Institute for Family Studies Blog https://ifstudies.org/blog The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) is dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education. Friday Five 285 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-285 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-285 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Study: Well-behaved Kindergarteners Earn More as Adults
Amelia Harper, Education Dive

7 Secrets of a Happy Marriage Revealed by a Relationship Expert
Amy Milnes,  LifeHack

What is a 21st Century Family?
Lady Hale, President of the UK Supreme Court, International Centre for Family Law, Policy and Practice 2019

How Learning Collaboratives Can Help Address Today’s Pressing Policy Challenges
Matthew Stagner, Mathematica

Anxiety in Your Child, Part 2: Dealing With Anxiety
Dr. Justin Coulson, Webinar: Monday, July 22, 2019

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Fri, 19 Jul 2019 08:00:00 -0400
Are Couples Who Eat Together Happier Together? https://ifstudies.org/blog/are-couples-who-eat-together-happier-together https://ifstudies.org/blog/are-couples-who-eat-together-happier-together by Harry Benson (@harrybenson6)

A number of articles and books have investigated the recipe for a happy marriage. But is the eating of food together itself part of the recipe? Do couples who eat a meal together have better quality relationships? 

Along with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, I delved into that question using the UK Time Use Survey conducted in 2014 and 2015. More than 7,600 people in 4,000 households were asked to record what they were doing throughout one weekday and one weekend day, putting the detail into ten-minute time slots. From this, we gathered 46,000 data points from those who lived together as a couple.

Here’s what we found (download our paper here):

Married couples eat together slightly more often than cohabiting couples.

In fact, 35% of UK married couples ate together most or all of the time, whereas 22% ate together rarely or never. Among cohabiting UK couples, 22% ate together most or all of the time, whereas 27% ate together rarely or never.


Source: Marriage Foundation. Based on analysis of the UK Time Use Survey, 2014-15.

Married couples who eat together are more likely to report maximum happiness with their relationship.

Whereas 67% of those who ate together scored 7 out of 7 for relationship happiness on the happiness scale, only 58% of those who ate apart were similarly happy. Slightly counterintuitively, couples who were the least happy in their relationship—scoring 1 out of 7 on the happiness scale—were just as likely to eat together as those who were pretty happy—scoring 5 or 6 out of 7.  


Source: Marriage Foundation. Based on analysis of the UK Time Use Survey, 2014-15.

So, it’s not just the happiest who are most likely to eat together but also the unhappiest. Those least likely to eat together are moderately unhappy in their relationship. This fits some of our other findings that show those who are moderately unhappy tend to have the worst relationship outcomes.

Couples who eat together are 19% more likely to enjoy their meal.

Specifically, we found that 74% of couples who ate together enjoyed their meal a lot, compared to 62% of couples who ate separately. And 36% of those who enjoyed their meal the least ate together, compared to 69% of those who enjoyed their meal most.

Couples who use their phone during meal times are 8% less likely to enjoy their meal.

For example, 69% of couples who did not use their phone at the table enjoyed their meal a lot, compared to 64% of those who did use their phone. Couples use their phone only 14% of the time during meals, with the most use by those who only moderately enjoy their meals.

Overall, these findings show a clear, positive link between eating together as a couple, enjoying the meal, and having a happy relationship. Of course, this is a cross-sectional snapshot, so we have to be cautious about cause and effect. It could be either that happy couples enjoy eating together or that eating together helps make couples happy.

However, the questions about enjoying the meal do suggest a direction of travel. It seems fairly implausible that couples eat together because they enjoy their meals. It seems a lot more plausible that couples enjoy their meals because they have shared it together. It’s only a small step from here to suggest that happiness might also be the consequence of eating together.

So, if you want a happy relationship and want to enjoy your meals more, then eat together as a couple and put that phone down!

Harry Benson is Research Director of the UK-based Marriage FoundationAn earlier version of this post appeared on the Marriage Foundation blog. This version has been edited with the permission of the author.

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Thu, 18 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
The Pros and Cons of Canada’s Child Benefit  https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-canadas-child-benefit https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-canadas-child-benefit by Peter Jon Mitchell and Rachel DeBruyn

Canadian parents will find a little extra money in their bank account on July 20. That’s when the monthly “Canada Child Benefit” (CCB) will increase to account for inflation—the second increase in two years. The tax-exempt benefit is based on net household income, with the average family receiving $6,800 CAD ($5,200 USD) annually. Introduced in 2016, the CCB has already been credited for contributing to a decline in child poverty from 11% to 9 percent.1  

The CCB has been heralded as a success for a Liberal government seeking reelection this fall. Yet for others, the program is also a success because it puts money in the hands of parents rather than towards a universal, subsidized day care program like the system in Quebec. In fact, the introduction of the CCB in 2016 marked a shift away from a proposed federal universal daycare program the Liberal party campaigned on a decade earlier.

Contributors to this blog have considered options for cash benefits to parents within the U.S. context. In Canada, the CCB is the latest offering in a history of cash benefits to parents implemented by previous Conservative and Liberal governments. Yet the discussion around the CCB also reveals how Canadians think about family policy.  

A Brief History of Cash Benefits for Families in Canada

The two-fold purpose of the CCB is to reduce child poverty and to recognize the contribution parents make in raising children. The history of federal family supports in Canada is more complex than space allows here, but in general, the Canadian government has relied on a number of policy approaches for supporting families over the years.  

A universal cash transfer called the “Family Allowances” was introduced after the second world war and remained the central policy for decades. During the 1970s, the transfer was scaled back when a refundable tax credit was introduced, indicating a small shift in focus toward low- and middle-income families. The early 1990s also brought significant changes to the federal family benefits regime when the cash transfer was cancelled in favor of several refundable and non-refundable tax credits.2

In the late 1990s, the “Canada Child Tax Benefit” (or CCTB) was introduced. The new benefit was a basic, non-taxable refundable tax credit with an income test applied to higher-income families. At the same time, the “National Child Benefit Supplement” (NCBS) targeting low-income families was introduced.3

In 2006, a newly-elected Conservative government returned to a cash benefit, introducing the “Universal Child Care Benefit” (UCCB), a taxable benefit providing $100 CAD ($88.50 USD 2006) a month per child under age six, regardless of family income.4  The amount per child under six was later increased in 2015 to $160 CAD ($115 USD 2015) a month, and children 17 and under were added at $60 CAD ($43 USD 2015) a month. Then, in 2016, the Liberal government combined the CCTB, NCBS, and UCCB into one new benefit, the “Canada Child Benefit,” a generous tax-free monthly benefit given on a per-child basis that phases out with increasing income levels.5

How the CCB Works

The CCB works in conjunction with provincial benefits, and the “Child Disability Benefit.”6 The CCB is non-taxable and adjusted to inflation. On July 20, 2019, the maximum CCB amount per child under six will be $6,639 CAD ($5,058 USD), and $5,602 CAD ($4,268 USD) for each child aged six to 17.7

The CCB focuses on low- and middle-income households and begins progressively phasing out payments as household incomes increase above $30,000 CAD ($22,900 USD) annually. Despite the phase-out, 90% of households receive the benefit.8 The complete phase-out depends on the number of children. For a family with one child under age 6 and one over age 6, the complete phase-out is around $190,000 CAD ($ 145,000 USD). In total, the federal program gives $23.7 billion CAD ($18.1 billion USD) in CCB payments to 3.7 million families annually.9 The CCB accounts for about 7% of the projected 2019 federal budget in Canada. 

The Canadian government reports that single parents are among the families receiving the largest benefit amounts.10 For example, a single mother of two children aged 5 and 8 with a net income of $35,000 in 2016 would have received $11,125 in CCB payments in 2017-2018.11

Advantages of Canada's Child Benefit

In addition to its popularity, the CCB has some distinct advantages. The most heralded advantage is the benefit's contribution to reducing child poverty. From 2016 (the CCB was implemented part way through the year) to 2017, the portion of children living in poverty decreased from about 11% to 9 percent.12 While a number of factors likely contributed to the reduction in child poverty, the CCB was a key reason. 

The program also boosted the economy. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz suggested the CCB, “has been highly stimulative. You can see that in the consumption figures. So, we would not be where we are today if that had not occurred.”13

The cash benefit also provides families with flexibility in choosing child care. The CCB is not specifically purposed for child care, but parents can put the money toward the kind of care that works best for their family. A decade earlier, the federal Liberal party campaigned on a national universal day care plan, but the introduction of the CCB suggests the party has changed course. Funding for both the CCB and a national day care program seems unlikely for a government projecting a nearly $20 billion CAD ($15.2 billion USD) deficit. 

Child care is a perennial provincial policy issue with the federal government promising to transfer about $7.5 billion CAD ($5.7 billion USD) to the provinces over the next decade. Advocates point to Quebec’s low-fee, high-subsidy universal system as an ideal model for increasing workforce participation among women. Yet child outcomes associated with the program remain poor. Public onion polls suggest Canadians prefer alternative child care options to center-based care14 and recent Statistics Canada data suggests only about half of parents who rely on non-parental care currently use center-based care or preschool programs.15 The CCB provides parents with greater flexibility in their child care choices, compared to a one-size-fits-all universal system. 

Another benefit is that the CCB simplifies the benefit structure for parents, combining the CCTB, the NCBS geared to low-income families, and the UCCB. 

Disadvantages of Canada's Child Benefit

Despite these advantages, some critics argue that the CCB may discourage increased labor force participation. The CCB phases out as household income increases, creating a double penalty for families who increase labor productivity and income. Income growth increases tax liability, while the CCB is clawed back at the same time. Alex Laurin of the C.D. Howe Institute argues that the claw back acts as a hidden tax, reducing gains from work.16 The Marginal Effective Tax Rate may discourage some families from taking on additional labor force participation.

Similarly, the CCB creates a disincentive toward marriage or partnership because it is based on household income. At the federal level, couples are considered spouses for the sake of tax and benefits after 12 months of continuous co-residency, or any length of co-residency with a child together through birth or adoption. While there are some tax advantages for Canadian married couples, increased household income resulting from marriage or partnership reduces CCB payments, which could discourage marriage.   

Unfortunately, current Canadian public discourse on issues of poverty or social mobility rarely consider the role of stable, healthy marriages, or the presence of marriage penalties in family policy. 

Conclusion  

The introduction of the CCB simplified aspects of the family benefit structure, providing a generous, tax-free federal benefit credited with reducing child poverty in Canada. The program signals a shift away from previous policy debates around a federal universal daycare program.

Aimed at low-income and middle-class families, the CCB is geared toward income and phases out as household income increases. The result is a claw back in benefits in addition to increased tax liability as household income grows. The benefit also penalizes marriage and partnership when family changes result in increased household income. Decades of research demonstrates the correlation between marriage and positive outcomes for children. Policymakers must be careful that programs don’t discourage social institutions, like marriage, that strengthen families and communities. 

Canada has a long history of using cash transfers and tax credits to support families. The degree to which the CCB has contributed to poverty reduction has to be weighed against the possible disincentives toward work and marriage. Many questions remain regarding the three-year-old policy. Does the benefit help stabilize families? Does the CCB influence family formation? Is the projected growth of the program sustainable? 

In the meantime, the program is popular with parents, and both the Liberal and Conservative parties can lay claim to the heritage of cash transfers to parents, meaning the CCB will likely be part of the family policy landscape in Canada in some form for the foreseeable future. 

Peter Jon Mitchell & Rachel DeBruyn are with Cardus, a non-partisan, not-for-profit public policy think tank that conducts independent and original research, produces several periodicals, and regularly stages events with Senior Fellows and interested constituents across Canada and the U.S.

 


1. Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, “The Daily — Canadian Income Survey, 2017,” February 26, 2019.

2. Peter Burton and Shelley Phipps, “Economic Well-Being of Canadian Children,” Canadian Public Policy 43, no. 4 (November 16, 2017): 299–330.

3. Burton and Phipps.

4. Burton and Phipps.

5. Burton and Phipps.

6. Canada Revenue Agency, “Child Disability Benefit,” Service Description, September 11, 2008.

7. Canada Revenue Agency, “Canada Child Benefit,” Guidance, June 22, 2017.

8. Janyce McGregor, “5 Questions about the New Canada Child Benefit, Answered" CBC News,” CBC, July 11, 2016.

9. Jolson Lim, “Liberals’ Child Benefits to See Indexed Boost This Summer,” IPolitics(blog), May 6, 2019. 

10. Department of Finance Canada, “Backgrounder: Strengthening the Canada Child Benefit,” fact sheet, March 27, 2018.

11. Department of Finance Canada.

12. Government of Canada, “The Daily — Canadian Income Survey, 2017.”

13. CTV News, “Bank Governor Credits Liberal Stimulus with Stronger Economy,” CTV News, July 12, 2017.

<14. Andrea Mrozek, “Canadian Daycare Desires,” Cardus (blog), May 23, 2013.

15. Statistics Canada, “Survey on Early Learning and Child Care Arrangements, 2019,” April 10, 2019.

16. Alexandre Laurin, “Two-Parent Families with Children: How Effective Tax Rates Affect Work Decisions,” E-Brief (Toronto, Canada: C.D. Howe Institute, January 9, 2018).

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Wed, 17 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
The NAS Report Provides Concrete Proposals to Reduce Child Poverty, But Will the U.S. Accept the Challenge? https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-nas-report-provides-concrete-proposals-to-reduce-child-poverty-but-will-the-us-accept-the-challenge https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-nas-report-provides-concrete-proposals-to-reduce-child-poverty-but-will-the-us-accept-the-challenge by Lonnie M. Berger (@LM_Berger) and Marcia J. Carlson (@marcyjcarlson)

A growing body of evidence shows that living in poverty has a detrimental effect on children’s development and wellbeing. Children who experience poverty, especially at young ages and over long durations, have lower academic achievementgreater behavioral problems, and ultimately attain lower socioeconomic status in their lifetime. Yet, it is not just that poverty is correlated with other circumstances that are detrimental for children (e.g., low parental education and unstable families). There is evidence that poverty has a negative causal effect on child outcomes, with the most compelling experimental evidence focused on children’s academic achievement.

Fortunately, a number of social programs and policies have been shown to offset the harmful effects of poverty on children. Programs that directly increase family income (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit) or that provide in-kind support in the form of food or medical care (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid) improve educational and health outcomes for children. Yet, compared to other industrialized countries, U.S. social welfare provision is modest, leaving a higher fraction of children in poverty. This is concerning not only because it inhibits the development and well-being of individual children and flies in the face of American ideals about “equality of opportunity” and basic fairness, but also because poverty inhibits the next generation’s ability to grow up to be responsible workers, citizens, and taxpayers. Moreover, it diminishes economic growth at the aggregate level: it is simply inefficient to not have individuals be able to reach their full potential and, thereby, fully participate in and contribute to society, including earning money (and paying taxes!), to the greatest extent possible.

At the direction of Congress in late 2015, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) appointed a Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years. The initiative brought together 15 of the nation’s leading scholars and policy analysts focused on poverty and social welfare. (Full disclosure: Carlson is married to one of the NAS Committee members, Tim Smeeding.) Ranging in their disciplinary perspectives and ideological views, these experts came together for the important task of developing a ‘roadmap’ for reducing child poverty in the U.S. Over nearly two years of work together, the committee reviewed the research evidence about how poverty affects child well-being, examined the extent to which major programs for children and families are shown to reduce poverty, and developed recommendations for how to reduce U.S. child poverty by half over the next 10 years. Their report, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Povertywas released earlier this year.

Overall, the Committee found that reducing child poverty in the U.S. is an achievable goal. They examined 10 program and policy options by which to do so, spanning four categories: 1) work incentives and supports, 2) changing existing safety net programs, 3) introducing new programs, and 4) changing immigrants’ access to programs. While they found that no single policy option could reduce child poverty by half, they identified two “packages” of changes—a means-tested supports and work package, and a universal supports and work package—that could reach the goal of reducing child poverty rates by at least 50 percent. These would come at an absolute annual cost of $90 to $110 billion. Notably, even the most expensive of these options is far less expensive than the estimated annual cost to the U.S. economy of child poverty, which ranges from $500 billion to $1 trillion (or 4 to 5% of GDP). While they considered two additional packages that were considerably less expensive—a work-focused package ($9 billion) and a work-based and universal support package ($45 billion)—neither came close to achieving the goal of halving child poverty. 

In reading the excellent work of the Committee, we were struck by several points. It is notable that work alone is not enough to make a serious dent in child poverty rates—the work-focused package would reduce the child poverty rate by 2.5 percentage points (or 19%, but nowhere near the 50% goal). So, yes, the cost of making work-related changes to the safety net is relatively low, at less than $10 billion, but the return is also low. To substantially reduce child poverty, additional investments will be required, which could come in the form of means-tested (focused on those below a minimum threshold of income) or universal (available to all, even those who are not economically disadvantaged) supports.

We favor more universal programs (such as a universal child allowance) because they provide a more secure economic foundation for children, have much lower social stigma, and generate greater political support (particularly once enacted). Universal approaches are also far less administratively burdensome to both government and families and entail fewer administrative costs. Much like the popularity of Social Security, which efficiently provides economic support to elders after the end of their working years—and substantially reduces elderly poverty—a child allowance would enhance children’s economic foundation as they grow and develop and prepare to enter the labor force. While the universal package is expensive, the Committee estimates it would reduce child poverty by 52 percent. 

The NAS report is grounded in a staggering amount of rigorous evidence about the negative effects of poverty and potential pathways forward for reducing poverty and helping all children reach their full potential. Yet, will anything happen? Ultimately, it depends on our political will as a nation. What value does our society place on supporting children? Do we believe that all children deserve a fair chance at economic and social success? Do we really intend for there to be equality of opportunity in the U.S.?

Moving forward from the NAS report, the key question, as we see it, is: how do we get people to prioritize supporting children amidst an incredibly polarized political context? And here, we believe that poverty reduction should be a key goal for two different reasons. 

First, social justice demands that children be given a chance to reach their full potential. As Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” 

Second, it’s economically rational and efficient to reduce child poverty—it would save money and substantially grow our economy! Thus, there are very different but coterminous reasons to make a serious investment in reducing child poverty that should appeal to both ends of the political and ideological spectrum. Moreover, while cutting child poverty in half will clearly be expensive, it is eminently affordable if prioritized over other public goals.

Poverty has not (yet) played a major role in the 2020 presidential campaign—but it should. The NAS report shows that it’s possible to significantly reduce the economic deprivation that many of the youngest members of society experience and lays out a roadmap for quickly and permanently doing so. The question is will we as a society take up this challenge?

Lonnie Berger is Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Social Work, and Marcia Carlson is Director of the Center for Demography and Ecology, and Professor of Sociology, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

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Tue, 16 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
How Fathers Influence Their Daughters’ Romantic Relationships https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-fathers-influence-their-daughters-romantic-relationships https://ifstudies.org/blog/how-fathers-influence-their-daughters-romantic-relationships by D. Scott Sibley (@dscottsibley) and Katie Granger

The research literature is becoming increasingly clear about the substantial importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, far too many children in the United States and throughout the world experience father loss. As discussed previously on this blog, father loss can negatively impact children in a variety of different ways, even on a biological level. Compounding this issue are myths about fatherhood that are perpetuated in our society, including those that can lead to misleading assumptions about dads that can diminish the contributions active fathers make in the lives of their children. To promote healthy family functioning and child development, we need to readily acknowledge the unique role of fathers.

