-ten gender egalitarians continued to blame racial inequality on personal flaws rather than discrimination. We refer to this combination of attitudes as New Racialism/Gender Egalitarianism.

These findings show how people can oppose inequality in one area of life but be blind to it in another. 

The good news: From 2012 to 2018 there was a growing alignment of gender and racial attitudes. After 2012, the view that racial inequality is due to discrimination and educational access became increasingly common, especially among people who supported gender equality. From 2012 through 2018 the percentage of respondents supporting gender equality and also believing that racial inequality stems from discrimination and unequal access to education rose from less than 30 percent to almost half (47 percent). Starting in 2014, and especially since 2016, people who support gender equality have increasingly adopted more progressive racial attitudes, perhaps reflecting growing overlap between anti-racism and anti-sexism. In 2018, nearly 60 percent of gender egalitarians also identified discrimination and access to education as main sources of racial inequality.

The rebound in this combination of race and gender attitudes – which we call Racial Structuralism/Gender Egalitarianism – may reflect the influence of social movements such as Black Lives Matter. It seems likely that BLM and other social movements have had a substantial effect on individuals’ perceptions of racial discrimination, particularly among people who had already come to support gender equality.

Conclusion: When people reject one type of inequality, they do not automatically reject others. Over most of the period under review, people who adopted liberal perspectives on gender were slow to see the need for policies aimed at addressing structural racism. From 1996 to 2014, the most commonly held combination of gender and race attitudes was anti-sexist but not anti-racist. Yet since 2016 the proportion of Americans who support gender equality and also feel that racial inequality stems from structural factors like discrimination has risen to almost half. This coincides with the rise of contemporary social activism, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, that advocates for racial equity along with gender equity. It is very likely that the recent increase in anti-racist attitudes among people who hold anti-sexist attitudes is related to the visibility of this movement. Our findings suggest that while individuals who hold some progressive ideals may be open to understanding parallels with other dimensions of inequality, this does not occur automatically, but in response to social activism and debate.

William J. Scarborough, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of North Texas.

Joanna R. Pepin, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Buffalo (SUNY)


The study discussed in this briefing paper is forthcoming in the American Sociological Review. We would like to recognize our co-authors Danny L. Lambouths III, Ronald Kwon, and Ronaldo Monasterio. We are also greatly appreciative to Stephanie Coontz for her vital feedback and encouragement on this briefing paper.

Parents are bombarded with advice on how they should feed their young children. Nutritional science identifies different parental feeding styles and associated health outcomes, while celebrity chefs encourage parents to produce tasty, practical and ‘homemade’ meals. Whatever their source, these messages emphasise healthiness and variation as key components of good feeding. However, despite apparent consistency in the dietary discourse, there are wide disparities in parental attitudes. Why is this the case? And why does it matter?

In my British Academy funded research, I explored how parents of toddler-aged children from different social classes understand good feeding – and how these interpretations influence their day- to-day feedwork.  I conducted go-along interviews (accompanying participants on their outings) to participate in the choosing, purchasing, cooking, feeding and cleaning up processes. My research was longitudinal; I collected my data over the course of 2 years from 12 families living in southeast England. This enabled me to observe food practices as children grow and conditions change. 

The results showed that parents from all classes consider variation to be key, but they interpret this differently according to their cultural and economic resources. For middle-class interviewees, variety is essential in cultivating a broad, autonomous, and adventurous taste repertoire. This involves continually introducing different types of food, cooking and serving styles to “educate the palate”.  Pureed baby food pouches are avoided as “banal” and “horrible,” like “cat food”.  These parents, especially mothers, devote considerable time and effort teaching their children how to appreciate “foreign” and “exotic” foodstuffs and, more generally, to achieve this sophisticated ideal of variety.

