MOM Art Annex: Exhibition & Education Center

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Reading Research on the Family

1024px-Stephanie_Coontz_(5105167078)A few years ago, my sister forwarded me a link to an op-ed in the New York Times written by a guest columnist who we both counted as one of our favorite academics to read when we were in college. Stephanie Coontz, a foremost expert on the contemporary American family as a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, had written this particular column about taking popular research with a grain of salt. Though by no means her most important work to date, the message behind this piece has stayed with me for some time.  It reminded me that averages, as interpreted through published research, are useful. They help us in community planning, as well as giving us the peace of mind that we are within the realm of “normal.” But, sometimes, numbers are, in fact, misleading…especially when interpreted to push for reactionary reform and legislation. She gave this example following the horrific rape of a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio: in 2011, the average income for the residents of Steubenville was $46,341. But if Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett moved to town, that average household income would rise 62%. So we should always read more than one source and check out how other researchers may understand data.

As I mentioned, Coontz’ article has stayed with me for some time. I think back on it often when I read articles that demystify new research, especially those having to do with the family. There is a lot of chatter in our media about the American family – the family in transition, the family in decline, the demise of the American family. But, the fact remains that the institution of the American family is just that: an institution. Perhaps dependent on how you choose to define the American family, for the foreseeable future, it is not going anywhere.

I was reminded of Coontz’ warning about research when I stumbled upon an entry in a Washington Post blog that discusses the “unbelievable”/”breathtaking” rise of single motherhood in America. Quick to analyze this trend within the scope of the African American family, this article resurrects some ancient (and, judging by the name, most likely controversial) paper, which had predicted that the growing number of African American children being raised without fathers would have a difficult time emerging from poverty. There has been a chorus of research that demonstrates how families led by single mothers are more likely to live in poverty, both among divorced mothers and women who were never married to their children’s father. I don’t take issue with this fact. Rather, it is how the article uses the research to present a doom and gloom attitude about the inevitability of poverty for African American children born to single mothers that had me second-guessing.

In order to clear my head, I sought out more literature about single motherhood trend and found a piece called “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood”. Right off the bat, I felt more at ease. I immediately feel anxious when I see the words “unbelievable” and “breathtaking” next to “rise”. “Change” is a more comfortable term I can get down with.  As I read on, I found that “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood” was less black and white, literally and figuratively.

The nature of single motherhood is changing. Back in the 1980s, most single-mother families were produced by divorce. Nowadays, with over 40 percent of births occurring outside of marriage, there are many more single-mother families resulting from premarital fertility than failed marriages. But this distinction has been lost on most poverty researchers, who see all single mothers as similar. Scholarship on teenage childbirth also misses the mark—over three-fourths of women who give birth out of wedlock are older than 19, especially nowadays, and a few teenage parents are married.

By the time I got to the end, I saw that both articles discuss the economy of single motherhood, but take very different approaches to get to a similar conclusion: greater educational and career opportunities should be available to women (with/without children) to give them options when deciding to raise children/raising them. This is the key to ending the cycle of poverty for single mothers. My sojourn into family rhetoric took me a roundabout way to get to this same conclusion that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I see again how wise Stephanie Coontz is. There is so much noise that we hear about trends in the family, it is no wonder that we have anxiety about its vitality. Luckily, I have Stephanie Coontz to help me navigate discourse on single motherhood and keep my head on straight. It was, after all, Coontz, in her book The Way We Never Were, who alerted me to the fact that marriages dissolved at about the same rate at the turn of the century as they do now. We are quick to talk about the decline of the two-parent household, but we fail to realize that due to high mortality rates, children 115 years ago experienced the loss of a parent in the home about as much as kids do now. So, with that in mind, I will rest assured that the institution of the American family will forge on.

Written by: Jenny Nigro, M.o.M. Online Intern

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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Reflections on My Mother at Christmastime

128px-The_Christmas_carolI suppose that people establish holiday traditions based on the customs they have grown up with in their families that soon become intermingled with their partner’s when they start a family together. I can’t say for certain whether it was my mother or father’s side that started this tradition, but in my family growing up, gift-giving holidays were a big deal. Living in a house with two sisters, ours was not a family where toys were handed out all year. There were no occasional rewards for good behavior or “just-because” gifts given during the year. The truth was, other than the worn-in toys and hand-me-downs that sustained us through the year, new toys only ever made their way into our lives on two occasions: birthdays and Christmas. But unlike other kids who got toys randomly during the year or who saved up their allowances to get a prize, we got a half year’s worth of toys at both Christmas and our birthdays.

This made Christmas extra-special for us. Inevitably, we would write our lists to Santa (informed, most likely, by commercials that had played in the last half hour of TV), and not only would we get everything on our lists, we would also get a very welcome handful of toys and games that we hadn’t thought to include. I took to writing my letters to Santa, listing all the new toys I wanted and adding a line item for “any extra surprises that I may like.” On Christmas morning, the tree would be littered with so many presents that you couldn’t even see the floor. This was our tradition, and I loved everything about it – from reminding Santa of the annual surprises, to racing from our bedrooms at the crack of dawn to open our stacks of presents on Christmas morning.

The year after my dad left the house during my parents’ divorce when I was fourteen years old, we were sure that this could not continue. We felt the impact of the loss of my father’s income in the house for certain. My mom, now a single mother with two daughters in high school and one in college, surely could not be expected to carry out the tradition of bombarding us with gifts for the yuletide holiday. We made our lists shorter, no longer the scrolls of games/toys that we would play with for a few days and forget a week after Christmas. It was the dawning age of personal technology and everyone was going mobile. My sisters and I had wanted cell phones that year, but figured it was a pipe dream. The only ones on the block still using a VHS player, we didn’t dare get our hopes up for a DVD player. Not this year, we figured. We didn’t want to put any pressure on her.