If research is any indication, daughters need their fathers, and he, in many ways, represents “a daughters first and most influential love.” The relationship between fathers and their daughters has been explored many times on this blog (e.g. here & here). Even so, the father and adult daughter dyad remains the least explored dyad in family relationship research. Much more exploration and investigation is certainly needed to influence the work of educators, clinicians, policymakers.

One of the reasons that father and adult daughter relationships should be supported and encouraged is to help young adult women make better decisions concerning sex and romantic relationships. As explained on this blog by Timothy Rarick:

Sadly, many adolescent girls in our sexualized Western world today find themselves in a tragic predicament. The conditions in our culture of both rampant fatherlessness and sexual promiscuity are incompatible with forming secure and healthy relationships with boys and with establishing stable families for the next generation. A young girl’s sexual development can significantly outpace her neurological and emotional development—the very resources needed to guide her sexual choices.

Father involvement provides a buffer to a variety of negative outcomes, such as early sexual initiation, teenage pregnancy, dating violence, and risky sexual behavior. In particular, when father-daughter relationships are founded on open communication, trust, and higher levels of contact, these negative outcomes are further reduced.

For Katie’s thesis, we recently investigated how father involvement, father absenteeism, and the parental relationship impacted young adult women. We were also curious about what emerging adult daughters hoped to learn from their fathers about romantic relationships. Specifically, we focused on the emerging adult (18-29 years-old) population and interviewed a sample of 24 women in this age group (M=20.7) ranging from freshman to graduate students at a Mid-Western University. The participants were recruited using flyers passed out in many different classrooms throughout the university. Each participant was interviewed for approximately 50 minutes. Through the steps of qualitative analysis, nine unique themes emerged, which were then organized into four distinct categories: father presence, father absenteeism, parental relationship instability, and learning from fathers. The majority of the participants discussed the importance of father presence (i.e. “being there”) and expressed a strong desire to have their fathers present in their lives. The participants explained that when fathers were present this provided reassurance about relationships with men and helped these participants to feel more supported. Our key findings are organized into the four categories below:

Father Presence. Most of the participants indicated that (1) fathers can give daughters hope for romantic relationships, especially when fathers are committed in their own romantic relationships, and that (2) fathers can influence daughters’ perceptions of relationships. By observing their fathers’ behavior, they learned more about the need for support, loyalty, trust, and closeness in relationships.

Father Absenteeism. Consistent with the research literature, father absence seemed to have a negative impact on the women in our study. For instance, the participants stated that when their father was absent (e.g., from divorce, separation, abandonment, or incarceration) they had more (3) difficulty trusting others. Father absence also seemed to create more uncertainty for emerging adult women, with many saying they were (4) not sure what to expect in romantic relationships. Sadly, as one participant explained:

With my dad not being in my life, I kind of have an idea of how a man is supposed to treat me, but…I really don’t know what to do, what not to do, what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable in a relationship. So…I don’t really know what a good relationship is, or what one is supposed to be like. I have only seen the bad: like when my mom talks about my dad and says, ‘He’s not a good father and he was never a good boyfriend, either.’ I just go off what I see in the movies because I don’t really know. So, I feel like my relationships end because I have these high expectations of what I think relationships are supposed to be like, and then they’re not.

Parental Relationship Instability. By observing their parent’s relationship, the young women became (5) aware of that parent’s relationship shortcomings. These relationship flaws taught daughters “what not to do” in their own romantic relationships. Also consistent with previous research, participants indicated that they were (6) fearful of mirroring a parent’s relationship.

Learning from Fathers. The women who participated in our study also indicated that ideally, their father would teach them and discuss (7) relationship expectations (e.g., effort required) and believed that their (8) fathers could be the example. The participants also explained that they wanted their fathers to communicate the importance of (9) staying true to oneself. Regarding relationship expectations, one young woman observed:

Dads definitely need to tell their daughters how they should be treated in a relationship and to not settle. Fathers should also explain to their daughters that they should not let whoever they’re in a relationship with walk all over them, and make sure it’s known that her opinion matters, too. Relationships are not one-sided, and it’s all about compromise...

One of the most important findings from our study involved the importance of father-daughter communication about sex and romantic relationships. Fathers need to have the courage to ask their daughters about relationship concerns. The majority of our participants believed that a lasting benefit from these conversations would be an increase in closeness with their fathers. Uncertainty in romantic relationships, especially among emerging adult women, can stem from many things. The results of our investigation provide further evidence that fathers play an important role in what their daughters believe about dating and marriage.

D. Scott Sibley, Ph.D., LMFT, CFLE is an Assistant Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at Northern Illinois University. He researches commitment in couple relationships and romantic relationship formation. Learn more about Dr. Sibley and his research team at DecideToCommit.comKatie Granger, M.S. is a Research Associate in the Center for P-20 Engagement at Northern Illinois University. Beginning in the Fall of 2019, Katie will be a first-year doctoral student and teaching assistant at the Iowa State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

References:

Alleyne-Green, B., Grinnell-Davis, C., Clark, T. T., Quinn, C. R., & Cryer-Coupet, Q. R., "Father Involvement, Dating Violence, and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among a National Sample of Adolescent Females," Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31, no.5 (2014): 810-830.

Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J., "The long reach of divorce: Divorce and child well-being across three generations," Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, no.1 (2005): 191-206.

Amato, P. R., & Gilbreth, J. G., "Nonresident Fathers and Children's Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, no.3 (1999): 557.

Amato, P. R., & Patterson, S., "The intergenerational transmission of union instability in early adulthood," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 79, no. 3 (2017): 723-738.

Charmaz, K., Constructing Grounded Theory, 2nd ed., (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2014).

Coley, R. L., "Daughter-Father Relationships and Adolescent Psychosocial Functioning in Low-Income African American Families,"  Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, no. 4 (2003): 867-875.

Cui, M., Fincham, F.D, & Durtschi, J. A., "The effect of parental divorce on young adults' romantic relationship dissolution: What makes a difference?," Personal Relationships, 18, no. 3 (2011): 410-426.

Krampe, E. M., & Newton, R. R., "Reflecting on the Father: Childhood family structure and women’s paternal relationships," Journal of Family Issues, 33, no. 6 (2012): 773-800.

Nielsen, L. "Young adult daughters' relationships with their fathers: A review of recent research," Marriage & Family Review, 50, no. 4 (2014): 360-372.

Wolfinger, N. H., "Trends in the intergenerational transmission of divorce," Demography, 36, no. 3 (1999): 415-20.

Wolfinger, N. H., "More evidence for trends in the intergenerational transmission of divorce: A completed cohort approach using data from the general social survey," Demography, 48, no. 2 (2011): 581-592.

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Mon, 15 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 284 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-284 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-284 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Natural Play Spaces Can Benefit Children’s Health, UT Study Finds
University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Military Family Podcasts
The Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University

Love and Falling in Love: Building Family Happiness From Courtship
Micaela Menárguez Carreño, Family International Monitor

Call for Proposals for Research and Evaluation Conference on Self-Sufficiency (RECS)
Deadline: August 30, 2019
Research and Evaluation Conference on Self-Sufficiency(RECS)

Fatherhood: Ongoing Research and Program Evaluation Efforts in the Administration for Children and Families
OPRE, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. DHHS

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Fri, 12 Jul 2019 08:00:00 -0400
3 Questions That Can Clarify Commitment: A Response to Mandy Len Catron https://ifstudies.org/blog/3-questions-that-can-clarify-commitment-a-response-to-mandy-len-catron https://ifstudies.org/blog/3-questions-that-can-clarify-commitment-a-response-to-mandy-len-catron by Scott Stanley (@DecideOrSlide)

Mandy Len Catron’s recent article in The Atlantic raises important questions about marriage and whether or not it remains a social good. She asks, “What is lost by making marriage the most central relationship in a culture?” She covers trends and asks big questions. I found myself agreeing with many of her points while having concerns related to her ideas on the nature of commitment and marriage.  

Marriage and Social Isolation 

Catron is concerned that marriage may be inherently socially isolating. She gives a lot of weight to a study that examined the social ties with friends, neighbors, and friends in singles and married adults. The authors of that study, Sarkisian and Gerstel, found that singles, compared to marrieds, were more likely to be in touch with parents, siblings, and friends, and to both give and receive help in their network. The authors argued that marriage is isolating and that singles, not marrieds, are more socially integrated.1

Even though she and her partner have not married, Catron's concern is deepened because they have already experienced this dynamic of growing isolation since moving in together. She weaves a compelling argument that this dynamic is worsened by marriage because of the change in expectations about the relationship. She buttresses this point by quoting Eli Finkel in The All-or-Nothing Marriage, where he describes how people have come to expect levels of self-fulfillment, growth, and support in marriage that are unparalleled in history. That expectation, along with arguments made by Sarkisian and Gerstel, leads to her suggestion that the level of self-sufficiency expected in marriage will foster social isolation. That is worth thinking about. 

I am no historian, but it is not hard to believe that marriage used to be more reinforcing of social ties. Amato, Booth, Johnson, and Rogers reported in their book, Alone Together, that marriage was changing to where couples had fewer friends, memberships, and social involvements than in years gone by. Further, they found that this decrease in shared social connection was associated with declines in marital quality. Amato and colleagues concluded that individualism was the culprit. I wrote a blog article about that book in 2009, entitled, We, We, We, All the Way Home! I do not have trouble believing that some aspect of how people now couple-up might be feeding an unintended piggishness in connection to others. 

Having studied commitment for decades, I can see how two people growing in commitment together will lessen (at least for a time) their connections to others. Commitment is grounded in a growing sense of mutual identity and a future which may well, for a time, reduce the depth of connection to others. As I wrote in my “We, We, We” piece:  

Couples do best when engaged in some significant shared commitments outside their relationship, such as to groups, clubs, church/synagogue, etc., and efforts to help others. This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.

The exception that Amato and colleagues noted is not a path for couples who have no interest in religious involvement, and it may be complicated for those who do, but who have been burned by their past religious involvement. But there remains a path for any couple. As I wrote: 

If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing together where you can be involved, together, with others. That would take a decision. You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.

Couples who find ways to make this happen will develop stronger relationships built around shared meaning. As for Catron’s critique, I believe she is highlighting two independent phenomena that conspire to generate what she observes. One is societal and one is normative (in couple development). The former is reflected in all we see in this increasingly Bowling Alone world that Robert Putnam has so aptly described. Catron acknowledges that this criticism of marriage may be merely a matter of degree, suggesting that this danger exists for any seriously involved couple. I believe that, but I do not believe that eschewing marriage is the solution— except for those who plan to keep their commitment to a partner in check. Conversely, she provides an example of what may be the strongest way to work against this pattern: Two partners talking together about how to counter the press to become alone together. 

Marriage is a strong, mutual signal of an intention to pursue a life together.

In her overall critique about social isolation, Catron turns some attention to weddings, and how they have become too focused on the individuals and not focused enough on the community around the couple. There cannot be enough social critique of the growing industrial wedding complex, in my view. Catron does not even take the easy shot at the ludicrous amounts of money now spent on weddings. Adding to the debt and lack of a community focus, it is all too believable that expectations for lavish weddings are one of the things that have placed marriage further out of reach for many couples.2 Amber Lapp has eloquently described this very real issue and how it impacts disadvantaged couples, with thoughts on ways to lower financial barriers for those who really want a wedding. 

My colleague Galena Rhoades and I have written about weddings, suggesting from our research and that of others that couples should prioritize the social connections (and guests) over the lavish expense and display. Some families and couples can afford the big to do, which is fine to a point, but the greater value lies in a social celebration and commitment in the context of friends and family. Maybe we’re all losing sight of that. Such thoughts dovetail with the growing attention to the fact that social capital is as important as financial capital for couples

While Catron does not explicitly suggest it, one implication of her arguments is that soaring expectations about marriage have likely fueled, in part, avoidance of marriage and the popularity of cohabitation. Cohabitation does not carry similarly high expectations, and it, therefore, can seem like a safer choice. While there have always been those who have entered into marriage too young, too quickly, or mostly out of economic constraint, there are other options now that many pursue. For many, especially those with less education and means, marriage has become not merely a sobering commitment but an absolutely intimidating proposition. Conversely, this has affected the least those with the most, as college graduates continue to marry at high rates

Is It Simply Commitment, not Marriage, that Matters Most?

In light of the problems she identifies with marriage, Catron wonders if it is simply commitment that matters the most.3 It is an argument often made, and I do accept some aspects of it. Indeed, a robust literature substantiates that high commitment is associated with virtually everything good in romantic relationships.4

And yet, is there something more to marriage? I think so. 

Marriage is a strong, mutual signal of an intention to pursue a life together. I do not assume that marriage is what everyone wants, nor am I naïve about the fact that the aspiration is often unrealized even when desired. Still, that simple description contains the essence of what most people believe is foundational to a commitment in marriage. 

Here, I present three questions that I believe reflect what most people expect out of marriage. If two unmarried partners can answer each of these questions in the affirmative, they may well have a non-married relationship that is quite like marriage, albeit still without some of the legal and tax protections and benefits. That subject is raised by Catron, but I am keeping my focus here on the nature of an understanding between two partners about their commitment to each other. 

In raising these questions, I want to make clear that I would not expect most couples to be able to answer “yes” to these three questions early in a relationship. If these three questions resonate with you, getting the answers correct should be a higher priority than getting the answers too soon. 

Question 1: Have you both agreed to a lifetime commitment to each other?

Two people can be reasonably highly committed without having closure on this question about a long-term future. While many marriages fail, that does not change the fact most people believe they are expressing exactly this intention when they marry. Some people will shy away from asking this question because they are not sure they would like the answer; others avoid asking it because they are all too sure that the answer is not what they want to hear. Done well, discussing such a question might include talking about each partner’s view on serial monogamy, since some people who may be highly committed in a present relationship many also expect there will be others to follow. If two people both believe that their commitment today is enough, come what will about tomorrow, they should be able to talk about that openly. 

Question 2Have you each publicly declared the depth of your commitment to those who matter most in your lives?

Asymmetrical commitment is a real problem, arguably more so in our modern dating world where there are fewer steps and stages than in the past—steps and stages that may have had limitations but that also tended to force clarity about commitment as it unfolded. Public declarations of commitment provide a lot of information that is not otherwise easily obtained and help to protect either partner from misreading the relationship. Marriage, engagement, or two people declaring to others that they are life partners are all strong, public signals of commitment. These may not all be equal in force, but they are all exemplars of a thing. Because of the public nature of the institution of marriage, there are likely further ways that it signals the understanding two people have at one time reached. Andrew Cherlin rightly points out that marriage has become a status symbol, and this is part of Catron’s critique. However, many such discussions focus mostly on economic and resource status, and, in my view, give too little weight to the role of marriage as a potent signal of the commitment two people have made.5

In contrast to marriage, cohabitation conveys little information about commitment unless it is accompanied by some other information that signals a mutually clear commitment to the future. On average, cohabiting relationships do not have levels of commitment as high as seen among those who are married.6 Frankly, to many people, this is part of the appeal of living together. Cohabitation is a somewhere-in-between relationship of ambiguous commitment,7 and that is often intentional. I am being descriptive, not pejorative. For many, ambiguous commitment is a feature of cohabitation and not a bug. 

All of this reflects the fact that people cohabit for many reasons. Samples of cohabiters will be far more heterogeneous than samples of marrieds when it comes to dimensions of commitment. Some cohabiting couples are essentially dating, and some are in relationships quite a bit like marriage. Many others are somewhere in between. Studies by sociologist Susan Brown have shown that relationship quality is similar to marriage in cohabiting relationships where people report having plans to marry. Further, the work Galena Rhoades and I have conducted on premarital cohabitation provides a lot of evidence that being engaged or married before moving in together is associated with better outcomes than starting to cohabit before the big question about the future has been settled.8  

The transition to cohabitation does not entail, on average, a step up in commitment, but it does typically lead to an increase in constraints that can make staying together more likely, regardless of the level of commitment.

Why might that matter? The transition to cohabitation does not entail, on average, a step up in commitment but it does typically lead to an increase in constraints of the sort that can make staying together more likely, regardless of the level of commitment to one’s partner. Further, when one’s options are already constrained, it is harder to infer free volition in a commitment being made, perhaps leaving some who marry to wonder if they would have married this particular person if they had never moved in together.9

Timing should matter whenever a transition entails an increase in constraints. It should make a difference if one had decided on a more restricted path before entering it. The other chief example, of course, is having a child together. Catron notes that stability is the most important thing for children. She acknowledges that there is plenty of evidence that marriage is more likely to be stable than cohabitation for children,10 but she wonders if the magic is less in marriage and more in something else—like selection. Indeed, those on the more stable paths tend to be people who had less risk to begin with, but might marriage do something more regarding stability for children? I have made an argument that it does, and it is another argument about timing. Marriage has, historically, pre-vetted a couple on the question—the very ones I have asked so far—about an intention to be together prior to the fact of there being a child to raise together. Obviously, there are many exceptions in history, but the basic argument seems sound. 

For all its foibles, which are considerable and often enumerated, marriage is easily understood as a step up in declared commitment. If marriage goes away (and like Isabel Sawhill, the author of Generation Unbound, I think it is heading in that direction), an increasing number of couples may find it harder to clarify, and signal, that there has been a mutual decision to build a future together. I believe that will be a loss. 

Question 3: Have you agreed to be faithful to each other for life?  

This last question is a standard part of beliefs about the meaning of marriage. Sure, there are some couples, even in marriage, who explicitly agree to consensual non-monogamy or some other form of open marriage. Nevertheless, most people expect conformity to a narrow definition of lifelong fidelity in marriage. While two people who are marrying can likely infer that this is implicitly agreed upon, they may still benefit from clarifying if both are on the same page about it. Absent marriage, it becomes all the more important for two people to get explicit. 

Not everyone would agree that these three questions are definitional to marriage, nor would everyone agree that these expectations reflect what they want in life. Further, these questions are by no means exhaustive of important expectations partners should discuss. My goal is to present three questions that reflect core elements of what most people, but not all, believe are important to an understanding of commitment in marriage. 

In reading Mandy Len Catron’s article, it is easy to believe that she and her partner are highly committed to one another. They are also clearly able to talk about such things, openly. All couples who are, or who are becoming, seriously involved would do well to talk through their major expectations. Such conversations are difficult but increasingly important in a world of so many possibilities. 

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). 


1. I have not read nor carefully considered the quality of this study, but my goal here is not to analyze that study or argue with the conclusions. The results seem plausible enough to work with them at face value.