For families with fewer resources, encouraging their children to appreciate a varied diet is important because feeding “fussy children” is considered to be demanding for many reasons. This practical rationale generates very different practices. For instance, working class families tend to “hide” the foodstuffs that their children might reject in dishes that they like, so they eat them “without knowing it”. Another strategy used to minimize the risk of rejection is to allow children to watch videos or TV when eating. While these pragmatic approaches ensure that variation is delivered and sustained, they fall short of encouraging the heightened culinary agency desired by most middle class parents.

Equally, parents’ understanding of a healthy diet differs widely. Middle class parents tend to adopt a hypercritical nutritional approach, dismissing broader public health messages such as the ‘five-a-day’ rule as too simplistic. They often ignore mainstream advice after doing their own research and are more confident in offering plant-based alternatives, in line with broader environmental concerns.  The journey from soil to plate and the importance of reading food labels is also emphasised from early on. This is coupled with a strict and exclusionary definition of homemade; as something “things with no list of ingredients,”  and which “produces less plastic waste.”

Providing healthy meals is a primary concern for working class families too, but their main objective is finding a balance between food groups – and their strategies are quite different. For instance, one interviewee sprinkled refined sugar on top of fruits less favoured by her children – a tactic unlikely to be adopted by middle class parents. These families also define homemade more literally: the meal is assembled and consumed at home “properly,” regardless of the number of industrial steps involved in the production of the items prior to purchase.

Why should these interpretative differences matter? Firstly, it shows us that one-size-fits-all recommendations, devoid of any nuanced understanding of parents’ conditions, cannot generate any meaningful impact on feeding practices. If a homemade, varied, balanced, healthy diet is understood so differently, providing information and support to families using these terms is simply not helpful. Secondly, the tastes embodied through these diverse culinary socialisations are likely to yield different symbolic value  in adulthood years.  Those who possess a complex palette, a heightened sense of culinary agency and environmental awareness are likely to occupy a cultural and moral high ground, whereas those who lack them can easily be categorised as practical (food as fuel), vulgar or uncultivated. Studying the nuanced differences in feeding practices can give us a much needed insight into how class based culinary inequalities emerge and reproduce in everyday life.

Irmak Karademir- Hazır is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University, UK. Her research focuses on the lived experience of social class, cultural inequalities, and consumption practices. You can find her on Twitter @KarademirIrmak

Funding acknowledgement: British Academy Small Grant SG170135

Closeup shot of two people holding hands in comfort

The police killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain (among countless others) sparked a renewed reckoning with racial injustice in 2020. Race differences in the risk of being killed by police are striking. According to recent estimates, Black Americans are over three times more likely to be killed by the police than White Americans.

Racial inequities in mortality, however, extend far beyond police killings. Decades of research show that Black Americans live shorter lives and experience higher mortality rates for numerous causes of death beginning in infancy and continuing throughout much of later life. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has underscored such racial disparities in mortality, with one study suggesting that the odds of dying from COVID-19 are 60% higher for Black Americans compared to White Americans.

These patterns of premature mortality mean that Black Americans lose family members more often and earlier in life than White Americans, a traumatic and uniquely stressful experience that only serves to undermine the health of surviving family members even more. Thus, Black families are trapped in a vicious cycle wherein inequity in longevity leads to inequity in experiencing family loss which then exacerbates existing inequities in health. Considering the already high stress burden of living in a world built on systems of racism, researchers and policy-makers alike should consider the additional burden of premature mortality for the health and well-being of Black families.

Our recent research supported by the National Institutes of Health documents the extent of racial inequities in family loss and shows how this unequal burden adds to racial disadvantage in health and well-being. Indeed, throughout life, Black Americans are much more likely to lose a mother, father, sibling, child, and/or spouse than White Americans and to lose them at earlier ages. The differences are striking. By age 10, Black children are three times more likely than White children to lose a mother. Racial disadvantage in spouse and sibling loss follows similar patterns.

Cumulatively, this results in Black Americans being three times more likely than White Americans to experience the death of two or more family members by age 30. By age 60, this disadvantage persists, with Black Americans almost twice as likely to have lost four or more family members compared to White Americans.