On Christmas Eve, we went to bed, grateful to be with each other at the holidays. We could get used to Christmases with just Mom; it felt more peaceful, anyway. To us, that was worth more than the mounds of presents with our names on them, so we snuggled in, satisfied. On Christmas morning, we woke up early and headed down to the tree with lowered expectations. We peered into the room and assessed the scene. The tree seemed to twinkle in the same way it had the years before. We glanced down at its base. The sparkle of the green, red, gold, and silver wrapping paper caught our eyes in the same way it had the years before. We saw the towers of gifts, piled up with little tags made out to my sisters’ and my names, stacked up in the same way it had the years before! We looked at one another, smiled, and took our places in front of the mounds. As we tore into our piles, alternating turns unwrapping, we glimpsed a similar looking package in all of our stacks. We decided to open them at the same time. We held our breath as we pulled back the Scotch tape and colorful wrapping paper. As the package began to become more visible, we knew she’d done it: she had somehow managed to get us each cell phones. We had a million questions, but somehow knew that it was all part of Mom’s magic.

After each of us had unwrapped the presents from our mounds of gifts, my mom pulled out a large box, which she happily announced was a “family present.” This was something new. Because all throughout the year, having two sisters meant that we shared everything, we usually got our own individual presents at Christmas. Who would open this “family present?” We decided to do it all together, Mom included. We tore back the wrapping paper to reveal a brand new DVD player. “But…what? How? How did you manage this? “ we asked her. “I got it on Black Friday. I got a great deal. Seriously, guys, don’t worry about it. It’s about time we get with the century and start watching DVDs.” Black Friday. With the exception of when my sister worked retail and had to go in early on the Friday after Thanksgiving, none of us had ever partaken in any Black Friday shopping. This year was different, and of course it would be. This was the first year that it was just Mom and us. Perhaps Black Friday shopping would be a new tradition for us, and we could get down with that.

As I think back on impressions of my mother at Christmas, I realize that even twelve years later, not much has changed. She still spoils me. Even though the type of presents I ask for are a little different (hello, utilitarian gifts…food processors, bed sheets, and clothes), I still look forward to the gifts from my mom most. And she always manages to throw in some surprises that I might like.

Written by: Jenny Nigro, MoM intern
Photo source: Public domain photo, Wikimedia Commons

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Lindsey’s Family!

Hello, everyone! Each week, I am going to highlight a family that has shared their experiences with me. Some women will talk about their experience becoming mothers, their families, or what being a mother means to them. I am actively searching for fathers to share their experiences as well! (If you, or anyone you know, is interested, PLEASE let me know!)

For this first #familyfriday, Lindsey is shared her thoughts on being a busy family, and how they handle public reactions to being a biracial family.

I hope you enjoy!
*Naomi*
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Hi, my name is Lindsey Pitts and I’m a first year Child Development graduate student at California State University, Sacramento. My husband Will and I have two children: Mikaila, age 5, and Preston, age 3.5. Growing up, I would play house all day everyday, and always knew I wanted to be a mom. However, being a mom who works outside the home, while being a student, has been nothing like I ever imagined.

My studies in Child Development have not only helped, but have hindered my parenting skills at times. No matter how much you know about children and their developmental stages, there’s nothing like hands on experience. There is no right way to raise a kid, and once my husband and I accepted that, it made parenting so much easier. Parenting is a fluid topic. No matter what theory or research says, it’s going to come down to you, the parent, to make the decision about what you think is best for your child(ren) and family. Will and I both have a passion for kids. We have both been working in education for nearly 10 years, and are excited about continuing our own educations. Both of our children started full day Pre-K programs at young ages, and we really believe in providing hands on experiences for them in their early development.

Being busy is an understatement when it comes to our family! My husband and I work, recently finished our undergraduate degrees, and are now pursuing Masters degrees in our fields of study. We really couldn’t have done it without each other, or our kids. Teamwork is BIG in our household, whether it’s mealtime, getting out the door, or daily chores, everyone plays a part. One thing we really try and do is spend quality time together. We laugh a lot (at ourselves and each other) and try to make everything a fun experience for our kids (even cleaning!) There were times in our BA programs when we disagreed, and were just so tired and stressed from deadlines and the daily grind of parenting. Taking a step back, and time out to spend time as a family and with each other, was what put everything back in perspective. It reminded us why we were doing what we were doing, and why it was all worth it. Making our family a priority is why I think our kids are so happy- and is also how our relationship survived the last few years.

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Something that’s unique about our family is that we are a tall bunch, and we are a biracial couple. My husband is 6’8, I’m 5’10, and our kids look like they are about 3 years older then they really are. Walking through Target, having your child who looks like they are 6 have a meltdown over not getting a toy, isn’t fun. We’ve gotten looks. I usually respond with, “I know being 3 is tough, we can’t always get what we want.” Patrons usually smile after that and comment on how tall and beautiful our kids are. When we aren’t making tantrum scenes, the kids usually get comments and questions about them being models (both have lighter complexion and hair, and Mikaila has blue eyes.) If I got paid for every time someone commented on this- both my kids would have college funds by now. 😉 Living in a very diverse city, we receive lots of positive feedback about being an interracial couple. One thing that has been bothersome, however, is the stereotypes society has placed on couples like us. Some people are just going to “hate” because of their own situation. Luckily, assumptions like these are few and far between, and when people do make comments, we just ignore them. With different cultural backgrounds, we have made it a point to introduce and expose our children to both our cultures and families. My daughter said it best the other day when she told my husband, “even though we have different color skin, we are still family.”

-Lindsey

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