2. Edin, K., & Kefalas, M. Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).

3. On this latter point, Catron cites a paper by Jesse Owen, myself and colleagues built around our work focusing on the contrast between sliding through important relationship transitions versus making clear decisions about them. Those findings show that those who report being more decisional in the physical and emotional aspects of their relationships—whether they are dating, cohabiting, or married—reported higher levels of satisfaction and commitment to their partners. Those are valuable findings, but they are not surprising in that the study is on the characteristics of individuals more than how commitment developed between two partners. Most of the work my colleagues and I have done, theoretically and empirically, in this area is on applying commitment theory to how couples go through important relationship transitions, with the exemplar being cohabitation. That is a different matter than the paper cited, and it is more directly relevant to the subject here. For more on our broader work in this area, there are plenty of journal and blog articles you can read, such as hereherehere, or here (the latter being a concentrated summary with many further links to published papers). 

4. Just a few examples can be noted here: Jones, W. H., & Adams, J. M. Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability(New York: Plenum, 1999).; Rusbult, C. E., Agnew, C., & Arriaga, X. , The Investment Model of Commitment Processes. Department of Psychological Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 26 (2011).; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W., “Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment,” Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2 (2010):243-257.

5. Before his untimely death, sociologist Steve Nock and economist Robert Rowthorn were strongly pursuing the application of economic theories on signals to marriage. In that same time period, I had started to think increasingly about the nature of emblems in the development and expression of commitment between two partners. I have shifted to the language of signals. For more on these subjects: Rowthorn, R. “Marriage as a signal.” In A. W. Dines and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).; Nock, S.L. “The Growing Importance of Marriage in America. “ In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (New York: Columbia University Press,  2009).; Stanley, S. M, What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway? Keynote address to the 6th Annual Smart Marriages Conference. Washington D. C., July 2002. 

6. I believe our paper is the first to document this, but it is not hard to document this in numerous studies at this point: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. “Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation,” Journal of Family Issues, 25 (2004): 496-519. 

7. e.g., Lindsay, J. M. “An ambiguous commitment: Moving into a cohabiting relationship,” Journal of Family Studies, 6, no. 1 (2000): 120-134. See also Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J., “Sliding versus Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect,” Family Relations, 55(2006): 499-509.; Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J., “Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 67 (2005): 989 - 1002.

8. I am writing here about a fairly robust but nuanced line of research, as noted in endnote 2 above. But I also should note that the whole question of whether premarital cohabitation is associated with greater risks for divorce and lower happiness in marriage is quite a bit less settled than many assume. 

9. While I am not attempting to address the matter in this piece, the severe constraints on the lives of those in poverty make everything I write about here more complicated and challenging. For more on that subject, I recommend the book, Cohabitation Nation by Sharon Sassler and Amanda Jayne Miller.

10. For more on this, there are a variety of sources, including: Manning, W. D. “Cohabitation and child wellbeing,” The Future of Children, 25, no. 2 (2015): 51–66; This piece on the IFS blog by Wendy Wang;  Rackin, H. M., & Gibson-Davis, C. M., “Social class divergence in family transitions: The importance of cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Advance online publication, 2018.

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Thu, 11 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Viewing Relationship Education through the Lens of Social Poverty https://ifstudies.org/blog/viewing-relationship-education-through-the-lens-of-social-poverty https://ifstudies.org/blog/viewing-relationship-education-through-the-lens-of-social-poverty by Alan J. Hawkins

I have waited anxiously for Sarah Halpern-Meekin’s new book, Social Poverty: Low-income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties, since I first heard her describe the study and writing project three years ago. I wasn’t disappointed. Her analysis of low-income parents’ lives and their efforts to strengthen their unions for the sake of their children provides a clearer lens through which to view fragile families and federal policies to help them in these efforts. 

The book explores three interrelated issues. First, it explores the prosaic elements of low-income, unmarried parents’ lives, showing how the daily challenges of navigating three crucial life course transitions at once—establishing young adult identities, nurturing romantic relationships, and becoming parents—combine to create a heavy psychological, social, and economic weight for these individuals. The lives of low-income, unmarried couples have received a good deal of academic attention over the past 20 years. But Halpern-Meekins’ value-added contribution in Social Poverty is illuminating by showing how trying to make these life course transitions simultaneously undermines their abilities to do each one of them successfully. She doesn’t dwell much on trying to explain why couples are in these situations—something that other scholars have examined in depth.1 Rather, she invites readers inside the heads and hearts of these couples to see their hopes pushing back against their day-to-day struggles. 

The second element of the book is essentially an implementation study of the Family Expectations program in Oklahoma City. Family Expectations is one of the premier relationship education programs for lower-income couples funded by the Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education federal policy initiative that began under the Bush administration in the mid-2000s. There has been a good deal of debate about the merits of this policy experiment (which I have written about previously hereherehere, and here). Family Expectations is one of the most successful programs in terms of longevity, recruitment, and retention, and demonstrated, positive impact on the participants. Halpern-Meekin takes us inside the nuts and bolts of the program to give us a sense how the couples themselves experience it—from their enrollment visit with its welcoming, male-friendly, professional atmosphere (a noteworthy contrast to most social service environments), to the educational sessions with its couple-cozy recliner love seats and engaging curriculum (complete with free meals and childcare), to the positive relationships with their family support coordinators who meet with each enrolled couple regularly to assess their current needs, connect them to other valuable community services, and reinforce the curriculum principles being taught. 

Sarah Halpern-Meekin invites readers inside the heads and hearts of [low-income] couples to see their hopes pushing back against their day-to-day struggles. 

Halpern-Meekin also probes deeply into why these unmarried couplessigned up for Family Expectations despite their hectic and complex lives. The primary reason for three-quarters of the couples was a hope to create a healthier relationship to provide the right environment to raise their children. Only one of the 31 couples Halpern-Meekin interviewed had experienced a stable, two-parent family growing up; most grew up in chaotic and even abusive family environments. Not surprisingly, they brought unhealthy communication and problem-solving patterns into the relationship that make it even harder to deal with the daily stresses of their lives. They did not want their children to experience what they went through as children. Well aware of the family instability all around them (and for many, in their own past) and afraid of the flaws and ambiguity in their own fragile relationships, they were hoping for some help to fix their poor communication skills to avoid the toxic conflict that they knew could harm their children. 

A second driving reason for a handful of couples was to find friends and peers who were going through the same experiences, underlying the challenges of social isolation and lack of social support these couples faced. And a few couples indicated that Family Expectations was a last-ditch effort to save their relationship—again, for the sake of their children. In contrast to a larger body of research on these fragile families that highlights the weak connections between these unplanned parents, most of the couples who attended Family Expectations were strongly bonded and clearly wanted their troubled relationships to succeed. 

Halpern-Meekin finds that the couples embraced the lessons and skills taught in Family Expectations, even as they were candid about struggles to employ them consistently in their relationship conflicts. The “time-out” skill appeared to be the most valuable tool they gained, learning how to stop an escalating conflict before it got too damaging, calling a time out to disengage, then revisiting the issue later when they had cooled down. This enhanced a feeling of physical and emotional safety in the relationship. Halpern-Meekin points out how these small shifts in micro-level interactions “can fundamentally change the couple’s day-to-day experience of their relationship—whether it is primarily a source of comfort or conflict.” 

In a later round of follow-up interviews, Halpern-Meekin reports that two-thirds of the couples said Family Expectations improved their relationship. She summarizes:

 Although there are stories of amazing transformations, with couples turning around damaged, unstable relationships, this is not the typical outcome. Rather, the average experience is one of a couple making smaller changes, being a little slower to anger, a little quicker to let trivial matters go, and a little more sure that this is the kind of relationship they want to show their children, one that could be happy and lasting. 

The third element of the book really got my juices going, as it speaks to an essential policy question of how these programs might be effective for low-income unmarried (and married) parents. Here, she doubles down on her argument that we need to view these relationship-strengthening educational programs and couples’ responses to them through the lens of “social poverty” (I suspect that Halpern-Meekin didn’t invent this term and a quick search of Wikipedia confirms that it isn’t defined and explored there, so it certainly isn’t a well-used term.) Halpern-Meekin argues that social poverty —which she defines as the lack of close and trusted relationships one can rely on—is a distinct phenomenon worthy of serious attention, not just as a derivative of economic poverty, although the two phenomena are correlated. “Financial poverty matters, without a doubt,” she acknowledges. “However, to assert that in the presence of financial poverty no other issue can or should receive priority fails to respect the wishes, plans, and needs of low-income people.”

Thinking about relationship education as something akin to regular dental checkups may not be as sexy as seeing it as a powerful pharmaceutical to cure a deadly disease, but it is more consistent with the nature of the problem the intervention seeks to address. 

Two other sociologists have done in-depth studies of low-income couples participating in relationship-strengthening educational programs. While both of them acknowledge that the participants say they enjoyed and benefitted from these programs, both distance themselves from these experiences to critique the rationale and utility of the policy that supports them. Melanie Heath sees these kinds of programs as promoting a single, traditional form of family life and reinforcing middle-class, heterosexist values.3 She compares activism to “secure marriage's boundaries” to reactive activism to secure the nation's borders from unwanted immigrants. Accordingly, she asserts that this policy initiative to support relationship education programs will undermine crucial progress toward social justice. Jennifer Randles dives deeper into this new policy world and takes a more objective approach than Heath in understanding the programs it supports.4 She sees that participants overwhelmingly valued the knowledge and skills they learned, believing they gave them a greater sense of agency to achieve their relationship aspirations, even knowing the obstacles they faced due to their stressful lives. But Randles worries that such hope is false, insensitive, and potentially harmful because their efforts to strengthen their relationships will be overwhelmed by the harshness of economic poverty, essentially asserting a threshold below which sustained romantic relationships are hopeless. Instead, she argues for re-tasking these (limited) policy resources to improve the social and economic ecology in which relationships of all kinds can better flourish. 

But Randles’ only lens for evaluating the wisdom of this policy initiative is economic. Halpern-Meekin’s in-depth understanding of these couples’ lives allows her to add the lens of social poverty to help us understand why stressed and struggling couples are drawn to these programs and, importantly, how the programs could actually help them achieve their aspirations. She sees these couples as relational beings who fear social poverty as much as economic poverty. They not only experience the strains of limited economic resources but live on the edge of social impoverishment, as well. A stable, healthy romantic relationship and a stable family are crucial human needs for these individuals—as much as food, housing, childcare, and work—and couples valued the help they received to try to meet this human need. “They want to create a forever family,” Halpern-Meekin writes, “and many feel they could use a helping hand to find their way.” 

Social policies that take these low-income families’ human aspirations seriously deserve our continued consideration. And based on what she learned from her study, Halpern-Meekin makes some worthy critiques to try to strengthen public policy to support relationship education. First, she rightly encourages greater priority on effective relationship education for youth and young adults to help them understand what healthy relationships look like, how to achieve them, and how to avoid the potholes and detours that will make it harder for them to form lasting, happy unions. That is, the policy should take prevention more seriously, not waiting until couples have already formed a relationship, bringing along heavy baggage that will make it  harder to sustain. Second, she asks for these policies to treat couple relationship education as more of a loading dose than a cure or inoculation. That is, the challenges these couples face are chronic as well as acute, and asking a one-time program to cure all problems long term is asking for a lot, and maybe even unrealistic. Instead, the programs would be more effective if they could build in periodic dosages of relationship education to support ever-changing circumstances and facilitate regular relationship maintenance. Thinking about relationship education as something akin to regular dental checkups may not be as sexy as seeing it as a powerful pharmaceutical to cure a deadly disease, but it is more consistent with the nature of the problem the intervention seeks to address.

Alan J. Hawkins is the past Chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, and the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.  


1. Edin, K. & Kefalas, M., Promises I Can Keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage (Berkeley, California: University of California, 2005); Edin, K., & Nelson, T. J.  Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the inner city (Berkeley, California: University of California, 2013).  

2. Note that Family Expectations includes both married and unmarried couples. Halpern-Meekin focuses on the unmarried, fragile-family couples in this study. 

3. Heath, M. One Marriage Under God: The campaign to promote marriage in America (New York: New York University Press, 2012)

4. Randles, J. Proposing Prosperity: Marriage education policy and inequality in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

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Wed, 10 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Cruising at Altitude: Reconciling a High Divorce Rate with High Marital Satisfaction Ratings https://ifstudies.org/blog/cruising-at-altitude-reconciling-a-high-divorce-rate-with-high-marital-satisfaction-ratings https://ifstudies.org/blog/cruising-at-altitude-reconciling-a-high-divorce-rate-with-high-marital-satisfaction-ratings by Scott Stanley (@DecideOrSlide)

While many couples divorce, most people report being happily married when surveyed. Those facts seem at odds. There are some simple and complex methodological explanations for this, but I have long thought about the explanation using a metaphor of an airplane in flight. That is what I present here. 

The divorce rate was comparatively low for many years. University of Utah sociologist and IFS contributor Nicholas Wolfinger tells me it has been going up for over 500 years. But I am focusing on a much shorter period of history. In the U. S., divorce started to really take off in the 1960s.

By the 1980s, demographers were arguing that 50% of couples who married would end up divorcing at some point in life.2 There is room for quibbling about this number because it is a projection. However, the chart above is based on hard numbers (the crude rate per 1000), and it nicely portrays the change. (For more on the complexity of divorce rates, see this article.

This next chart portrays the percent of married people who said that their marriage was happy when asked, in data from the U.S. General Social Survey.3

The actual question was, “Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” The chart depicts the percent of people who reported being either “very happy” or “pretty happy” in their marriage. If I presented only the line for the percent saying their marriage was very happy, it would average around 63% (you can check for yourself right here). 

The divorce data and happiness data are quite different (and not merely because the data I could most easily retrieve on divorce go back further in time than the happiness data). The divorce data are official statistics for the entire country; they are population-level data of couple outcomes. The marital happiness ratings are individual-level data from cross-sectional surveys that reflect sentiments at the moment surveyed. There are vast methodological and conceptual differences in these types of data. My focus here is on the sense of a paradox presented by the two facts—facts represented by the shape of these lines. To many people, it is not immediately obvious how divorce can be so common while most people report being happily married.4

Ponder those charts above, especially from 1985 onward. Divorce had really taken off by then. Boomers were at the forefront of this change, and they are still going at it.5 Sociologist Susan Brown and colleagues have written extensively about the grey divorce revolution, and the boomers are a big part of it.6 But even couples marrying now still have a substantial lifetime probability of divorce, perhaps somewhere a bit under 40% for first marriages. That could be high or low. (Again, I wrote an article on that if you want to think more about it.

I have a metaphor for addressing the paradox. Metaphors can be useful, within boundaries.  

Taking Flight

Airplanes fly high above the clouds most of the time. Some crash, but most planes, most of the time, are flying somewhere above 30,000 feet (at least, passenger airlines are). You could poll pilots during flights, and your reports will average out at high elevations. That does not represent the trajectory of entire flights, nor is the happiness chart above showing trajectories of happiness across time in marriages. Many people who reported being happy in their marriage on the day surveyed by the GSS will end up divorced. That’s really the primary cause of the paradox, I think. 

I have long imagined marital trajectories as airplane flights. Researchers have, of course, considered trajectories in more sophisticated ways.7 In my metaphor, altitude is happiness and a crash is a divorce. Of course, some divorces may be better typified as landings short of the original destination, but let’s keep things simple for the metaphor. Here, a crash pertains to the marriage being over.  

Long flight, high altitude, no major malfunctions, safe landing. That’s a long-term, happily married couple completing the flight plan most every marrying couple hopes to fly. The plane may have to fly around a thunderstorm or two, but it’s mostly steady, level flying. Paul Amato and Spencer James published a paper in 2018 that describes these couples pretty well, showing that most marriages that last are quite happy over the long haul. Not all couples, of course, but most. In contrast, they showed that those flying ahead of an eventual crash, were, over time, increasing in discord, spending less leisure time together, and were declining in happiness. 

Short flight, low and fluctuating altitude, with a crash shortly after take-off. That’s a couple who blows apart early in a marriage. There could be many reasons why. Some of the planes had a major problem that was overlooked before taking off. Here, just note that the early years of marriage are the time of the highest risk for divorce,8 not unlike how the time just after take-off is the highest risk for airplanes. 

Long flight, lower altitude, high turbulence, but no crash. While most flights are above 30,000 feet at any given moment, some planes never get above 10,000. There are not really many commercial airplane flights like this, but there are marriages like this. If we just tracked the elevation for such a flight over time, it may fluctuate between 200 and 10,000 feet. There would also be more turbulence because the plane is flying lower to the ground. This is a couple who likely was pretty happy at some point, but, for most of their marriage, they are not too happy. However, they stay together either by determination or because of high constraints. 

Long flight, mostly at high altitude, with a sudden loss of altitude and a crash. This is the couple that seemed to be doing fine until something massively destabilizing happened. A wing came off, the engines failed, or a rapid and catastrophic decompression resulted from a door falling off. Something emergent overcame the static dynamic of a smooth, level, high-altitude marriage: an affair, cancer and its soul-sucking stress, or the death of a child. Hard stuff where there was not enough elevation to stay in the sky. Among these higher-flying marriages, some come to an end in what seems a moment, and others will steadily lose altitude for a longer period of time before the end, but much of the flight before that seems to have been at a reasonably high elevation. If the GSS folks had asked such a couple to check their altitude, just by probability, they would have been more likely to get asked about their happiness while the plane was high than when it was coming down, because they were most likely happier in their marriage for a longer period of time. 

These are a sampling of many possible trajectories for how a marriage goes. You can see how they reflect the difficulty of reconciling the two types of data. 

A lot of people are very happy in their marriages. Many will stay that way with only a few ups and downs. Others will experience a slow or rapid loss of what holds them together. Some will have emergency descents and recover.

Complexities

Dynamics within relationships tend to be stable.9 Matthew Johnson at the University of Alberta puts it this way: “Stability seems to be the norm, and when change happens, it’s usually not for the better.” While there will be many exceptions, marriages with challenging dynamics at 10 years likely had evidence of those dynamics before the couple got married. Ted Huston and colleagues labeled this phenomenon, “enduring dynamics.” For example, some couples were never able to fly smoothly or at high elevation because of difficulties in communicating or being emotionally supportive. Relationships have stable characteristics, and so do the individuals in them. Psychologist Dan Wile has observed

When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years

That seems right in that it’s real. No one gets perfection, and no one is offering it. 

There is a strong corollary to the stability of overall happiness in life. People are remarkably likely to hover around a particular set point. Even after consequential life events, for better or for worse, people tend to return to a level of happiness much like where they were beforehand. This has been called the hedonic treadmill. A lot of the things that matter in life are pretty stable within the lives of individuals. (I hope that is good news for you.)

That there were plenty of people surveyed by the GSS who reported that their marriage was pretty happy (34%) but not very happy (63%) reminds me of Paul Amato’s concept of “good enough marriages.”10 These are marriages good enough to provide many benefits to adults and children but not good enough to be ideally protected from turbulence, mechanical difficulty, or pilot error. These marriages are beneficial, but they are also at greater risk of abrupt contact with the ground. 

When marriages do come apart, people give various reasons. Their stories may not be the most accurate data in the world, because individuals may be a little biased and spouses may not agree, but this information is still useful. However, just like with airplanes that have crashed, the best information would come from continuously-recorded data during flight—kind of like the black boxes used in airplanes. In social science, that means longitudinal data at close enough intervals to answer questions about what happened and when. Such research is expensive, and further complicated by the complexity and assumptions of analyses.11 I started this piece with data that are fundamentally very simple. 