Racial inequity in exposure to family loss sends ripple effects through Black families that are left to deal with the grief of losing a loved one. Such grief can have far-reaching implications for health. Research shows that losing a family member is a uniquely traumatic experience that can have lifelong psychological, social, behavioral, and biological consequences, all of which undermine health and well-being.

For example, experiencing the death of a family member increases the risk of depression and anxiety for bereaved family members, even years after the loss. Losing a family member can also result in new caregiving responsibilities as roles within the family shift. Behaviorally, individuals may self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with their grief. The chronic stress triggered by loss can even get under the skin by adding to cumulative wear and tear on physiological systems which can lead to declines in health. Together, these responses to bereavement can have detrimental effects on health, and the unequal burden of bereavement in Black families disproportionately impinges on the health of Black Americans.   

Losing a child is arguably one of the most stressful events a parent can experience. Our research suggests that Black parents are about two times more likely to lose a child by age 60 compared to White parents, a disadvantage that only grows as parents age.

The prolonged stress of losing a child can have long-lasting consequences for health. As our studies show, child loss increases dementia and mortality risks in later life for both Black parents and White parents. Dementia prevalence is already two times higher for Black Americans than for White Americans, so the higher rates of child loss for Black parents exacerbate existing racial disparities in dementia risk. Indeed, we find that Black parents who lose a child by age 40 are almost three times more likely to develop dementia over the study period than White parents experiencing the same loss.

Considering mortality risk in later life, we find that Black mothers who lose a child have 35% higher odds of dying compared to Black mothers who do not experience child loss. Likewise, White mothers who lose a child face 25% higher odds of dying than White mothers who do not lose a child. Again, Black Americans already experience higher mortality rates than white Americans, and the unequal burden of child loss adds to that disadvantage.  

The health-damaging consequences of family member deaths are not restricted to later life. A forthcoming paper from our research team explores the potential effect of family losses that occur earlier in life on Black Americans’ cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk in early-to-mid adulthood. We measure CVD risk by combining measurements of blood pressure, waist size, blood sugar, and c-reactive protein (a protein related to inflammation). Preliminary findings suggest that Black Americans, but not White Americans, face increased CVD risk in early-to-mid adulthood following the death of a parent in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood (up to age 27).

These findings show how bereavement can get under the skin to undermine health even at relatively young ages. Research consistently finds that Black Americans die from cardiovascular diseases at a higher rate than White Americans and these disparities are projected to persist (and potentially grow) in the future. Thus, our findings underscore the need to consider how unequal exposure to family member loss contributes to racial inequities in cardiovascular health.

While the grief that follows the death of a family member is not unique to any one group, higher death rates and lower life expectancy for Black Americans (a result of the long and continuing legacy of racism in the United States) means that Black families disproportionately bear this burden. As our research clearly shows, this lifetime burden of bereavement fuels stark inequities in health and well-being across the life course.

Racial inequities in exposure to family member deaths is a public health crisis that we must address. Policies and public health interventions aimed at improving the health of Black Americans could have far-reaching benefits if they recognize the unequal burden of bereavement and its impact on health. More importantly, directly reducing racial inequity in mortality rates would reduce disparities in bereavement burden and shield surviving family members from the adverse consequences of grief.

 Michael A. Garcia is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, Population Research Center (PRC) Graduate Research Trainee, and Executive Director of the Council on Contemporary Families. Her research focuses on how social relationships shape health and well-being across the life course. Her recent work has been published in Social Forces, Social Science & Medicine, and Journal of Marriage and Family. You can follow them on Twitter:@magarcia_tx

Rachel Donnelly is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on the social determinants of health across the life course, with an emphasis on stress, work, and family relationships. She also examines how disparate experiences based on gender, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity shape mental and physical health outcomes.

 Debra Umberson is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also holds a courtesy appointment in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Her research focuses on the impact of relationships on health across the life course, and gender, sexuality, and racial variation in relationship and health experiences. You can follow them on them on Twitter: @DebUmberson


American masculinity has been in a slow-moving crisis for decades. This seems bizarre in a country where men have an uninterrupted 46 and 0 streak of winning the Presidency, control 73 percent of Congress, and 92 percent of Fortune 500 companies, to say nothing of earning (depending on how you calculate it) 10 to 22 percent more per hour than women for the same work. Women making up 8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, or 27 percent of Congress may not seem like anything to cheer about, but these figures represent high water points in the US, and movement like these has led an increasing number of men to believe that they are facing discrimination on the basis of their sex. When you’ve been on top for a few hundred years, movement towards equality feels like discrimination, and in the face of that perceived discrimination, men are acting out.

This matters because so much of the way men in the US construct their masculinity is based on economic and social dominance. So, when those ways of asserting their gender identity stop being available to them, they find other sometimes novel ways to demonstrate their masculinity. Many pre-modern societies had set ways for men to show their gender identities, rituals that marked the passage between boy and man. In the US today, we still have some notion of these rituals: being a man means being married, having children (or at least the capacity to do so), and providing for that family as the primary breadwinner. The problem is that these ways of asserting masculinity are increasingly outdated, forcing men to find new ways to assert their gender identities.  

Our new book, Gender Threat, looks at the ways men assert their masculinity under conditions of threat to their gender identities. Those threats can be specific, like starting to earn less money than a spouse, or more diffuse, like the possibility of a woman being elected President. Men who see such changes as being a threat to their gender identities – and not all men do – feel the need to assert their masculinity in some other way in order to compensate.

While assertions of masculinity have been a part of political campaigns throughout US history, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for President in 2016 seems to have served as a different kind of threat to many men’s gender identities. Especially given that her run for the Presidency was set in sharp relief by the gender-based appeals of her opponent, gender identity threat among men led them to support the Republican candidate, rather than Clinton. But this wasn’t a case of men becoming more conservative in the face of threats to their masculinity – although that happens as well – as threat did not make them less likely to support Clinton’s more liberal primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Nor did the political impacts of threatened gender identity stop there: even in the 2020 primary and general elections, the effects of masculinity, and threats to it, were evident.

Many of these compensatory behaviors are socially undesirable. For instance, threats to married men’s earnings relative to women are linked to increases in reports of workplace sexual harassment. When men feel like they have lost on avenue to assert their gender identities (e.g. breadwinner status), they find another (e.g. by demonstrating their gender to other men in their workplace).

Other compensatory behaviors seem to be tied to social norms. For instance, we demonstrate that economic threat to men leads to increases in gun purchases (as measured through background checks): but the effects are much larger in states where there are already many guns in circulation. Similarly, we show that threats to gender identity in the form of questioning a man’s sexuality lead to an increase in the number of men identifying as born again or evangelical Christians. But again, this seems concentrated in certain parts of the country. Having a firearm, or saying that you’re part of a more traditional religious group might be an effective way to demonstrate masculinity, but only in areas where those signals are common enough to be recognized by others.

Men’s gender identities, and their perceptions of threats to them, shape the way that men live their lives: what housework they do or refuse to do: how much pornography they consume and what kinds; the relationships they have with their partners and their children. While this has always been the case, recent Presidential elections and resistance to public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that these aren’t personal issues, but matters of public concern.

The good news is that masculinity is flexible. Men can and have found ways to assert their gender identities that are socially desirable: they can show mastery and risk-taking by cooking exotic or challenging foods; they can focus on being parents or preserving the health of their families; or even being leaders in their community. All of these behaviors are contextual, and societies can shape the way that men express their masculinity, pushing them towards ways that benefit everyone. Studying gender is often synonymous with studying women; but we think that understanding where our society is, and where it’s going necessarily means understanding men.