There is one other element to ponder here. My colleague Galena Rhoades and I have noticed a pattern in various surveys gathered over the years in the lab projects we are overseeing with our colleague, Howard Markman at the University of Denver. Across various studies, the number one item we see left blank is the single-item asking about how happy one’s relationship is—very much like the item used in the GSS. We suspect—but have not tested this— that some people are psychologically defended against acknowledging their true level of relationship (un)happiness, so they leave the question blank. That could be protective for some people and a risk for others. The idea behind this may be relevant here, in that there could be a small subset of people who are on their way to divorcing who do not acknowledge their full unhappiness (to themselves or to others) until they can do nothing other than see the ground coming up fast.12 Because of all these complexities, divorce is a much more definitive measure than marital happiness, but both are obviously important. 

Let’s Land

A lot of people are very happy in their marriages. Many will stay that way with only a few ups and downs. Others will experience a slow or rapid loss of what holds them together. Some will have emergency descents and recover. The paradox I started with is explained by the fact that, at any given time, the planes currently flying are mostly all pretty high or very high in the sky. A survey like the GSS is not optimal for sampling plummets.  

For those making the trip. While there are known factors associated with which marriages are most likely not to make it, the ability to predict divorce for any given couple is over-rated.13 If it were easy to predict who would crash, no one would ever board some of the planes that take off. Still, there is a lot of information about what makes it more or less likely that a couple will struggle with happiness and/or divorce. Years ago, I wrote a piece that gets into this, including advice to singles for lowering their risks. Humans do not change easily, but there are some strategies for working to change one’s level of risk. If your plane is well into its flight, I wrote something for married couples, too. 

Here, I have tried to explain the paradox of how so many couples divorce while so many people report being happy in their marriages. Did I succeed? You be the judge. How happy are you with my metaphor? Would you say you are “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy”? 

* * *

Postscript: Want to take another flight with me? Here’s a favorite piece of mine that hovers around the nature of happiness in marriage and family, focused on the transition to parenthood. I discuss how measures of happiness may miss something deeper about meaning. And it’s also about airplanes: Cleanup on Aisle 9 at 35,000 Feet.

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). 


1. There are various metrics for this. I am using the crude number of divorces per 1000 people from U.S. data, mostly from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm. I made this chart from data easily found online. If you are a demographer and feel like it is off somehow, just let me know. These data are only as good as state collection and reporting, and you can see in footnotes at the link above. In some years, various states did not get their numbers in or such numbers were not available. If you want more on the complexity of the divorce rate and trends, a gift that keeps on giving to family social science, here you go: https://ifstudies.org/blog/what-is-the-divorce-rate-anyway-around-42-percent-one-scholar-believes.

2. I originally thought that Paul Glick was the first to make the more sophisticated projection of the likelihood of divorcing in 1984, but Phil Cohen recently noted on Twitter that the first projection of this sort was likely this one by Samuel Preston (in 1975). These and subsequent projections made by the CDC and others were based on careful consideration of the likelihood of divorcing at various ages and stages of marriage/life. Contrary to a myth, they were not based on the observation that, year after year, there are about twice as many marriages as divorces. You might quibble with 50%. Many people have. I think the projections were likely pretty good, and that the projected probability of divorcing was, indeed, around 50% for years. It’s come down some, and the subject is complex. 

3. I used the GSS Data Explorer to get these numbers: https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/trends/Gender%20&%20Marriage?measure=hapmar

4. There are a number of works that highlight conceptual or empirical differences between marital happiness (an indicator of relationship quality) and divorce (an indicator of stability), including these: Wolfinger, N. H. Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).; Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationshipsJournal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 595-608.

5. Conflict of interest statement. I am a Boomer, but on the trailing edge. That’s why I look so young. 

6. For more on the boom in divorce for older Americans, here you go: https://www.bgsu.edu/arts-and-sciences/sociology/Research/Gray-Divorce.html

7. For example, Anderson, J., Van Ryzin, M. J., & Doherty, W. (2010). "Developmental Trajectories of Marital Happiness in Continuously Married Individuals: A Group-Based Modeling Approach," Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 587-96. See also an example of the emerging emphasis on thinking about trajectories in relationship development, here: Eastwick, P. W., Keneski, E., Morgan, T. A., McDonald, M. A., & Huang, S. A. (2018). "What do short-term and long-term relationships look like? Building the relationship coordination and strategic timing (ReCAST) model," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147 (5), 747-781.

8. It has been surprisingly difficult to find the single best citation for this fact. Here is a minimal note about this on my blog, with some helpful data from Nick Wolfinger, that he dug out of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). You can also see how this is true in a table provided in the following paper, but it is not optimized to make this point: Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003).  "The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980," Demographic Research, 8, 245-260.

9. For example, Huston, T. L., Caughlin, J. P., Houts, R. M., Smith, S. E., & George, L. J. (2001).  "The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce,"  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 237-252.; Lavner, Justin & Bradbury, Thomas. (2019). "Trajectories and maintenance in marriage and long-term committed relationships," Journal of Family Psychology; Williamson, H. C., Nguyen, T. P., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2016), "Are problems that contribute to divorce present at the start of marriage, or do they emerge over time?" Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33 (8), 1120–1134. Markman, H. J., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Ragan, E., & Whitton, S. (2010). "The premarital communication roots of marital distress: The first five years of marriage," Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 289-298. 

10. Amato, P. R. (2001). "Good enough marriages: Parental discord, divorce, and children's well-being," The Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 9, 71-94.

11. If you are a researcher who has gotten this far, you’ll recognize that a critical aspect in this is having ways to get at both between group differences and within-person changes over time.

12. It adds to the complexity in all this that happiness is individually rated and divorce is dyadically experienced. They are not the same in this and many other ways.

13. This is brilliantly addressed in a piece by colleagues I much admire, Rick Heyman and Amy Smith Slep: Heyman, R. E., & Smith Slep, A. M. (2001). "The hazards of predicting divorce without cross-validation," Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 473-479.

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Tue, 09 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
The ‘Soft-Referral’ Ban for International Adoptions Hurts Special Needs Children https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-soft-referral-ban-for-international-adoptions-hurts-special-needs-children https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-soft-referral-ban-for-international-adoptions-hurts-special-needs-children by Naomi Schaefer Riley (@NaomiSRiley)

When Josh* and his wife decided to adopt an orphan from China in 2010, they knew their limits. They felt they could adopt a child with some minor disabilities, but they didn’t think they could handle one who was blind. Then Josh remembers looking at an email from their adoption agency at work one day and finding a picture and description of a boy with severe visual impairment. “As soon as I opened up this photo, I knew that he was the one we wanted,” Josh told me.

Three years later, that little boy is a part of their family. He has had a number of surgeries to help his vision. Things that come easily for other children are difficult for him, but Josh and his wife have no regrets. Maybe it sounds superficial that these parents made such an important choice on the basis of a picture and a story. In his defense, Josh says: “People, in general, make decisions when it comes to family, love, and connection on an emotive basis. There is nothing wrong with that.” 

But that’s not the view of the U.S. State Department, which late last year decided that agencies should no longer be able to offer “soft referrals” to families. This means that until families have completed their home studies and children have been deemed officially available for adoption, no family can receive information about or pictures of any specific child. The problem is that seeing a picture and hearing a child’s story is often the very thing that motivates a family to begin to pursue the lengthy and expensive process of international adoption.

In November, the National Council for Adoption, which represents more than 100 adoption agencies, filed suit against the State Department, arguing that the ban is illegal because they the agency didn’t follow the federally-mandated “notice and comment” process. Moreover, they noted that the policy has had the unfortunate effect of significantly reducing the number of children with special needs who can be adopted by American families. International adoption reached an all-time low last year, but it is special-needs kids who need access to the kind of medical treatment available in the U.S., who, without the intervention of American families, will languish in foreign orphanages. Earlier this year, the NCFA filed for summary judgment.

But what motivated this policy change in the first place? Lawyers for the State Department claim that this is not a new policy so much as a reinterpretation of an older policy, which was not in the “best interests of the child,” as defined by the Hague Adoption Convention. Policymakers seem to be concerned that children are being trafficked and that agencies’ use of these children’s pictures and stories is somehow going to exacerbate the problem.

Grinnell College economists Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell, authors of a recent book called Saving International Adoption, explained in an email that trafficking fears are overblown and that “the soft referral ban is another example of adoption policy-makers viewing sweeping reductions in adoption as the solution to relatively minor problems in the process.”

In their research, Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Powell found little evidence of trafficking, but they did find that bureaucrats in countries like Guatemala, South Korea, and Russia are trying to protect their nations’ images by limiting international adoption. As one former UNICEF official explained in a 2011 documentary on Guatemala: “I am very proud that there is an adoption law and that our image as being the number one exporter of children has changed. Now, our children have dignity. Guatemala has dignity.” 

His point was not that the situation for abandoned children in Guatemala has changed—particularly for special needs children or indigenous children who are among the least likely to be adopted and most likely to spend the rest of their lives in orphanages—but that the country’s reputation doesn’t suffer as much. 

This idea that children belong in their home country—no matter how dire the circumstances—has taken hold in our own State Department as well. Trish Maskiew, the current chief of the Adoption Division of the Office of Children’s Issues, has called international adoption a “profoundly problematic institution.” It is hardly surprising that she would support efforts like the ban on soft referrals that make it harder to undertake. 

Bureaucrats both at home and abroad regularly talk about the importance of raising children “in their birth culture.” As one Rwandan official quoted in Montgomery and Powell’s book explained: “We want children to remain here in Rwanda because we want them to be Rwandan. To stay in the Rwandan culture and learn Rwandan values.” 

International adoption is now seen by some experts as another form of “cultural imperialism,” in which Westerners are taking children who are a “natural resource” from their countries of origin and raising them here. As Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Powell note, "much of the criticism of international adoption, rather than being motivated by what is in the best interest of the child, is actually motivated by national pride, national interest or national resentment over past injustices."

But real children’s lives are at stake. As Josh said: “The contention that it would have been better for my son to remain in Chinese environment even if he had been blind and malnourished with no one to love him is monstrous.” 

*First name used to protect the privacy of their son.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  

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Mon, 08 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 283 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-283 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-283 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

First Ever Marriage Review to Free-up Dream Wedding Venues
UK Ministry of Justice, GOV.UK 

Do You Still Live With Your Parents? Odds Are You're From the Northeast
Grant Suneson, USA Today

It’s a Graduation! Bklyn Dads Complete Program that Helps Them Reconnect with Their Kids
Andrea Leonhardt, BK Reader

5 Benefits Of Letting Your Kids Make A Mess That Prove Housework Is Overrated
Julie Peck, Romper

Unequally into “Us”: Characteristics of Individuals in Asymmetrically Committed Relationships
Scott M. Stanley, Galena K. Rhoades, et al., Family Process

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Fri, 05 Jul 2019 08:00:00 -0400
A Strong Faith and a Supportive Community Help Special Needs Families Thrive https://ifstudies.org/blog/faith-and-a-supportive-community-help-special-needs-families-thrive https://ifstudies.org/blog/faith-and-a-supportive-community-help-special-needs-families-thrive by Erin Thielman

Over a year ago, my husband and I learned we were expecting our third child. Our other children were 8 and 5 years old at the time, and we were overjoyed to learn that a new baby would soon be joining our already happy family. But that joy was dampened when we received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. We were shocked and confused, but being pro-life, we resisted the pressure we faced to abort our baby.  

Because of my age, my doctors encouraged me to go through genetic prenatal testing. The original test came back with a 1/230 chance that the baby would have Down syndrome. The next step was to have a Cell-Free Prenatal Screening test.  This is a noninvasive blood test that is more sensitive than traditional tests. Once this test came back showing a strong possibility of Down syndrome, I was referred to a perinatologist, a doctor that specializes in high-risk pregnancies. This doctor strongly encouraged me to abort my baby because he had a high likelihood of having Down syndrome. She explained that people with Down syndrome are “mentally retarded,” have “too many health challenges,” and are a “burden on society.”  I will never forget her archaic, hurtful, barbaric words. My husband and I fought back against this thinking; we explained to the doctor that this baby was a gift and a blessing, and that we would accept and love him just the way he is.

Thankfully, at the same time that I was convincing the doctor to provide good healthcare with a less judgmental attitude, I worked in a very supportive environment during my pregnancy.  I was a religion teacher at our local Catholic middle school.  My faith in God and the support of my family, church, and school community kept me strong during my fight to keep my baby, who we named Andrew Paul. When I shared the news of my pregnancy with my students, their response encouraged me.  “That is so awesome, Mrs. Thielman!” or “Down syndrome rocks! You’re so lucky.” One student told me, “My brother has Down syndrome, and I think it’s really cool that your baby will too.” I find it interesting that these 12 to 14-year-old students were more encouraged about my news than the doctors that pressured me time and time again to abort simply on the basis of my child’s diagnosis. 

My faith community also supported our family in immeasurable ways. One of my priests was at my hospital bedside when I went into early labor and prayed with me until the contractions stopped.  This same priest came to the hospital room a couple of days after Andrew was born and prayed with us as a family. When Andrew had surgery and was in the NICU, our faith community prayed for us. The hospital chaplain visited our baby every day that he was in the NICU. We were also blessed to have a great many meals brought over by friends, as well as help with our older children. Andrew is now nine months old, and we are still supported in so many ways—from encouraging text messages and phone calls to prayers and unexpected gifts. 

Thankfully, my family received immeasurable support to counter the pressure of abortion, and our faith was made stronger by my son’s birth. In fact, I can honestly say it  “easy” for us to have a child with special needs. This is in large part due to the fact that my husband and I have a strong marriage, we are grounded in our faith and enjoy the support of our faith community, and we are able to financially support our son’s specific needs.  

Additionally, my family is equipped with support from other families who have children with Down syndrome. We are also supported by a number of national and state organizations, such as the National Down Syndrome Society, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, and the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia. 

Every family has unique characteristics, whether or not there are mental or developmental complications, but even with support, those who have a family member with special needs are launched into much more complexity

I spoke to a handful of families who also have children with special needs, asking them how this family dynamic affects their family life. Many of those who answered my questions said that their marriage had fallen apart due to having a child with special needs. However, those who had faith in God reported that their marriages became stronger through the ups and downs they experienced. 

Of the families I spoke to, it was unanimous that the siblings of a child with special needs have more compassion and mercy towards others and become more responsible adults. However, these siblings faced their own challenges when it comes to adjusting to life with a family member who has special needs. These challenges include growing up too fast and being generally asked to help too much.

For example, one mother, Kelly Taylor-Nori told me, 

My son (currently 17) was forced to grow up too fast. When he was four, our two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the next six years, he became adept at explaining her condition. From an early age, he developed hyper-vigilance regarding foods that she could have and the environments to which she could be exposed. Looking back, I never wanted those things for him. No child should have to see the things he saw, hear the things he heard, or experience the near death (several times) of a sibling.

Erin Mullen is the mother of CC, the two-year-old 2019 Ambassador to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, and her older sister, Amelia. “I think sometimes things may not be fair, but there is also good that they will learn from their siblings, such as perseverance, unconditional love, and acceptance. This far outweighs any difficulties they encounter,” Erin shared. “Even at four years old, Amelia sees that CC has more appointments and different health needs.  She may not understand it completely, but she accepts it as fact and has an incredible level of empathy for her little sister.”  

Another mother, Cathy Symington, has three children, including her youngest son, Peter, who has Down syndrome.  “What I have found is that the siblings are better motivators for Peter than I could ever be,” Cathy said. “I instruct, but the siblings motivate.” She added, “It goes both ways, though. Peter has motivated my older two to be more patient and compassionate and to spend more time with each other.”

Personally, I ask a lot of my oldest child, and he steps up to help with his two younger siblings and household chores. I once told him that I would be happy to talk with my husband about starting an allowance for him. He replied that he didn’t want money; he only wanted a day off so that he could rest. My oldest son is definitely the rock of our family, but I need to remember that he is also just a kid. Thankfully, my two oldest children have friends who also have siblings with special needs that they rely on for empathetic support.

Having the support of other families with special needs is so critical to helping parents and families faced with a challenging prenatal diagnosis. Whatever the diagnosis, whether it is Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, or any other, our country is blessed to have communities that support people with special needs and their families. Those with special needs are becoming more integrated into society and are showing the world that they are capable of anything and proving that every life, no matter the challenge, is worth living. Our strong faith, along with support from our faith-based and special-needs communities has helped our family thrive.  

Erin Thielman is a married mother of three and a veteran of the Air Force, who has worked as a project manager, middle school religion teacher, public speaker, and freelance writer.  Visit her website at www.thinkingcatholic.net.

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Wed, 03 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
The Debate Over Commercial Surrogacy Is Dividing Champions of the Sexual Revolution https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-debate-over-commercial-surrogacy-is-dividing-champions-of-the-sexual-revolution https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-debate-over-commercial-surrogacy-is-dividing-champions-of-the-sexual-revolution by Ashley McGuire

As Hulu rolls out its third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, a show based on the Margaret Atwood dystopia in which fertile women are forced to become slave surrogates, New York is advancing a bill to legalize surrogacy. The bill is far from a slam-dunk. Instead, the debate surrounding the bill is highlighting a significant and growing fault line among liberal feminists who are divided about the ethics of surrogacy.

As reported by The New York Times, the bill has attracted the opposition of prominent women, from iconic liberal feminist Gloria Steinem to state assembly woman Deborah Glick, the first openly gay member of the legislative body, who expressed uncertainty that surrogacy is the right way to advance gay rights. “This is clearly a problem for the extraordinarily well-heeled,” Glick said, “It is pregnancy for a fee, and I find that commodification of women troubling.”

Her sentiments echoed those of Steinem, who wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo arguing that legalizing paid surrogacy places “disenfranchised women at the financial and emotional mercy of wealthier and more privileged individuals” and would allow “profiteering from body invasion.”

In a surprise move, one of the state’s most far-left senators, Liz Krueger, also opposed the bill. She herself struggled with infertility, but said that with surrogacy, “you’re buying and selling eggs, and you’re renting wombs.”

Other liberal feminists have come out in favor of legalizing surrogacy, arguing, as reproductive attorney Nidhi Desai did in the New York Times, that “this debate comes down to whether legislatures believe that people who are otherwise unable to bear children should be prevented from having an opportunity to build their family in this manner.” To feminists who support the practice, legalized surrogacy is just another extension of the “my body, my choice” mentality that dominates so much of liberal feminist ideology. If women should have the right to pay to terminate a pregnancy, they should have the right to be paid to carry one to term. 

But feminists are right to be concerned about the many risks and unknowns that come with paid surrogacy, most especially as they pertain to the surrogate women. For starters, whereas birth mothers placing a biological child for adoption enjoy strong and clear legal protections, surrogate mothers have almost none.

Take, for example, the surrogate hired by celebrity actress Sherri Shepherd and her now ex-husband. They used his sperm and a donor egg to impregnate their surrogate. While she was pregnant, they divorced, and Shepherd disavowed the child with whom she had no biological or martial connection. The surrogate mother was left responsible for caring for and supporting the child in a stunning turn upheld by the courts. As Slate put it, “The Sherri Shepherd Surrogacy Case Is a Mess. Prepare for More Like It.”