Dan Cassino is a professor of Government and Politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the Executive Director of the FDU Poll. You can follow them on Twitter @DanCassino

Yasemin Besen-Cassino is professor and Chair of Sociology at Montclair State University. She also currently serves as the editor of Contemporary Sociology. You can follow them on Twitter @besencassino

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Reposted with permission from Psychology Today

  1. Blaming the parent. While it’s potentially forgivable that the general populace doesn’t yet know that a decent and dedicated parent can become estranged, there’s no excuse for a therapist failing to know that. Many therapists, without evidence, assume that the parent is the primary cause of an estrangement and as a result, perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt.
  2. Not helping the parent acknowledge the legitimate complaints of the adult child. On the other hand, some therapists believe that it’s their job to support the parent no matter how problematic their behavior. In doing so, they fail to challenge the parent’s behavior that either led to the estrangement or continues to perpetuate it.
  3. Giving bad advice. It’s not uncommon for therapists to encourage estranged parents to be overly assertive or confrontive with their estranged adult children. This advice imagines that the parent has more power and influence than they commonly do once an estrangement is in place. Therapists with this orientation fail to recognize that being more assertive and confrontive with an estranged adult child typically worsens, rather than betters the parent’s situation. It causes the adult child to feel hurt or misunderstood and to further their resolve to keep their distance.
  4. Failing to understand the power of a letter of amends to the estranged adult child. The road to a potential reconciliation almost always starts with the parent’s acknowledgment of their past mistakes, however small. Therapists who don’t help their clients find the kernel of truth in the estranged child’s complaints miss a critical and often necessary opportunity for repair.
  5. Being too reassuring. It’s common that not only friends but therapists are overly reassuring about the chance for a future reconciliation: “They’ll be back;” “They’ll remember all that you’ve done for them;” “It’s just a phase.” While sometimes those predictions are accurate, no one knows for sure if or when an estrangement will end. False reassurance is no assurance at all. Better to help the client practice radical acceptance and self-compassion.
  6. Failing to take an adequate history of the parent and their estranged child. It’s inappropriate to give advice to an estranged parent without first getting a detailed developmental history of the parent and of the now-grown child. Otherwise, a therapist wouldn’t be able to determine the influence of parental mistakes or the influence of long-standing issues in the child such as learning disabilities, mental illness, addiction, or other challenges.
  7. Failing to understand the power of a motivated son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The troubled spouse of an adult child can create an estrangement where one wouldn’t ordinarily exist by saying, “Choose them or me.”
  8. Failing to understand the long-term impact and damage of parental alienation. Parental alienation often begins when children are young, though alienation can occur at any age. Either way, research shows that the damage may be lifelong to both the targeted parent and the alienated child. Therapists who are unfamiliar with these realities may damage the self-esteem of their clients and fail to provide them with an accurate understanding of the etiology of the problems. In addition, they may provide strategies and interventions that are counter to what is likely to increase the chance of a reconciliation.
  9. Being unwilling to interview people related to the estrangement. Sometimes a 360-degree view is required before the right intervention is discovered. This may mean interviewing aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even ex-spouses to determine what steps need to be put in place to maximize the chance of a potential reconciliation.
  10. Not being willing to reach out to the estranged adult child. While the estranged child may be unwilling to talk to the parent, they are often willing to provide the parent’s therapist with information about their perspective that can prove critical to a potential reconciliation.

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is a psychologist in San Francisco and Oakland. He is also a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His book, The Rules of Estrangement was published by Penguin/Random House in 2020.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation

Young gay couple lying on bed in bedroom. Enjoying in morning. Wearing pajamas. Caucasian ethnicity, blond hair.

Sexual identities and sexual behaviours don’t always match because sexuality is multidimensional. Many people recognize sexual fluidity, and some even identify as “mostly straight.”

Fewer people know that some men and women have same-sex encounters, yet nonetheless perceive themselves as exclusively straight. And these people are not necessarily “closeted” gays, lesbians or bisexuals.

When a closeted gay or bisexual man has sex with another man, he views that sex as reflecting his secret identity. He is not open about that identity, likely because he fears discrimination. When a straight man has sex with another man, however, he views himself as straight despite his sex with men.