In another case, a surrogate unwittingly gave her own biological child away, having become pregnant both by in vitro fertilization with another couple’s biological child and naturally with her own in a rare event called superfetation, according to the Independent. She had to fight a protracted and expensive legal battle to get him back. In countless other cases, surrogates whose eggs were used have changed their minds about giving up the child, only to be told they must relinquish the baby which is biologically theirs. And many other surrogates have reported pressure to abort against their will when health concerns arise during pregnancy. In one high profile case, a surrogate refused the paying parents demands that she abort the baby when they discovered she had a cleft palate. They even offered her $10,000, but she refused. She wound up keeping the baby herself, despite being a single and low-income woman.

The list of strange and sad surrogacy cases is unending, and most states don’t recognize surrogacy contracts, making the cases nearly impossible to resolve in a consistent manner. Advocates for legalization point to these cases as a reason to legalize it and consequently, regulate it.

At its core, surrogacy is the instrumentalization of the female body for profit.

But regulating the industry will not necessarily make it less exploitative or dangerous to women. Egg harvesting and in vitro fertilization, both essential to surrogacy practices, come with significant health risks for women, including increased risk for ectopic pregnancy, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, and increased cancer risk, as well as an increased likelihood of health problems and cancer among children conceived through artificial means. 

Moreover, the industry largely preys on low-income women who turn to surrogacy out of financial desperation, a reality that has led most other countries in the world to ban the procedure in order to protect their poorest women from international exploitation. India was among the latest of countries to ban what The Telegraph called the “‘rent a womb’ exploitation of vulnerable women.” As Rachel Lu put it in The Week:

Surrogates, for their part, are generally poor people. There's a reason you hear about celebrities hiring surrogates, not becoming them. When Adele jokes about acting as surrogate to a gay couple, we know she's not serious; what woman of means would do that? Advocates talk about "protections" for involved women, but realistically, the clients of the fertility industry are generally wealthy, while surrogates generally are not. They're there because they need the money. 

Even if the surrogacy industry did not rely on poor and vulnerable women and did not entail health hazards for the women involved, nothing can change the reality that at its core, surrogacy is the instrumentalization of the female body for profit. That fact cannot be papered over with contracts and laws or even the noblest of desires, a baby. Like the drive to legalize prostitution in the name of regulation, safety, and women’s choice, the drive to legalize surrogacy will do nothing but give legal sanction to the further objectification of women.

This reality is bringing together strange bedfellows, be it liberal feminists and conservative Catholics in Europe, as The Atlantic reports, or here at home, where a Catholic like myself finds myself ardently concurring with the likes of Gloria Steinem. And it is exposing a fault-line among feminist champions of the sexual revolution, who are left to contend with the newest frontiers of "choice" and sexual free will. 

Interestingly, one of the women portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale is revealed to have been a paid surrogate by choice before a revolution gave way to a world where fertile women are slaves to the wealthy and powerful. It would seem even the creators of perhaps America’s most famous surrogacy story have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that legal, commercial surrogacy takes us down a path we do not want to go, most especially if we care about the dignity and rights of all women. Here's hoping that lawmakers in New York and elsewhere agree.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).

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Tue, 02 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
In the Future, Sex Could Be About Both Procreation and Recreation https://ifstudies.org/blog/in-the-future-sex-could-be-about-both-procreation-and-recreation https://ifstudies.org/blog/in-the-future-sex-could-be-about-both-procreation-and-recreation by Laurie DeRose

Writing in the Metro, University of London professor Eric Kaufmann recently argued that in the foreseeable future, sex will go back to “procreation rather than recreation.” This prediction seems hard to fathom in today’s culture that values individualism as an intrinsic good and that seems wary of irreversible commitments. But his prediction is founded on the rather simple premise that religious populations are growing, while more secular ones are shrinking.

This “demography is destiny” argument follows naturally from the fact that fertility dominates both mortality and migration in determining group size. It goes something like this:

  • People with strong religious identities have more children than their counterparts, whether secular or nominally religious.
  • Death rates don’t matter much for the relative size of groups since everybody dies once; birth rates are paramount because they vary much more. Put differently, a person can contribute much more to population growth by having children multiple times than by staying alive longer.
  • Conversion is like migration in that it has the potential to affect group size, but in practice, birth rates still dominate. To understand this point, think about sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest growing region on the globe: massive emigration hardly slows population growth because there are far more people being born than moving out. Children born into religious families do convert to secularism, but not enough to overcome the fact that there are so many of them.

Kaufmann added that the reason the composition of future populations will be defined by religion is that modernization has driven down birth rates everywhere, but highly-religious groups living in the most modern environments have actively rejected small families. Even fertility that would have been moderate in a by-gone age—say a family with four children—matters a lot for the religious composition of future populations when secular women are much more likely to have one child than four. Kaufmann drives home the plausibility of his argument using the example of Jerusalem that “has flipped from secularism to conservative religiosity” due to the Orthodox having much larger families than more liberal Jews. He projects that the rest of Israel will follow suit in the relative short run, while it will take longer in places like the United States—until the 2100s.

All of this is mathematically reasonable, and Pew also projects that the share of people on the globe unaffiliated with any religion is expected to fall from about 16% now to about 13% by 2060. There is no evidence, however, that “sacralization by stealth” has begun in the United States. Here’s what the General Social Survey reveals about the religious composition of parents over time:

The data span 46 years, and the share of babies born to those who never attend religious services has increased, rather than decreased. It is, of course, possible that in the future, the proportion of babies born to religious parents will increase.

Nevertheless, there are at least two fundamental reasons that I think Kaufmann’s prediction about sex becoming more about procreation rather than recreation is wrong. First, he underestimates the potential for “fertility rebound” among secular couples. Second, he makes faulty assumptions about the relationship between religiosity and fun in bed.

Starting with the less sexy of my two objections: gender egalitarianism can contribute to childbearing. The assumption that secularism will continue to predict the lowest fertility rates as it does now doesn’t incorporate scholarship showing that both egalitarian societies and men’s involvement with childrearing increase fertility. There is no equivalence between “egalitarian” and “secular” (nor between “gender traditional” and “religious”), but a good share of women are in relationships that are both egalitarian and secular—and they report higher quality relationships than all but their most religious counterparts, as we found in our recent report, The Ties That Bind.


Source: World Family Map: The Ties That Bind, 2019.

Relationship quality matters tremendously because today’s below-replacement fertility doesn’t result from low-fertility desires as much as from people who want children not having them. Happier people are more likely to achieve their desired fertility rather than to stop short, and women in both gender progressive secular couples (group 1 above) and religious couples (groups 5 and 6 above) are happier than others. The happiness among gender progressive secular women can be expected to translate into higher fertility as more societies adopt policies that take some of the stress off working mothers (such as free universal preschool and tax breaks for families that hire domestic employees).

Second, even if highly religious couples didn’t share part of their fertility advantage with secular progressives, Kaufmann makes a mistake by equating “a fundamentalist future” with sex being “about procreation, not recreation.” As someone well-acquainted with Christian teaching about the joy of marital sex, I was happy to discover that myths about religious Puritanism regarding marital sex are being publicly debunked. Further, current social science research supports the idea that religious couples have fun in bed, as we found in our recent report:


Source: World Family Map: The Ties That Bind, 2019.

The skeptical might interpret these data as indicating that religious couples exaggerate their contentment with their relationships, but I suspect that would likely inflate the proportion simply agreeing that they were satisfied with their sexual relationship with their partner, and these data are for strongly agreeing.

In short, Kaufmann’s conclusion stems from treating two things with far more linearity than reality suggests. While I agree with him that fertility differentials favoring the religious will persist, he ignores the possibility that a “fertility rebound” will be pronounced among the secular relative to the nominally religious. The implication is that future populations won’t be as heavily religious as he assumes. Moreover, assuming a linear relationship between sexual freedom and sexual joy ignores that fact that commitment enhances sexual pleasure. In a highly religious population, sex can be about both procreation and recreation. Even today, most secular people use sex for procreation at some point in their lives, and both procreative and recreational functions of sex would likely persist in a future of any religious composition.

Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and a senior fellow with the Institute for Family Studies. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.

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Mon, 01 Jul 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 282 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-282 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-282 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Six Facts About Wealth in the United States
Isabel Sawhill & Christopher Pulliam, Brookings Institution

Understanding and Reducing the Impact of Political Polarization on Families
Webinar w/Bill Doherty—July 18: 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. CT
National Council on Family Relations 

Divorce is More Than Financially Devastating, It Can Also Ruin Your Mental Health
Saira Peesker, The Globe & Mail

Helping Teenagers Feel "Connected" to School Yields Benefits 20 Years Later
Sarah D. Sparks, Education Week

Social Poverty: Low-Income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties
Sarah Halpern-Meekin, NYU Press

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Fri, 28 Jun 2019 08:00:00 -0400
Why Paid Family Leave Should Include Elder Caregivers https://ifstudies.org/blog/why-paid-family-leave-should-include-elder-caregivers https://ifstudies.org/blog/why-paid-family-leave-should-include-elder-caregivers by Amy Ziettlow (@RevAmyZ)

Legislative momentum appears to be moving towards a federal, universal paid leave act, such as the FAMILY Act (Family Medical Insurance Leave Act) recently introduced by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), or the New Parents Act from Sen. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FLA). Because these proposals tend to focus on new parenthood, I worked with the Center for Public Justice to write a report on the intersection of elder care and paid family leave.

Approximately 41.3 million Americans provide unpaid elder care each year. Many juggle full-time jobs with private care responsibilities. On average, they spend nearly three hours a day providing care, and can spend nearly $7,000 per year on out-of-pocket expenses related to caregiving.

Last fall, Rachel Anderson and I wrote here about the “invisible workforce” of elder caregivers. We identified three categories of elder caregivers, inspired by the pioneering work of hospice physician, Dr. Joanne Lynn, which evolved and expanded in my new report, Called to Care

1. The Roller Coaster

The first period of care is what I call “the Roller Coaster,” which is basically a long-term period of support requiring intermittent periods of acute care. Care recipients tend to live independently but still experience periods of time when acute help or immediate intervention is needed. Neurological disease and general physical decline tend to define this journey. Caregivers must be willing to drop work and family responsibilities quickly to respond to a crisis.

For caregivers on the roller coaster of care, access to sick leave that can be used for care responsibilities is helpful. Several states have caregiver leave acts, like Illinois’ Employee Sick Leave Act, that follow the model legislation promoted by AARP.

2. The Marathon

Another period identified in the report is “the Marathon,” which is a long-term period of continual support. Care recipients tend to decline in mobility and mental acuity slowly, but persistently, over decades. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are common ailments. Many of these caregivers reduce their work hours, take a leave of absence from paid employment, or retire early to care for a family member.

For caregivers on the marathon of care, the ability to earn Social Security credits for caregiving could be especially helpful as they discern whether to curtail full-time employment, retire early, or take a leave of absence from paid employment without jeopardizing their own retirement and safe aging.

3. The Deep End

The third period of caregiving I focus on in the report is a short-term period of support that requires constant, on-site, acute care. Care recipients tend to live relatively independent lives until an acute crisis happens, such as a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, or a fall. Hospice is often associated with this type of care because it serves patients in the final six months of life. Family care tasks can require a high level of skill.

For caregivers at the deep end of caregiving, access to up to 12 weeks of full-time paid leave helps. Six states and D.C. currently offer paid family leave, and bipartisan support exists for evolving the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into a paid form of support.

When I think of the positive role paid leave can play for a caregiver in the “deep end,” I think of Melvin and his daughter, Barbara, whose story is also highlighted in the report. Melvin was a long-time member of our congregation in his mid-80’s, who for several years received ongoing treatments, including radiation, for a tumor on his kidneys. After a radiation treatment in November 2017, he did not bounce back as usual. Barbara took him for a scan, and “he was just full of it. Cancer everywhere.” He went home with hospice care.

Barbara was working full-time as an insurance agent that fall. When she told her boss of the hospice admission, he said, “You need to be with your dad.” Although he only had two employees and was therefore not legally required to provide family leave, he gave her as much paid leave as she needed. Barbara admitted that having the time to be with her dad, without the added strain of not earning a paycheck, was truly a Godsend.

“I don't think I slept for the whole month of December,” she shared. “He went from walking to using a wheelchair to being bed bound…It was all new and all overwhelming.” After Melvin’s death, Barbara reflected on her time as a family caregiver, “That month was one of the hardest of my life, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It was an honor.”

Barbara’s care for her father reminds us that families remain the primary defense against suffering and the critical promoter of flourishing for those who are aging or dying. Generous employers, like Barbara’s, certainly exist, but society needs ways to help all caregivers who are also in the workforce to be faithful to both their work and care callings without exhausting themselves and their families—emotionally, financially, and spiritually.

Rev. Amy Ziettlow serves as pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church (ELCA). This piece highlights the research and insights of Ziettlow’s recent report, Called to Care: Honoring Elders and the Family Care Journey (published by the Center for Public Justice). She is the author, with Naomi Cahn, of Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Caregiving, and Loss (Oxford, 2017).

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Thu, 27 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Chris Arnade Talks About Family and Faith in Back Row America https://ifstudies.org/blog/chris-arnade-talks-about-family-and-faith-in-back-row-america https://ifstudies.org/blog/chris-arnade-talks-about-family-and-faith-in-back-row-america by Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

It is difficult to read Chris Arnade’s book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, or look at the striking photographs inside without feeling a bit guilty. How many times have we rushed passed a homeless person at the local library or turned our faces away from the distraught woman with the cardboard sign standing outside our rolled-up car windows? How often have we stopped to consider where that person comes from, or what he or she has suffered? And for those of us who grew up in working-class or poor communities, how many of us avoid going back (or staying too long if we do go back) because doing so makes us feel uncomfortable and anxious—sort of like we are being sucked back into a black hole that we only managed to escape by the grace of God? But the images and stories in Dignity do more than just leave most of us feeling a bit ashamed of our past actions toward people on the back row; they also evoke feelings of compassion. What makes the book a must-read is that it forces us to not only look at the people on the back row that we so often ignore but also to truly begin to see and (hopefully) better understand them. 

I was curious to learn about the family backgrounds of the men and women featured in Dignity, so I asked author Chris Arnade to share more about what he observed about the family lives of the people he met in back row America. We also discussed the power of faith in these communities and the main message he hopes to communicate through the book (the following interview has been edited for clarity).   

Alysse ElHage: I noticed that you often asked the people you photographed about their childhoods. What did you observe about the family lives of people on the back row—did they share anything in common that stood out to you?

Chris Arnade: I did ask a lot [about family background], and a lot of it was left on the cutting room floor, partially to protect some of the things they told me. There are a lot of bad stories. I think the theme that runs through is abuse. I don’t want to paint an overly broad brush. But certainly, among people who are suffering from the worst addiction and are living on the streets and maybe the sex workers, there was a broad theme of abuse at an early age. I think in a lot of cases people were passed around in foster care or the life they found themselves in was not necessarily all that different from the life their parents might have had. So, in some cases the people who were going through the worst, their mother might have done something similar or their father. But with the exception of a few, there were not a lot of positive stories about fathers. In some cases, I learned to simply not ask about someone’s father because I knew what the answer would be. It would either be, I don’t want him in my life, or he’s never been in my life... 

Relative to my Wall Street friends, for instance, especially with hard-core abuse, there were cases of family dysfunction. It’s rare that I met people that came from a good family, or from what they would self-describe it as a "good family." There were those cases where people talked kind of glowingly about their childhoods, but this was far more rare.

Alysse ElHageMany of the people you photographed, particularly the women, had children—often multiple children from whom they were separated. And they seemed to draw strength from motherhood and from their families in general—regardless of how broken their families might be. There was one young man who told you that although his mother had been a drug addict, and in and out of jail when he was growing up, he could not leave her because she needed him. Why do you think the family connections were still so strong, despite the trauma many of these individuals faced as children, and what does that say about the power of family in people’s lives?

Chris Arnade: I’d say there were two broad themes. One is they have rejected their family, or their family has rejected them, and they want nothing to do with it. And they’ve formed part of what I call a “street family,” which has the hallmarks of a family but without blood relations. And that’s the extreme case.

The other case was—certainly, for the people who were going through fewer problems and might have been in and out of Section 8—family was everything. Even though you would look at it and call it completely dysfunctional, family was all some people have. And in terms of the women having a lot of children, even though they keep getting taken away from them, one of the things I’ve noticed, and it was something that struck me when I was doing my work in the Bronx: I don’t know if it’s fair to say they just move on. I mean, it tears them up at times. A number of times, I’ve had women show me phone pictures of their kids and be proud, even though that child is not really in their life. I’ve heard women basically sitting there sobbing about children that they’ve lost and then getting pregnant again, knowing they probably will lose that child, too. It was one of the hardest things for me to put together. Because they don’t want to have their children taken away, even though it probably will happen. And they maintain an intense bond with the child even though it’s gone. They try to stay in their lives. I can tell you some amazing stories. When I started posting these pictures on social media, I’ve had children who reached out to me and found their mothers and reconnected. I just recently got a connection from a woman who’s been living off and on the streets for 25 years, from a child of hers’ who is now an adult and wants to talk to her mother. So, there’s still a lot of bonds there. 

With the exception of a few, there were not a lot of positive stories about fathers. In some cases, I learned to simply not ask about someone’s father because I knew what the answer would be. It would either be, I don’t want him in my life, or he’s never been in my life. 

I’ve got to be careful here, because I’m a guy with a camera, and I don’t have a lot of training in this. And I know it’s politically a very sensitive subject. But one of the women in the book is a sex worker in California. I asked her a question, even though I knew what the answer was: “Why do you keep having children?” She said, “Basically, that’s all I have.” So, what I’ve seen is, these women who are going through a really rough time or have had a rough life, they really think that having that child is going to be a ticket to the white picket fence with a happy family. Because they’re going to do it for themselves—they’re going to do it for their kids. And they certainly have the hope that the father of the child will be involved. So, they really invest a lot of emotion. It’s almost like they’re kind of buying a lottery ticket. It’s their emotional way out. So many of them have said to me, “I’m going to do this for that kid.” And then it doesn’t happen. But they try. I’ve seen extraordinarily loving mothers, who by most measures probably should have their child taken from them, who are trying their best to be a loving mother. But the father may not be there; their addiction may come first. So, it’s really heartbreaking to watch, because I don’t think there is anyone I’ve met who does it because “I’m just going to get more money from the State.” I’ve never met anybody like that. It’s entirely: “I’m doing this for me. It’s going to make me a better person. I’m doing it because I want that white picket fence. I want that house. I want a place where I can live [that is] unlike where I’m living now.” 

One of the things I saw that struck me is everybody wants to have a family. That’s like a universal. There are rare instances of people who might say, “I’m mentally messed up, and I don’t want to do that to a kid, or my parents did that to me, and I don’t want to be that person.” But 98% of the people want to have a family. And I think we all want them to put their economic house first and then have the kids. They start realizing that’s never going to happen—[their] economic house is never going to get in order. But they’re not going to stop having kids, women especially. For the women I’ve met and for many of the men, having a child gives them a role, it gives them meaning—something in life that makes them important. 