In my book, Still Straight: Sexual Flexibility among White Men in Rural America, I investigate why some men who identify as straight have sex with other men. Large nationally representative surveys show that hundreds of thousands of straight American men — at least — have had sex with two or more other men. This finding represents a disconnect between identity and behaviour, and researchers from around the world – in the United States, Australia and the U.K. – have studied this topic.

Do experts have something to add to public debate?

It involves two related but separate issues: first, why men identify as straight if they have sex with other men, and second, why straight men would have sex with other men in the first place.

Skirting around cheating

As part of my research, I spoke with 60 straight men who have sex with other men, and specifically looked at men in rural areas and small towns. The majority of men I interviewed were primarily attracted to women, not men. So why would they have sex with other men?

My findings revealed several reasons as to why straight men have sex with other men. Several men explained that their marriages did not have as much sex as they wanted, and while they wanted to remain married, they also wanted to have more sex. Extramarital sex with men, to them, helped relieve their sexual needs without threatening their marriages.

Tom, a 59-year-old from Washington, explained: “I kind of think of it as, I’m married to a nun.” He continued: “For me, being romantic and emotional is more cheating than just having sex.” And Ryan, a 60-year-old from Illinois, felt similarly. He said: “Even when I have an encounter now, I’m not cheating on her. I wouldn’t give up her for that.”

These men felt as though extramarital sex with women would negatively affect their marriages, whereas extramarital sex with men was not as much of an issue. Most men had not told their wives about their extramarital sex, however.

Legs together in bed
Straight men who have sex with other men are not necessarily closeted, because they do genuinely see themselves as heterosexual. (Shutterstock)

Identities reflect sexual, nonsexual aspects of life

In order to answer why men would identify as straight despite having sex with other men, it’s important to know that sexual identities indicate how people perceive the sexual and nonsexual aspects of their lives. Connor, a 43-year-old from Oregon, noted:

“I think there’s a definite disconnect between gay and homosexual. There’s the homosexual community, which isn’t a community, there’s the homosexual proclivity, and then the gay community. It’s like you can be an athlete without being a jock. And you can be homosexual without being gay, or into all of it. It just becomes so politically charged now.”

The men I talked to identified as straight because they felt that this identity best reflected their romantic relationships with women, their connections to heterosexual communities or the way they understood their masculinity. Straight identification also, of course, meant that they avoided discrimination. They felt that sex with men was irrelevant to their identities given every other part of their lives.

Living in small towns and in more rural settings also shaped how the men perceived themselves. Larry, 37, from Wyoming explained: “I would say straight because that best suits our cultural norms around here.” Most of the men I talked to were happy with their lives and identities, and they did not want to identify as gay or bisexual — not when people asked them, and not to themselves.

It may come as a surprise, but internalized homophobia was not a major reason the men I spoke to identified as straight. Most supported equal legal rights for lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Other research also shows that, on average, straight men who have sex with men are not any more homophobic than other straight men. Additionally, while most men knew bisexual is a valid identity, they felt that bisexual did not describe their identity because they were only romantically interested in women.

Many factors beyond sexual attractions or behaviours shape sexual identification, including social contexts, romantic relationships and beliefs about masculinity and femininity, among others. Straight men who have sex with other men are not necessarily closeted, because they do genuinely see themselves as heterosexual.

Sexual encounters with men simply do not affect how they perceive their identity.

Tony Silva received funding from the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN) in the form of a postdoctoral fellowship that allowed him to turn this project into a book.

Tony Silva is an assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia. You can find him on Twitter @Sociology_Silva

Cover of book

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on food and inequality in the United States. Over the past eighteen months, we’ve witnessed alarming upticks in hunger, the widening of food insecurity disparities, and sweeping efforts by the federal government to address the impacts of economic hardship on families’ diets and nutrition.

But nutritional inequality was a pressing problem long before the pandemic. The nutritional gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has existed for decades and continues to grow: while the rich continue to make gains nutritionally, the diets of lower income families have largely stagnated.

Yet despite the widespread knowledge that nutritional inequality is a crisis helping to fuel broader health disparities, we still lack an in-depth understanding of this inequality’s root causes. Indeed, the most commonly-held culprit for dietary disparities, food deserts, have disappointingly turned out to be hardly any culprit at all.