What I’ve seen is, these women who are going through a really rough time or have had a rough life, they really think that having that child is going to be a ticket to the white picket fence with a happy family...It’s almost like they’re kind of buying a lottery ticket. 

Alysse ElHageI wanted to ask you about the chapter on the church, which is one of my favorites in the book. I grew up in a very small Pentecostal church with, maybe on a good week, 20-30 members. And even though I am not part of that denomination today, it bothers me when people outside these circles, including other Christians, make fun of these churches. So, I very much appreciated that you treated these small churches and the people worshipping in them with respect. What was it that you saw or experienced in these churches that earned your respect?

Chris Arnade: I do respect them. And you have to understand that I never made fun of religion. I’m not that person. But I wasn’t very far from it. It helped that, even though I grew up Catholic, because my father was active in civil rights, I spent a lot of time in black Baptist churches. So it wasn’t an entirely new experience for me. I’ve seen the power of those services. For me, it was how welcoming and how powerful it was. To be honest, it was pretty powerful at times. There were times in services when I was moved to tears. 

You know, this particular service I wrote about, I think lasted four-and-a-half hours. It was a long time on a Sunday night in a wooden house! I think there were maybe 20 of us there. And everybody took turns speaking, and some people got up and sang, and they even asked me to speak, which I did. What was really impressive about it was to see how welcoming it was and how much of a community it was and how non-judgmental it was. People think of these churches as being fire and brimstone and judgmental, but not at the individual level. If you show up and sing the songs, and you tell them what you did wrong, they’re going to forgive you, or at least try to help you. 

Alysse ElHage: I believe I’ve heard you say that many of the people you met who had overcome drug addiction had done so with the help of their faith or a church. Is that correct? 

Chris Arnade: Yes, I think almost 95% [of those I met], if not everybody I’ve met who has managed to overcome addiction in this community in the back row (not the front row, not the wealthy people)—in almost in every case, it was somehow through a church or finding religion. And so, as a scientist, it’s like, well, this is happening, this is working. You know, regardless of what my prior thoughts on religion were and my deeper thoughts on religion, this is something that is helping many people. 

Alysse ElHage: You said you were an atheist when you went into this project. Did this experience change you or your beliefs in any way?

Chris Arnade: Yes, I go to mass now and then. I’m not particularly good about it. I wouldn’t call myself religious because I haven’t gotten there yet. And I don’t want to sound pious or anything; I’ve got a lot to work on. But I certainly am much more open-minded about religion. I’m much more curious, and I’m much more at the point where I’m realizing that there’s a lot more there than I would have thought at all. You know, it’s a lot more central to our understanding. It has a much more central place in my life, and it should, perhaps, take a lot more central place in a lot of people’s lives. 

Alysse ElHage: In addition to having them read your book, what will you teach your own children about people in the back row—and what advice do you have for other parents?

Chris Arnade:  Don’t be scared of the poor. Don’t be scared of people who are different from you...And it’s not scary. There’s a lot to learn. Don’t be scared of differences. Before you judge anybody, especially another group, walk a mile in their shoes or sit down with them at McDonald's. If you come at it with a good mindset—meaning open-minded and not wanting to change people, just wanting to listen—people will open up. 

*Photo credit: Chris Arnade. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_arnade.

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Wed, 26 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
U.S. Cohabitation Law: Still Separate and Unequal https://ifstudies.org/blog/us-cohabitation-law-still-separate-and-unequal https://ifstudies.org/blog/us-cohabitation-law-still-separate-and-unequal by Helen Alvaré

Ordinarily, the news about cohabitation in the United States focuses on its increasing frequency, or its relationship to parenting and later marital instability. Occasionally, a story appears about a state that still possesses a law against cohabitation and has undertaken a rare enforcement action. Far less noted, however, is the fact that the vast majority of U.S. states continue to draw a sharp legal line between cohabitation and marriage, attaching important rights and benefits to the latter, but not to the former. This indicates that despite the growing practice and approval of cohabitation in the U.S., most state lawmakers remain uncertain or even wary of it.

Since the beginning of this nation, marriage has been considered more than a private contract. Rather, it is always also a legal “status.” An old, but still cited U.S. Supreme Court decision explains the significance of granting legal “status” to what is also a consensual personal relationship. In the 1888 case of Maynard v. Hill, the Court wrote:

The [marriage] relation once formed, the law steps in and holds the parties to various obligations and liabilities. It is an institution, in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress. [As] expressed by the supreme court of Maine in Adams v. Palmer[citation omitted]: ‘When the contracting parties have entered into the married state, they have not so much entered into a contract as into a new relation, the rights, duties, and obligations of which rest not upon their agreement, but upon the general law of the state, statutory or common, which defines and prescribes those rights, duties, and obligations.’1

By distinction, in the U.S., entering into cohabitation does not automatically create legal rights and obligations respecting matters like property distribution or financial support or inheritance rights. Instead, cohabiting couples may attempt to arrange legal and financial matters between themselves by entering into contracts or opting to take property in joint names in order to clarify ownership.

Most states have not articulated their reasons for declining to grant legal status to cohabitation, or even, in some cases, declining to enforce contracts made by cohabitants. States that have spoken on the matter express concerns about undercutting the significance of marriage. It is also possible, however, that their laws are simply a reflection of several basic differences between cohabitation and marriage.

Cohabitation, in general, is more unstable than marriage; and the parties do not regularly intermingle their financial affairs. Furthermore, lawmakers are likely respecting individuals’ freedom to contract. This is a very important principle of U.S. law. If two people have not chosen to enter into a marriage contract, then lawmakers will not treat them as if they have.

Some scholars have produced a steady stream of criticism of the state of U.S. law regarding cohabitation. They argue in the name of fairness for cohabitants who suffer financially when a relationship terminates, and point to the laws of more than a few foreign countries where cohabitants are treated more like married couples.

Still, U.S. law concerning cohabitation has changed very little even during decades of rapidly rising cohabitation rates.

An Early Question: Enforce Cohabitation Contracts?

In the legal universe, cohabitation burst onto the scene in 1976 with the lawsuit against actor Lee Marvin by the woman who had cohabited with him for 6 years (and taken his name), Michelle Marvin. In that case, the question concerned whether or not Lee had made a legally-enforceable promise to Michelle to share property and to support her for the rest of her life, even after their relationship ended. In the years prior to Marvin v. Marvin, it was generally agreed that because cohabitation was not socially desirable, agreements between cohabitants regarding exchanges of money or property were unenforceable; they were tainted by the “consideration” (something valuable exchanged by one party for the performance or promise of performance by another) assumed to form a part of every cohabitation agreement: nonmarital sexual relations. The California Supreme Court’s Marvin opinion, however, held that sexual relations were severable from a cohabitation agreement about financial matters—unless the contract explicitly hinged on the exchange of sex. Of course, a partner seeking to enforce such a contract had to prove its existence; but California held that it would enforce not only written or express contracts, but also oral and implied contracts. Furthermore, even in the absence of a contract, the court was willing to employ its “equitable powers” to achieve justice. In other words, the court would rely upon principles of fairness to bring about a just result, even without relying upon a precise legal rule, if, for example, the parties’ behavior (e.g. provoking unfair reliance or receiving services for free) warranted it.

While the Marvin court acknowledged some social concerns about cohabitation, it suggested in these early days of no-fault divorce and rising divorce rates that cohabitation might stabilize a later marriage. “This trial period, preliminary to marriage, serves as some assurance that the marriage will not subsequently end in dissolution to the harm of both parties,” the court wrote. It also concluded that social rejection of cohabitation was diminishing: "The mores of the society have indeed changed so radically in regard to cohabitation that we cannot impose a standard based on alleged moral considerations that have apparently been so widely abandoned by so many."

Post-Marvin, most states agreed to enforce cohabitation agreements not founded on a promise of nonmarital sex. Different requirements were applied, however, with some states enforcing only written or express agreements.

Still, a minority of states’ courts continue to refuse to enforce cohabitation contracts and treat cohabitants as legal strangers to one another for a variety of reasons. These include continuing uncertainty about the effects of cohabitation on marriage, and the desire for legislative, not judicial, intervention into so important a public institution. The legislatures in these states have not responded.

Illinois is an excellent example. In its decision in Hewitt v. Hewitt, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded there are “major public policy questions involved in determining whether…and to what extent it is desirable to accord some type of legal status to claims arising from” cohabitation, primarily because of potential “impact of such recognition upon our society and the institution of marriage.” The court also realized that evaluation of such a question would require data analysis and investigation “best suited … to the superior investigative and fact-finding of the legislative branch in the exercise of its traditional authority to declare public policy in the domestic relations field.

Even 36 years post-Hewitt, the Illinois Supreme Court continued to refuse to act judicially to recognize rights for cohabitants.

It is likely that the U.S. difference on cohabitation law relates to scholarship continuing to highlight the relationships between marriage and family stability, marriage and child-outcomes, and the lived, practical differences between the expectations and experiences of cohabitants and spouses.

Later Question: Treat Cohabitants Like Spouses?

While there is no reliable recordkeeping on the subject, it seems likely that the vast majority of cohabitants do not enter into contracts about their mutual rights and obligations. This means that when their relationships terminate by means other than marriage, there could arise myriad disputes about rights involving property and ongoing financial support. Children’s right to support from their legal parents is answered by the law’s insistence that noncustodial parents provide adequate support calculated according to state law applicable both to married and unmarried parents. But the adults, with few exceptions and absent a contract, do not have enforceable rights and obligations to one another. State family codes speak at length about married couples’ rights and obligations during marriage, divorce, and in death, but they are nearly universally silent about cohabitants.

One exception is Washington State. There, upon the dissolution of cohabitations meeting certain requirements of stability or longevity, property distribution is required. Even here, however, the rules applicable to cohabitants are not as favorable as those applying to the married. This is because the state legislature has not agreed that cohabitations are the “legal equivalent to marriages.”

But in many other states (and again, absent an enforceable contract) cohabitants have to rely upon some other indicia of their intent to share property. This might include their having taken property in joint names or having made significant contributions to property titled in another’s name. A claimant might also insist that an account has been “co-mingled.” But absent such showings, states have been generally unwilling to apply marital-dissolution standards to cohabitation.

Likewise, regarding standards applicable to ongoing relationships, states have maintained a bright line between marriage and cohabitation. For example, unlike the married, cohabitants do not obtain rights and obligations respecting inheritance or testimonial privilege. Nor are third parties required to treat currently cohabiting couples like spouses. Cohabitants, therefore, may not generally recover for wrongful death or loss of consortium (deprivations of the benefits of a family relationship caused by another person’s harming one of the family members). And cohabitants almost never receive private insurance survivors’ benefits or unemployment benefits related to a relocating partner. Health insurance companies are legally free to allow or disallow insuring a cohabiting partner as part of an employer-provided health insurance benefit. The federal government offers Social Security survivors’ benefits only to formally married spouses and not to cohabitants. States also regularly decline to grant survivor benefits for cohabiting partners of state employees.

Proposals to Treat Cohabitation More Like Marriage

States’ refusals to treat cohabitation more like marriage have not stopped legal scholars from proposing the opposite, but thus far, states have declined to adopt their proposals. In 2001, the American Law Institute (ALI) proposed a set of rules to create rights and obligations between cohabiting partners upon dissolution, without their express agreement, but in accordance with their actions. In the Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution: Analysis and Recommendations, the drafters proposed a newly defined “domestic partnership” status, which would arise under limited conditions including sharing a primary residence and having a “life together as a couple.” The latter is determined by factors such as agreements, intermingled finances, relationship duration, the degree of dependence or interdependence in their relationship, couple’s reputation, and many other factors. Couples would have to opt out in order to prevent the law’s application. Again, no state has passed a law based upon this ALI model.

Another recommendation offered by distinguished family law professor Lawrence Waggoner suggests legally creating a new status entitled “de facto marriage.” This would be available to the unmarried, who share a common household and a “committed relationship.” It would provide for rights and obligations not only at dissolution, but also during the ongoing relationship and at the death of a party; these rights and obligation are not only mutual but extend to some third parties, like the state. A “committed relationship” could be shown by factors concerning: the purpose, duration, and exclusivity of the relationship; intermingled finances; taking up formal legal obligations such as life or health insurance; or the shared parenting of a child. The law would presume a de facto marriage if the couple had shared a common household with a child for four years.

Still, there would be no automatic legal determination that a de facto marriage existed. Instead, the status would always be a matter for judicial determination, and even the “presumption” mentioned above would be rebuttable in court by clear and convincing evidence. Furthermore, a couple could opt out of such a status by entering into an enforceable nonmarital cohabitation agreement that says they do not intend to be treated as married by the law.

Contrast with Many Foreign Countries

U.S. law’s degree of caution or uncertainty about cohabitation can be understood even more clearly in distinction with other countries’ choices to assign to cohabitation more of the rights and responsibilities granted to marriage. More than a few nations and countries have granted marital–like rights to cohabiting couples—if their relationship meets several criteria. These include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, and Scotland. At the same time, some countries, such as Italy, Poland, and Spain, and many countries in Asia and the Middle East, have opted not to extend such marital rights and responsibilities to cohabitants.

Foreign laws granting legal status to cohabitation vary. They may assign financial rights and responsibilities only upon dissolution and not during an ongoing relationship. They may require opting in by registration with the state (e.g Norway or France ) or by contracting in an agreement approved by the state (Belgium); or instead, simply their behavior in cohabiting will result in a property distribution or support obligation being imposed upon them (e.g. Slovenia, Croatia). Various obligations may be incurred only after a prescribed amount of time (e.g. Australia and some Canadian provinces).

However they differ, it is telling that so many foreign democracies have begun to assimilate cohabitation to marriage, while the U.S. has so far resisted this trend. There is no single theory to explain this. It is likely that the U.S. difference relates to scholarship that continues to highlight the relationships between marriage and family stability, marriage and child-outcomes, and the lived, practical differences between the expectations and experiences of cohabitants and spouses. It is also quite possible that U.S. law’s affection for individual freedom (and freedom of contract) is playing a role.

Still, pressures to assimilate cohabitation to marriage continue, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s paean to marriage as found in Obergefell v. Hodges. Some scholars complain that this opinion further marginalized unmarried couples as insufficient. Undoubtedly, these sorts of arguments will continue to mount, but they have not yet coalesced into a vocal, well-organized movement to grant status to cohabitation that is likely to change existing U.S. law anytime soon.

Helen Alvare’ is a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law and the author of Putting Children’s Interests First in U.S. Family Law and Policy: With Power Comes Responsibility.


1. Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190, 211(1888).

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Tue, 25 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Dropping my Daughter Off at Day Care  https://ifstudies.org/blog/dropping-my-daughter-off-at-day-care- https://ifstudies.org/blog/dropping-my-daughter-off-at-day-care- by Michael Wear (@MichaelRWear)

Editor’s NoteThis essay is a condensed version of a longer essay that appeared in Michael Wear’s “Reclaiming Hope” newsletter on June 6, 2019. You can read the full essay and subscribe to his newsletter here. This abridged version is published here with permission.  

Melissa and I have been truly fortunate in these first months with our dear [daughter] Saoirse. Melissa has had paid leave from her employer. I have work that provides far more flexibility than the norm, and my organization and co-workers are beyond accommodating. We are grateful for the opportunities we’ve had with Saoirse at the very beginning of her life, opportunities that are not afforded to most babies, parents, and families in this country. 

Today, Melissa’s leave came to an end, and she returned to work. I delayed taking Saoirse to day care until the work I had to do became impossible with her at home. It was dreadful. 

I want to comment in two areas: policy and personal. 

On the policy side, it’s important to note that my interest in family policy is longstanding and predates having a wife or child of my own. I wrote for The Atlantic about how family needed to be at the center of our political discourse. I worked on a range of family-related policies in The White House and coordinated the rollout of a platform of policies in my time with the president’s re-elect that were family-centered. 

Parents and families need and deserve the flexibility to make the care decisions that they know are best for them, but we do know that real options help children and families: options of workplace flexibility, paid leave, excellent child care, and the option to stay home. The mother-child relationship is essential, but as a recent story in the New York Times suggests—and as we already know—so, too, is the relationship of father to mother and father to child. 

I will write about public policy more seriously in the coming days and weeks, but for now, I just want to say that the state of the family right now is a choice we are making as a society. It is a choice we feel is made for us, but it is, in fact, a choice we are making. We have absorbed, as a given, the choice that our families must revolve around our work. We have accepted a culture that justifies an unnatural relationship between work and family. Billion-dollar companies make decisions about benefits as if it is a decision about how generous they are willing to be, when they need to understand that employing someone inherently necessitates accounting for their personhood, for the fact that people have families. 

I recently heard a story of a woman who accepted a job and found out that she was pregnant a few days after. She said that she felt “guilt” and “shame” that she put her employer in such a situation. I’ve heard CEOs complain about the hardships of having staff with lives outside of work. The guilt and shame should be on us for allowing a culture where family can be openly discussed as an inconvenience. 

A healthy society shares responsibility for the flourishing of families. This should be our assumption.

Ideas of work and family have not just political implications, but also social and cultural implications. Women’s lives and choices have been affected by such a narrative, of course. For many women, they have received a message of an outright idolatry of family that says they could have no other purpose other than to be a spouse and mother (Katelyn Beaty has written an excellent book on this). I am sensitive to that and want to be clear that I am not speaking to women and mothers here, who are operating under a very different set of cultural expectations and impositions, and certainly carry no judgment for any parent. We’re all just trying to make it. 

It is holding Saoirse that feels like the height of my contribution to the world.

I do want to speak to the situation of men and fathers though, who have been subject to the other side of these narratives. If women of a particular era absorbed a narrative that their value could be fully summed up in their familial roles, men have absorbed the narrative that their familial role can largely be fulfilled through and justified by their work. 

But I’ll tell you, this morning, after I delayed taking Saoirse to daycare at 8 AM and instead laid next to her as she woke up and transitioned to joy and smiles and noises seamlessly, as if emerging right out of a wonderful dream; after I postponed taking her to daycare at 9 AM and instead fed her and changed her and sent a picture of her in her outfit of the day to her mother; after I reasoned that she was content enough playing on the floor at 10 AM that I could get some writing done; after she seemed tired enough at 11 AM that I could let her sleep on my lap as I took a conference call; after she cried when I tried to put her in her car seat at Noon, so I took her out and fed her another bottle; after I finally arrived at the daycare and handed my child to someone else who I could hope would soothe her cries and understand her needs, but who I knew would never meet them as her parents would; after all of that, I returned to my car alone. 

I tried then to recite the national masculine creed: that what I just did was for the greater good, that I was providing for her, that this is what a man does. 

I do believe, really believe, that work is a gift from God. I believe that there is a dignity in and from work and that we are called to work. But our dignity does not derive from our work. Professional success has never made me feel like more of a man, though creative work felt at times like an expression of my humanity, of my dignity.

But I knew then, as I know now, that I did not feel like a man handing my child to someone else. It is holding Saoirse that feels like the height of my contribution to the world. Wiping milk off her milk-goblin face, laughing and struggling while her feet find her packed diaper as I change her, whispering in her ear and singing her to sleep—these things feel like an affirmation of my manhood, my humanness, that I do not deserve. 

We all have to live in the world as it is. I am grateful for the work that I do. I am excited about projects I have on my plate and astounded that I get to do work that both allows me to earn money and feel like my work is contributing to the good of others. But there will always be a tension, and we must begin to acknowledge that the tension is one that is not wholly inevitable. 

My experiences are, in light of what I know to be true for so many others, relatively trivial. I’m not sure if it’s entirely avoidable that someone else will have to watch my child for some period of time, and in the long-term, I’m not sure that avoiding such a thing is possible, appropriate, or even desirable. 

What I do know is that what I felt, the unnaturalness of it, is compounded ten-fold, a hundred-fold, for the mother without the access or resources to receive essential prenatal care; for the retail worker who is expected to be back at her job within days of giving birth; for the parent whose request for leave to take care of their sick child is denied; for the lawyer whose path to becoming a partner at their firm will get derailed if they are home to put their child to bed every so often. 

These are choices we’re making that set up our lives and our society this way. We can make different choices.

Michael Wear is Chief Strategist at The AND Campaign, a Christian civic education and advocacy organization. He is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps businesses, non-profits, foundations, and Christian organizations at the intersection of faith, politics, and culture. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama's historic 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. He is the author of the book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

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Mon, 24 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Friday Five 281 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-281 https://ifstudies.org/blog/friday-five-281 by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin)

Stepdad or Mom's Boyfriend?
Brian Knop & Lindsay M. Monte, U.S. Census Bureau

Changing Families: A Preventative Intervention Perspective
Carolyn Pape Cowan & Philip A. Cowan, Family Relations

Fathers’ Work and Family Conflicts and the Outcomes for Children’s Mental Health
Liana Leach, Australian Institute for Family Studies

Reforming Child Support to Improve Outcomes for Children & Families
Vicki Turetsky, The Abell Foundation

More Than Half of the World's Poor Are Children
Katharina Fenz & Kristofer Hamel, Brookings Institution

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Fri, 21 Jun 2019 08:00:00 -0400
Could Community Colleges Be One Way to Put Men Back to Work—and Bolster Marriage? https://ifstudies.org/blog/could-community-colleges-be-one-way-to-put-men-back-to-workand-bolster-marriage https://ifstudies.org/blog/could-community-colleges-be-one-way-to-put-men-back-to-workand-bolster-marriage by David Bass

Stable marriages lead to strong families, which in turn lead to a flourishing society. But how do we promote healthy families in a culture where cohabitation rates are soaring while marriage rates plummet? More pointedly, how can we promote stable marriages and families when many men increasingly remain in perpetual adolescence and fail to assume adult responsibilities that lead to success in work, marriage, and family?  

After all, it is well established that employability and marriageability are deeply intertwined—and that despite significant gains in women’s rights and labor force participation, fully 78% of American women who have never been married say it is “very important” that their future spouse has a “steady job.”

Perhaps part of the answer is to take a step back and focus on one of the basics—the “success sequence.” Scholars on both sides of the political aisle agree that people who follow the success sequence—graduate high school, get a job, then get married and have kids (in that order)—generally experience better outcomes in life than those who fall off the path.   

So, how do we get more men on track with the first step—getting a good education—so they are better able to find a good job and eventually get married?

Even though the American economy is currently booming and unemployment rates are at rarely-seen lows for nearly every demographic, there remains a crisis of non-working American males in their prime years (ages 25 to 54). As highlighted by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and other scholars, an estimated seven million U.S. men in their peak working years are absent from the labor force today—neither working nor actively searching for work. 

Put in historical perspective, today’s seven million non-working American men represent a nearly seven-fold increase from 1965, when 1.1 million men were non-working. Strikingly, workforce participation rates for prime-age American males in 2015 appeared to be worse than during the latter years of the Great Depression. 

Globally, America’s incidence of non-working males stands out as well—but not in a good way. The U.S. labor force participation rate for this group of prime-age non-working men is lower than every country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), except Israel and Italy.   

Non-working American men tend to be minorities, under-educated (a high school degree or less), have a household median income of $25,000 or less, and be unmarried. On this last point, as detailed by Eberstadt, marital status for prime-age men has been a powerful predictor of American employment behavior going as far back as 1965. And in 2015, the proportion of never-married men was over three times higher than in 1965.

Community Colleges As Part of the Solution

While the problem of prime-age non-working men in America is now well-documented, practical solutions for introducing them to the labor force are more challenging. One solution is to connect these non-working men with job-focused postsecondary training and credentialing. A particularly promising way to accomplish this is through America’s more than 1,000 community colleges that offer two-year associate degrees and shorter-term credentials, certificates, and apprenticeships.

The good news is that community colleges hold the strongest potential for engaging the greatest number of the seven million able-bodied, prime-age males absent from the workforce—and delivering results in the shortest timeframe.  

Why is this?

As a uniquely American higher education institution, community colleges emphasize tightly condensed training schedules, stackable credentials, and clear pathways to actual jobs that exist in the economy. In addition, community colleges and vocational institutions offer a number of important attributes that increase the likelihood that their students will earn their credentials and land that first job: local proximity, open access, low tuition costs, and industry partnerships that meet local employer demands and address America’s rapidly shifting labor force.

The bottom line is that throughout their history, community colleges have been uniquely positioned to help non-working men. And according to 2011-2012 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, today more than ever, the student population at community colleges mirrors the defining characteristics of non-working males in the U.S.—minorities, under-educated individuals, and those from lower-income households. 

Do Community Colleges and Vocational Schools Deliver Results? 

When it comes to a return on investment, community colleges stand out compared to other postsecondary options because they offer training specifically for middle-skills jobs—those that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Job sectors rich in middle-skills jobs include advanced manufacturing, medical, construction, and transportation. Today, experts say 29 million middle-skills jobs exist in the U.S.—with 40% offering annual salaries in excess of $50,000. 

Even better, tuition at community colleges is cost-effective enough to make attendance feasible for nearly every American—averaging $3,435 for full-time students during the 2015-2016 academic year, fully 37% less than average tuition for in-state students at public four-year schools. Factoring in plentiful state and federal financial aid options, community colleges are an economically viable path to completing the first step on the success sequence—getting a good education.

Clearly, community colleges and vocational institutions are well-positioned to make a significant impact on the rapidly changing landscape of American postsecondary education and workforce training—particularly for non-working men between the ages of 25 and 54 who are in their prime years of productivity and earning potential. The challenge is not only how best to engage non-working men in education and training programs, but also how to help them persist to graduation, and then help them find jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. 

The success sequence flows from educational attainment toward marriage and then to healthy families. Yet, as the U.S. grapples with a declining labor force participation rate and historically high levels of non-working men in their prime years of productivity, studies show that the negative impact on marriage, families, and a stable and flourishing society is profound. 

Given this reality, now is the time to focus on creative solutions that not only give non-working men the tools they need to succeed in the employment arena, but also make them marriageable. Perhaps the missing piece to the puzzle is a national effort to scale up and retool our extensive community college system so that men can raise their skill levels, earnings, maturity, and self-confidence—and find work that confers dignity and personal fulfillment. Along the way, society gets the added bonus of a new generation of men who are able to navigate the success sequence and get married, raise a family, and give back to their neighborhoods and communities in ways that bring both individual and collective flourishing.

David Bass is a writer for the Georgia Center for Opportunity and a contributing editor with the Philanthropy Roundtable.

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Thu, 20 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
The Truth About Conservative Protestant Men and Porn https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-truth-about-conservative-protestant-men-and-porn https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-truth-about-conservative-protestant-men-and-porn by Lyman Stone (@lymanstoneky)

Is misplaced guilt arising from sexual prudishness destroying Christian relationships? In a recent interview in The New Yorker, sociologist of religion, Samuel Perry said:

What I found is that, whatever we think pornography is doing, those effects tend to be amplified when we’re talking about conservative Protestants. It seems to be uniquely harmful to conservative Protestants’ mental health, their sense of self, their own identities—certainly their intimate relationships—in ways that don’t tend to be as harmful for people who don’t have that kind of moral problem with it.

The effects of pornography aren’t just about watching images on a computer screen but what that activity means to your community. It’s what that activity means to you. And so, with conservative Protestants, you have this fascinating paradox of a group of people who hate pornography morally. They want to eradicate it from the world. And yet, statistically, they will view it slightly less often than your average American. And so you have this paradoxical situation of a group of people who collectively hate it, and yet, as individuals, they semi-regularly watch it. Especially the men. What are the consequences of that kind of incongruence in their lives?

The public reviews and discussions of Dr. Perry’s new book, Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, could leave you thinking that conservative Protestant relationships are being ruined by a scourge of misplaced shame over pornography use. But the book itself is far more sedate in its claims. Perry uses extensive qualitative and quantitative data from numerous sources, including extensive interviews he conducted with conservative Protestant pastors and believers, to argue that pornography has been uniquely damaging to the relationships of conservative Protestants. Given the topic, the book has received an enormous amount of media attention that generally leaves the impression that the moral scruples of conservative Protestants are ruining their marriages.

Perry’s argument is that among our secular neighbors, the husband (or wife) watching pornography doesn’t tend to lead to great unhappiness or divorce very often; but among conservative Protestants, relationship troubles arising from pornography are far more frequent. Perry is a thoughtful researcher and writer, and so he doesn’t think Christians just need to abandon their sexual mores, but he does suggest that Christians need to be more open to talking about the issue and removing the shame associated with pornography.

Protestant Men Use Porn Less

It's an interesting take. But the claims of the book turn out to be far less sensational than the title would suggest and, ultimately, may serve as an encouragement to conservative Protestants.

For example, Perry uses data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to show that, among Protestant males who are members of the most conservative denominations, the share who have viewed a pornographic film in the last year has been roughly stable for the last 20 years, at around one-third. This is a far less dire picture than many religious leaders paint. He goes on to argue that, since porn use is actually stable, the rapidly-growing level of concern among religious leaders about pornography use is perhaps misplaced. While he doesn’t call this a “moral panic,” the concept seems to be lurking in the background of his reasoning.

I think Perry misreads the evidence. He focuses on denominational identity and beliefs, and so suggests that conservative Protestants view slightly less pornography than other Americans. But when I cut the data by religious identity and religious attendance (that is, actual religious behaviors that signal costly commitments to faith and who actually participates in church life) the difference becomes stark.

Across all religious groups in America, people who attend religious services more frequently are far less likely to view pornography. Nominally-Protestant men are nearly five times more likely to view pornographic films as men who frequently attend religious services (more than weekly). And across all levels of religious attendance, Protestant men are about 5 to 10 percentage points less likely to have viewed porn in the last year.

These are meaningful differences! They suggest that religiously-observant Protestants are experiencing a vastly lower rate of pornography use. That isn’t the impression you would get from Addicted to Lust, which leaves the impression that the devout use pornography just a bit less than the rest, when, in fact, the gap is enormous.

Even so, it is important to note that pornography use is rising among these men.

The share of Protestant men who report having watched a pornographic film in the last year has risen to about a third even among those who regularly attend church.

But Protestants are becoming more distinctive over time. Through the 1980s, Protestants and other regular church-goers looked similar. But over time, non-Protestant churchgoers have developed porn habits very similar to their less devout neighbors. Today, Protestant men who attend church regularly are basically the only men in America still resisting the cultural norm of regularized pornography use.

Thus, pornography use is much lower among devout Protestants than other people, suggesting Protestant belief and behavior truly is distinctive. However, because pornography use is rising among Protestant churchgoers, it makes sense for Protestant pastors to perceive pornography as a growing issue. This, again, contradicts Perry’s argument that the growing Protestant concern for pornography use is detached from any actual growing problem. While porn use remains comparatively low among devout Protestant men, it is rising.

Is Porn the Only Problem?

But Perry’s main argument boils down to a suggestion that pornography has only very modest negative effects on most peoples’ relationships—that porn is far more damaging if the people in that relationship are typical conservative Protestants. That is, it is our hang-ups as Christians about porn that destroy our relational happiness—not the porn itself. Hold on to that thought.

A recent New York Times article chronicled how progressive men are failing to shoulder an egalitarian burden of parenting. That is, these men say they believe in egalitarianism, but then don’t enact it. As a result, their marriages face extra anger and unhappiness, especially for their wives.

Would it be proper to say that the cause of the unhappiness here is the expectation of egalitarianism? No. Clearly, the problem is that the progressive dad doesn’t live up to the standard he professes.

Adherence to the sexual norms promoted by conservative Protestants—delaying sex until marriage and monogamy within marriage, including (for most) avoiding porn—is consistently associated with greater marital happiness.

The same holds for conservative Protestants: it’s absurd to suggest that the problem is the expectation of sexual exclusiveness. All people, all couples, have a variety of expectations that they imperfectly achieve. The fact that conservative Protestants hold a particularly sacred view of human sexuality makes them idiosyncratic on the question of porn, but there is nothing unusual about having idiosyncracies.

What Perry has explained in book-length is that when couples have big disagreements about things they care about, it tends to make them unhappy. While there are better and worse ways to handle disagreements, at the end of the day, if a couple shares the conviction that pornography use is wrong, but one partner keeps using pornography, no amount of speaking in a calm voice resolves the issue. Actions have consequences, and the failure to live up to our own moral standards, and those of the people we love, ought to create psychological discomfort, even distress. There’s no get-out-of-jail-free card for the consequences of relational sabotage. A life free of this kind of psychological discomfort is simply a life of narcissism—where no moral code is regarded as ever having a claim superior to one’s immediate desires.

In other words, Perry is almost certainly correct that when couples regard pornography as immoral and one member of the couple violates that standard, it makes both partners unhappy. But while conservative Protestants may be unique for strictly opposing pornography, virtually all people have some kind of standard to which they hold their spouse, and most of us can recall the litany of times we failed to live up to our spouse’s standards, or vice versa. More to the point, while high standards create more opportunities for failure, it turns out that strict moral standards for a relationship, be they traditional-religious or egalitarian, are associated with greater relationship satisfaction, not less!

And indeed, data from the GSS shows that even accounting for pornography, married Protestant males are pretty happy. Those who abstain from porn are as happy or happier than married men of other faiths who abstain from porn, while married Protestant males who have viewed pornography in the last year are far happier with their marriages than men of other faiths who did so.

Obviously, correlation isn’t causation—unhappiness could cause porn use rather than the other way around! But at a very basic level, it appears that most married Protestant males are pretty happy, regardless of whether or not they view pornography.

Conservative Protestants Tend to be More Sexually Satisfied

But on a larger scale, Perry’s book could lead you to believe that conservative Protestants have miserable sex lives. That isn’t his argument, but popular portrayals of the issue can come close to that.

The reality, however, is that religious people are among the most sexually satisfied. Adherence to the sexual norms promoted by conservative Protestants, that is, delaying sex until marriage and monogamy within marriage, including (for most) avoiding porn, is consistently associated with greater marital happiness. While it is undoubtedly true that disagreement with culturally normative pornography use creates psychological stressors for conservative Protestants, on the whole, conservative Protestant sexual norms are highly conducive to individual and marital happiness. Our issues with porn are not severe enough to offset the fact that our lifestyle model of chastity until marriage and commitment within marriage is, in fact, the most strongly happiness-associated lifestyle in America today.

Perry spends a lot of time discussing various religious ideas within Protestantism. But there’s one more religious concept he could have benefitted from discussing.

Conservative Protestants would simply assert that the psychological distress Perry observes is what the 19th-century Lutheran writer Soren Kierkegaard called, “the sickness unto death,” or, more simply, “despair over sin.” Most conservative Protestants subscribe to the belief that religious faith requires a recognition of one’s own sinfulness. Faced with that despair-inducing recognition, some seek resolution through faith: they confess, repent, and receive absolution from God and their community. But some people, faced with this encounter, have a different reaction: they cling to the behavior that conservative Protestants would describe as “sin.” In time, so the theological explanation goes, clinging to this behavior corrodes faith and that person may eventually leave that faith.

This theological model has been adopted by Christians for approximately 2,000 years. And Perry finds it in the sociological data on pornography, saying his interview with The New Yorker:

After looking at pornography for a long enough time, [some conservative Protestant men] started to back away from their faith a little bit. They were less likely to pray, less likely to attend church, less likely to feel like God is playing an important part in their lives.

And I think that is how we respond to cognitive dissonance. The classic theory is that, if we find ourselves engaging in behavior that we believe violates our values, we can do one of two things: we can stop the behavior or change our values. And oftentimes, when conservative Christians keep on struggling with this temptation in their lives, it’s just easier for them to say, “You know what? Maybe I don’t believe this so much. Maybe I could just keep doing this and not think the religious part of it is so important.”

Porn Is a Real Problem: But Conservative Protestants Are Doing Okay

Perry’s book contains thoughtful, novel research that contributes valuable information on an important question: struggles with pornography are indeed harming the relationships of many people and seem to be especially painful for conservative Protestants.

But this finding should be attached to caveats: other cultural groups have their own idiosyncratic hang-ups, and there’s no evidence that conservative Protestants have a uniquely severe or intense problem compared to other potential relational problems. Furthermore, whatever effect pornography is having, it isn’t enough to offset the effects of many other lifestyle choices conservative Protestants make that are strongly associated with personal, marital, and sexual happiness. In the end, the sociological phenomena Perry observes related to pornography are a neat demonstration that ancient Christian moral reasoning continues to serve as a decent working theory of how human societies, and human consciences, actually function.

Lyman Stone is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Wed, 19 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Taxing Families in the UK https://ifstudies.org/blog/taxing-families-in-the-uk https://ifstudies.org/blog/taxing-families-in-the-uk by Jonathan Williams

It is a strange aspect of the United Kingdom’s tax system that marriage and family responsibility are not taken into account when it comes to income taxes. When people marry, they are committing to becoming a family unit, to love and support one another, to give themselves to their spouse, and to prioritize their needs and wants above their own. Yet, despite this commitment and responsibility that people choose to take, the UK tax system still treats married couples as two individuals. 

To understand how the UK arrived at the place where individualism is prioritized over family identity in the tax system, we need to go back to when the income tax was formally introduced here in 1799. At that time, any income earned by a married woman, in the words of the Income Tax Act of 1806, “shall be deemed to be the profits of her husband.”1 This approach changed only a little until the election of Margaret Thatcher who felt that change was long overdue. She saw this as a system that condescendingly assumed that money was a matter for the husband, not the wife. 

In 1983, Thatcher handed her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson MP, the task of dealing with this deep-rooted structural problem in the tax system. In his 1985 Budget speech, Lawson set out his preferred solution: 

The present structure of personal income tax is far from satisfactory ... The system discriminates against the family in which the wife stays at home to look after the children. It denies to the partners in a marriage the independence and privacy in their tax affairs... There is, therefore, a strong case for changing to a new system of personal allowances more suited to today's economic and social needs. Under this, everyone, man or woman, married or single, would have the same standard allowance; but if either a wife or husband were unable to make full use of their allowance, the unused portion could be transferred, if they so wished, to their partner.2

It is worth quoting this speech at length to highlight the specifics of Lawson’s original proposals. He wanted everyone to have their own personal allowance and for married couples to be able to transfer to their spouse, in full, any of their remaining allowance if they did not work or only worked part time. This would have been a balanced system that treated married and unmarried people equally while acknowledging family responsibility. 