For the past decade, the food desert narrative has held that families living in food deserts, or low-income neighborhoods with a dearth of supermarkets, don’t have access to healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables), and are left with no choice but to eat the less healthy foods they can access.

But mounting research on food access and food deserts actually tell a dramatically different story. This growing body of work suggests that differences in food access account for just 10 percent of the nutritional gap between rich and poor.

If food access disparities don’t drive nutritional inequality, then what does?

This question is at the heart of my new book, How the Other Half Eats. The book draws on years of field research I conducted with families across income levels, including one hundred sixty interviews with parents and kids, and hundreds of hours of observations of families’ dietary practices.

What I learned through my time with families was that the causes of nutritional inequality go far beyond food access. It isn’t just access to healthy food that shapes families’ diets, but also food’s meanings to families.

In my book, I show how and why food means something dramatically different to mothers raising their children in poverty compared to those doing the same in affluent contexts. These different – and generally overlooked – meanings are central to the story of why families with diverging resources eat so differently.

Across the income spectrum, the mothers I met understood that junk food was not an ideal choice for kids. Most moms would have preferred their kids skip the soda and Cheetos. But I also  observed that mothers’ feeding practices and food choices for their children weren’t solely based on nutritional value. Rather, these choices often related far more to food’s symbolic value to mothers.

For low-income mothers raising their children in poverty, ongoing financial scarcity often meant having to say no to a lot of children’s food requests: no to new clothes, water park tickets, and family vacations. Within this context of no, food was often one of the few things that low-income moms could actually say yes to their kids about in daily life. There was generally always a dollar lying around that could be put toward a can of Coke or a Twix bar. Saying yes offered low-income moms a chance to offer love and affection to their children – to show their kids they were heard and cared about, and that they would work to honor their preferences. Saying yes, in turn, helped bolster low-income moms’ sense of worth; it offered them proof, in a world that so often cast them as irresponsible caregivers, that they were still good moms.

In contrast, I observed higher-income moms saying no far more often to their kids’ junk food requests. These denials were similarly rooted in food’s symbolic meaning to moms. Raising kids in affluent contexts meant that these mothers often had more things that they could say yes to their kids about on a daily basis, whether it was a new pair of jeans or a replacement for a shattered phone screen. For these mothers, because there was so much to say yes to, saying no was far less emotionally distressing. What’s more, as much as saying yes reflected low-income moms’ commitments to doing right by their kids, the same was true for their more affluent counterparts. Saying no was how these moms showed themselves and others that they were committed to their children’s diets and health – that they were good moms.

Our conversations about – and proposed solutions – nutritional inequality in this country need to take these symbolic meanings into account.

Indeed, my research suggests that it’s time to move beyond conversations narrowly focused on food access. Certainly, ensuring that every family has geographic and financial access to healthy food is key to solving this crisis. But we should consider access a necessary but insufficient prerequisite to nutritional equity, rather than the entire solution.

Instead, to close the dietary gap, can we take collective steps to help shift the meaning of food to low-income families? How can we take societal responsibility to make it so that a bag of Cheetos isn’t one of the only things a mom can offer her child amidst a backdrop of scarcity?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one solution lies in addressing poverty itself. Elevating families out of poverty – and providing them with financial security and stability – can help reduce the symbolic weight of kids’ junk food requests.

Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted that we have the power to boost families’ economically. Over the past year, we’ve seen how increases in SNAP and unemployment benefits and the wide distribution of child tax credits and stimulus checks have significantly improved families’ economic conditions – even lifted millions of families out of poverty. The resources are there to solve nutritional inequality; now it’s up to us to use them. The health and well-being of American families depends on it.

Dr. Priya Fielding-Singh

Priya Fielding-Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, where she researches, teaches, and writes about families, health, and inequality in America. Her new book, How the Other Half Eats, will be published November 16th. You can find her on Twitter at @priyafsingh.