But transferable allowances were never introduced. 

In 1990, independent taxation was enacted, but it contained no recognition of marriage or family responsibility. Recognizing that married couples might lose out under this new system, Lawson did introduce a Married Couples Allowance. This was, in his own words, a “half-way house.”3 These allowances were, however, gradually reduced in value before the Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown abolished them in 2000.4

The introduction of independent taxation was in many ways a welcome change; however its failure to recognize family responsibility and marriage has had profound consequences. 

The Failure of the UK Tax System

By forcing a married couple to be treated as two individuals, the UK tax system fails as good public policy. First, our tax system is philosophically incoherent. Stable families and stable marriages are the bedrock of a strong and flourishing society. A married couple is not simply two individuals who happen to live together but is a family unit who has committed to one another for life for mutual benefit and self-giving, not individual gain. It makes no sense to treat the family unit as two individuals.

Secondly, it is inconsistent with other public policy in the UK. Our social security system rightly takes account of family size, composition, and responsibility and makes judgments accordingly. The tax system should be assessed in the same manner. 

Thirdly, it is judgemental of certain family decisions. Under the current arrangement, any family where one spouse is either not working, or earning less than their personal allowance, will be fiscally punished for this arrangement. The UK tax system is judgemental against families in which only one spouse works, despite the fact that there may be very good reasons for this decision for one parent to stay at home, such as caring for young children, or sick or elderly relatives. 

Just last October, the UK’s Office for National Statistics estimated that the value of the UK’s unpaid household work is £1.24 trillion per year.5 (At the time of this writing, £1 is equivalent to $1.27.) On average, this means that stay-at-home spouses who cook, clean, and wash, and look after and transport children and elderly relatives contribute at least £18,932 of value per person to the national economy each year. The current system that judges stay-at-home parents is economically illiterate. 

Finally, it is anti-choice. Under the current system, families do not have a choice about whether they are taxed individually or together. It appears as though for the Government, individualism is the ultimate priority, and this is often to the detriment of family life. Couples who choose, for instance, for the husband or wife to stay at home and look after young children are being told that is the wrong choice. They are not allowed to make the choice to combine their personal allowances but rather, the non-earning spouse is being pushed into work.

It Hurts the Poorest Families

Moreover, this system of taxation has, in fact, resulted in some of the poorest families in the UK facing some of the highest tax rates. On the face of it, that statement makes little sense, since the basic tax rate for those earning between £12,500 and £50,000 is only 20 percent.6

But one must look at the effective marginal tax rate (EMTR) that people face. The EMTR is the amount of money an individual has to give back to the government for every pound earned on top of their current salary. Income tax and national insurance are a start but more important are the social security contributions that get withdrawn as your income increases, including child tax credits, working tax credits, housing benefits, and council tax benefits. 

CARE research has found that the current EMTR for a single-earner married couple with two children at three-quarters average wage is 73 percent.7 Such a family would only keep 27 pence for every additional pound they earned. In the UK, it seems, we tax the poor as if they are rich. Such high tax rates kill aspiration and trap families in poverty. 

When CARE looked at comparable countries, we found that the EMTRs on UK families are actually much higher than the rest of the developed world. The OECD average for the same type of family is only 35 percent.8 This means low-income families in the UK are facing double the marginal tax rate of families in comparable countries. 

We found a similar story when it comes to the tax burden faced by families. At OECD average wage, a one-earner married couple with two children faces a tax burden that is 30% higher than the OECD average.9 Conversely, the tax burden on a single person without family responsibilities is significantly less than the international averages—8% less than OECD average and 18% less than the average for the EU.10

The reason EMTRs for one-earner families with low-incomes are much higher in the UK than in other OECD countries is that family responsibility is recognized not within the income tax system, but by means of social security payments that are tapered sharply. 

Looking back to when independent taxation was introduced in the UK in 1990, the EMTR for a one-earner family on 75% average wage was only 34%, close to the OECD average in 2017.11 In the last 30 years, the UK has moved to the strange and illogical position where we tax low-income families, yet we then assume they need propping up with social security payments. This is tantamount to digging holes and filling them in again. 

The UK tax system does not treat families fairly. They often pay more taxes and higher effective tax rates than other households that are much better off. The amount of taxes that families pay bears little relationship to family income and takes no account of family responsibility or composition. It is a strange system indeed. 

Jonathan Williams is the Family Policy officer at CARE (Christian Action Research & Education) in the UK.


1. Antony Seely, Tax and Marriage, House of Commons Research Paper, July 1995. 

2. House of Commons Debate 19.03.1985 cc.794-5.

3. House of Commons Debate 15.03.1988 cc.997-8.

4. House of Commons Debate 09.03.1999 cc182-183.

5. Household satellite account, UK: 2015 and 2016. ONS.  

6. UK Income Tax Rates 

7. "The Taxation of Families, International Comparison 2017." CARE Research paper. November 2018. 8. Ibid. 

9. Ibid. 

10. Ibid. 

11. Ibid. 

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Tue, 18 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Cultivating a Pro-Adoption Culture https://ifstudies.org/blog/cultivating-a-pro-adoption-culture https://ifstudies.org/blog/cultivating-a-pro-adoption-culture by Ashley McGuire

In her May 2019 Atlantic article, “Why So Many Women Choose Abortion Over Adoption,” Olga Khazan paints a bleak picture of social attitudes towards adoption. The piece is a thorough and helpful overview of the recent data and thinking surrounding adoption among pregnant women, and her main finding, put plainly, is that adoption today “is a remarkably unpopular course of action.”

Adoption as a pregnancy choice is certainly in decline. In 2014, she notes, only 18,000 children two or younger were placed with adoption agencies, down significantly from the 1970s. By staggering contrast, there were about one million abortions.

And it’s hardly for lack of demand by couples that yearn to adopt. Just last week at a black-tie dinner in New York, I met a man who said he and his wife were unable to have children and were seeking to adopt. I was stunned to learn that they have been waiting over two years for a baby. There are no reliable figures that quantify the number of couples waiting to adopt. Some estimate it to be in the millions. Other estimates say that for every baby placed in adoption, there are 36 couples waiting to adopt.

And yet, Khazan quotes University of California at San Francisco sociologist Gretchen Sisson as saying, “Women just generally aren’t interested in adoption as a reproductive choice. It’s an extremely rare pregnancy decision.”

One of the most common reasons women choose abortion over adoption is surprising: many women fear that placing their baby for adoption would result in more emotional pain than abortion. Women not ready for motherhood have an overwhelmingly “dim view of the adoption process,” she writes. “Guilt-inducing,” “traumatic,” “emotionally distressing,” and “morally unconscionable.” These are all ways adoption is described in the article from the perspective of pregnant women deciding how to proceed with their pregnancy.

In short, while the historical trend has been one of “reduced societal stigma for unwed mothers,” there seems to be a persistent and even growing societal stigma against adoption, at least among women faced with unintended pregnancies.

So what can be done to change the negative perception many people have of adoption? Here are four suggestions:

1. Educate women about the reality of modern adoption and the agency given to birth moms. 

Khazan quotes Chuck Johnson, the president of the National Council for Adoption, as saying the fault for “failing to educate pregnant women adequately about adoption” falls evenly on the shoulders of both pro-choicers and pro-lifers, and this failure is a large “part of the reason for adoption’s unpopularity.”

Contrary to preconceived notions about the adoption process, some of them due to nefarious anti-adoption campaigns on the part of those who profit from adoption alternatives, birth moms can have an extraordinary amount of authority and agency throughout the adoption process. They, by and large, call the shots, deciding everything from what kind of adoption process they want what agency they want to work with, and even what family they will eventually place their child with. Many birth moms are increasingly opting for open adoptions, in which the birth mom maintains some degree of contact with the adoptive family. As Parents.com recently put it, “Open adoption is the new norm.”

That adoption is a predatory process preying on vulnerable moms is a falsehood; rather birth moms are empowered with a range of choices and have the power to drive the process according to their preferences.

2. Resist the cult of kinship. I agree with Elizabeth Kirk, who wrote here that the soft stigma toward adoption can be found lurking behind many of today’s studies about the importance of biological connection. A distorted emphasis on kinship and biological tribalism, coupled with a focus on the struggles adopted children may face (as if they are worse than the alternative of not being alive at all) do not cultivate a pro-adoption culture. Those realities shouldn’t be ignored but be studied and discussed within the framework of how to help adoptive families overcome those obstacles.  

3. Tell positive adoption stories. My colleague Grazie Pozo Christie routinely uses her platform as a writer and speaker to tell her own adoption story. She not only writes about adopting a baby girl from China but also brings the topic up in speaking engagements. She even filmed a short video about adoption in which she told her story and plugged adoption as a positive blessing. I’ve noticed an uptick in adoption photo and video shoots on social media, and major media outlets are increasingly recognizing that people enjoy reading adoption stories. With so many media platforms available today, there are countless ways to let the positive stories of adoption counter the prevailing negative narratives. 

4. Be purposeful about adoption rhetoric. In a recent conversation with an adoptive father, I used the phrase “give the baby up for adoption.” His smile briefly disappeared. “Place the baby for adoption,” he swiftly corrected me. I was embarrassed, but it was a welcome correction and a reminder that even the most fervent adoption supporters among us can be sloppy in our word choices, which can cause pain to birth moms, adoptive parents, and children, as well as contribute to stigmas about adoption. To imply that a woman “gave her baby up” feeds directly into the negativity framing of the topic as described by the women profiled in Khazan’s piece. It implies they did something wrong—that adoption is something to feel guilty about—when in fact adoption is a courageous choice that will bless both the child and their future family. As Kirk wrote, “Our language can also help us avoid reinforcing the unspoken, negative narrative that children placed for adoption are ‘unwanted’ and ‘abandoned’ by their birthmothers.”  

Khazan’s piece is a wake-up call to those who want to cultivate a pro-adoption culture. The reality is that women facing difficult decisions in pregnancy overwhelmingly feel as though adoption is the most painful choice. For those women, the “soft stigma” against adoption is hardly soft, and the choice they face is often a false one. It is up to us to change that. 

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies. 

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Mon, 17 Jun 2019 07:30:00 -0400
Lessons on Father Absence, Longing, and Restoration in My Father Left Me Ireland https://ifstudies.org/blog/lessons-on-father-absence-longing-and-restoration-in-my-father-left-me-ireland https://ifstudies.org/blog/lessons-on-father-absence-longing-and-restoration-in-my-father-left-me-ireland by Alysse ElHage (@AlysseElHage)

Who were you anyway? You were the man who showed up every few years. The man who wrote me letters about the latest developments in his household, the home in which I played no role. You were what my mother often reminded me: not here for me. 

When I read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s beautiful little book, My Father Left Me Ireland, I was surprised to see a lot of my own experience growing up without my father reflected in his—including in the above quote, which could easily describe my thoughts, at times, about living apart from my dad. This resulted in some tears being spilled on the book’s pages, and at least one late-night text to tell my father how much I missed him. 

But Dougherty’s story is not about a son who was abandoned by his father, a point he acknowledges in the book. “I was not fatherless,” he insists. “I had a father; I just missed him.” Rather, the book is a beautiful narrative of a father and son’s mutual longing for each other that spanned many miles, misunderstandings, and years—a father and son who, through great effort on both their parts, find their way back to each other. 

My Father Left Me Ireland underscores the universal nature of father loss and longing and how deeply our relationship with our father is tied to our identity—regardless of race, class, nationality, or gender. Dougherty’s eventual reconciliation with his father also illustrates the healing power of the bond between father and child—even if it occurs after the child is grown. The book contains a few powerful lessons we can all take with us into this Father’s Day weekend.

Dougherty tells his story through sometimes heartbreaking letters addressed to his father—letters he probably wishes he’d written in response to the many unanswered letters his father sent him over the years. Born to an unmarried, Irish-American woman after her brief romance with his Irish father, Dougherty was raised by his mother in New Jersey, while his father remained in Ireland, got married, and started a new family. 

That is where this story could have ended—with his father thousands of miles away and out of his life for good. But, unlike too many men in similar circumstances, Dougherty’s father did not fade out of his life; he kept reaching out, and ultimately, those efforts paid off. 

Longing. Dougherty describes his father’s sporadic visits to New Jersey to see him as a child, as “[a] brief, suggestive interruption of a life I lived without you.” Those of us who have gone back and forth between divorced parents, enduring too-short visits with our fathers, can easily relate to how he felt when he writes: 

We would meet. You would delight in your son. I would feel spoiled rotten, trying to soak up each moment together in all its detail. Then we would part. In the moments after, I would wail for want of you, before becoming quiet for days. 

But his tears for his father do not end in childhood. He describes one heart-wrenching scene after his father visits him and his new girlfriend in New York. After they parted, he says, “I bawled my eyes out until sunlight. You leave. I cry. Again.”

The reason he cries, he says, is because he realizes just how much time he has missed with his dad. As he further explains: 

Not ‘missed’ in the sense of having spent my time pining for your company or in mourning your absence… I had not been an emotional wreck. I had simply missed you, the way one discovers having missed an entire way of life when it is too late.

When his father announces during one visit that his wife is pregnant, Dougherty remembers wondering: “How was I a brother to someone who was not my mother’s child?” Although his father reassures him that nothing will change, he instinctively knows things can’t be the same, and silently expresses the desire of every child whose parents split up: 

This announcement revealed to me the secret hope in my heart. All the things I didn’t quite understand made me think our family could be patched up. Your announcement revealed this hope in me by extinguishing it for good. For the first time, and from then on, I would never be deluded again. I would grow up a fatherless child. 

But the book is not only about Dougherty longing for his absent father; it is also about his father’s longing for him. We see evidence of this in the letters he continued to send even when his son did not write back. After he is married and expecting his first child, Dougherty realizes in re-reading those letters that while he was missing his father, his father was missing him, too. 

“I’m afraid I had it all wrong,” he writes, “that these letters, which I once passed over so casually, brim with longing—longing for me—just as my mother’s [letters] did for you. That is our history.”

His father’s longing is also evident in the efforts he took to connect with his son, including showing up unannounced one day at his school, without his mother’s sanction, an act that results in years of misunderstanding. They spend time talking on the playground, his father gives him an Irish t-shirt, and then leaves to attend the World Cup with a friend. Later, when Dougherty arrives home from school, he is questioned by his worried mother, who feared his father might kidnap him. She convinces him that his father only stopped by to see him on the way to his real reason to be in the States, the game. Dougherty is left feeling like “an afterthought.”

My Father Left Me Ireland is a beautiful narrative of a father and son’s mutual longing for each other that spans many miles, misunderstandings, and years—a father and son who, through great effort on both their parts, find their way back to each other. 

Gatekeeping. My Father Left Me Ireland also provides a revealing look at the obstacles that many unmarried or divorced fathers must navigate to stay connected to their child. Though Dougherty's mother is intentional in teaching him about Ireland and desires that her son “know [himself] to be Irish,” she is also torn by her own heartbreak, and this interferes with her response to his father’s efforts to reach out to their son. 

The challenges Dougherty’s father faced to stay connected to his son include attempts to arrange visits that Dougherty’s mother interfered with or outright denied. For example, his father once flew from Ireland to see him, only to be refused a proper visit by his mother, who said it would upset them both. It is only after his mother’s death, while he is going through some old letters she wrote to his father, that Dougherty discovers how she:

would lay into you. She would explain, in vivid detail, how every arrangement you proposed, every gesture you offered, was inadequate to the situation at hand … Over the years, I noticed she shifted to warning you to keep a distance. It was too hard for me, she said, to have a father drop in once every few years. But in truth, she was protecting herself as well. And noticing her feelings, I recruited myself into the project, giving you years of stony silence.

Though Dougherty does not use the term, his mother was engaging in a common practice known as maternal gatekeepingwhere a mother can either inhibit or support a father’s relationship with his child. Nonresident fathers are more likely to encounter negative gatekeeping by a former partner than fathers who are married to their child’s mother. As we see in Dougherty’s case, gatekeeping can also influence how the child views and relates to the father. For Dougherty, the result is that he ignored his father’s letters for a decade and even briefly rejected his Irish roots. 

Restoration. And yet despite these obstacles, his father kept reaching out. His efforts are a beautiful example of how a good father should pursue a relationship with his child from a previous union, and it reveals how sustained effort on the father’s part can make a difference.

In college, Dougherty ends “decades of silent treatment” by writing his father a long letter, detailing all his accomplishments: “This is who I am, I seemed to say, and the heavy implication was that you had nothing to do with it.” 

Once again, his father reaches back, responding “as if it could be the basis for going forward.” He soon visits Dougherty and his girlfriend in New York, bringing along his step-mom and half-siblings to meet him for the first time. Over dinner, as his family comments on the similarities between father and son, Dougherty realizes, “that our relationship wasn’t a series of events but an unalterable and primordial fact. The events were just the record of how we coped with this truth.”

Later, during a visit to Ireland, Dougherty learns the real reason his father showed up at his school years ago: it was the only way he could see his son. Rather than being an “afterthought,” he was his father’s “only thought.” His father shares how his desperate actions to see his son made him feel “like a terrorist.” But Dougherty sees it differently: “in that moment, I learned you had made real sacrifices, taken real risks, to see me.” He reassures his father that these efforts helped restore their relationship and enabled him to find his roots: 

My mother’s wish, expressed to you in a letter, was that I should know myself to be Irish. It was an absurd thing to hope for. But maybe a little ‘terrorism’ on your part made it true.  

I’ve written before about the healing power of father presence. And this power is certainly evident in My Father Left Me Ireland: we see it in the continued efforts of Dougherty’s father to know his son and be known by him, but we also see it in Dougherty’s transformation when he becomes a father. “Fatherhood teaches me that if we let it, new life comes to restore us,” he writes. He yearns to be whole for his child’s sake, and that means reconnecting with his father and his Irish roots so that he can pass this history on to his kids. “My daughter,” Dougherty tells his father, “has sent me back to you.” 

Whether he intended to or not, Michael Brendan Dougherty gives us several important lessons about the connections between fathers and their children that are worth considering as we honor fathers this weekend. 

First, we should not underestimate the power of the father-child bond: as we have seen with adopted and donor-conceived kids, there is an innate desire in all of us to know who we are and where we come from. And father longing is an especially deep wound that can impact our identity and leave us half-empty and searching for fulfillment. 

There is a lesson for mothers, too. If possible, mothers who are not married to their child’s father should put aside whatever differences they have and do their best to support their child’s relationship with his or her father. As a large body of research confirms, a healthy relationship with their father is better for children in the long run. 

And finally, especially for non-resident fathers, the lesson is clear: don’t ever stop trying to connect or reconnect with your kids. Keep reaching out, knowing that even the smallest attempts at a connection might eventually result in restoration that can bring healing for both father and child. As Dougherty assures his father regarding his efforts to see him, “Please, never be ashamed of the things you did to know me and be known by me.” In the end, those efforts brought a father and son back together.

Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog. 

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Fri, 14 Jun 2019 12:00:00 -0400