True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 1 of 4)

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I’ve mentioned before that my childhood was significantly dictated by my experiences in the conservative Evangelical church. Now that I’m geographically separated from the Bible Belt, it’s a bit easier to reflect and deconstruct some of the messages I received from church. For one thing, I’m still committed to the church; I value its narrative (I’ll leave it as that as I want to avoid theological conversations on this blog to the best of my ability) and its desire to create community. But there are still some visible scars that I’ve recently began tending to. This four-part series has involved more editing than most of my posts do because I want to make sure I’ve eliminated as much of my emotional baggage as possible, sticking to a scientific and philosophical exploration of the value of the church’s teachings on sexuality and abstinence.

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5060066746My youth group didn’t participate explicitly in “True Love Waits“, a program designed to promote abstinence until marriage amongst Christian adolescents. A company called The Bradford Exchange markets purity rings with the slogan “My Daughter’s Faith and Love“, as if the success of her Christian faith revolves around ability to prevent lustful boys from touching her sexually; some people in my youth group wore purity rings to represent their pledge to virginity, but I don’t remember an overt encouragement from our youth directors to sport these $99 pieces of premarital bling.

There were subtle forms of participation in the True Love Waits culture. My church promoted premarital abstinence, and during one discussion, we rationalized (my denomination is quite cognitive) reasons for waiting until marriage to have sex. My 16-year-old self mentioned not wanting to get a girl pregnant. Another student talked about not wanting to get an STD. One student raised his hand and responded, “Because God said so,” and then proof-texted his answer. The facilitator of the conversation seemed so proud of this kid for his answer (and I remember even then being quite aggravated.) We turned to 1 Corinthians 6 and let the apostle Paul’s bashing of the Corinthian church provide our model for contemporary sexuality, focusing specifically on our bodies being temples for the Holy Spirit, with the assumption that if we have premarital sex, we’ve violated and defiled God.

In some ways, I’m not the person to comment upon the painful experiences of the True Love Waits culture, as material seemed to be heavily focused on making sure teenage girls remained “pure”. Samantha Pugsley, blogger at XOJane, writes the following about her experience:

“The church taught me that sex was for married people. Extramarital sex was sinful and dirty and I would go to Hell if I did it. I learned that as a girl, I had a responsibility to my future husband to remain pure for him. It was entirely possible that my future husband wouldn’t remain pure for me, because he didn’t have that same responsibility, according to the Bible. And of course, because I was a Christian, I would forgive him for his past transgressions and fully give myself to him, body and soul.

For more than a decade, I wore my virginity like a badge of honor. My church encouraged me to do so, saying my testimony would inspire other young girls to follow suit. If the topic ever came up in conversation, I was happy to let people know that I had taken a pledge of purity.

When we got home [after our honeymoon], I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Everyone knew my virginity was gone. My parents, my church, my friends, my co-workers. They all knew I was soiled and tarnished. I wasn’t special anymore. My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn’t know who I was without it.”

I don’t remember virginity being an identifying adjective during my religious sex education, but I’m not a woman. How many young women share Samantha’s story of dedicating their lives to Christ, becoming deeply involved in mission projects and emotion-filled youth rallies, with the caveat of pledging to virginity as a sign of their commitment to Jesus? If you have sex with someone, you fail. If your church was like mine and relied on metaphors of being “the bride of Christ” (again, this only pertains to women) to symbolize marriage not just to your partner, but also to God, a non-virgin arrives before Jesus as defiled, broken, shamed. The implicit (unfortunately, in some cases, explicit–one girl in my youth group who got pregnant was asked not to come to youth group events) implication is that Jesus is disappointed with you and may reject you for not keeping your vow. (Much more to write about the messages of virginity in future blog posts.)

Here’s the problem. Most people that take virginity pledges fail to keep them. For instance, Antoinette Landor of UNC and Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons of the University of Georgia interviewed almost 1400 university students, approximately 400 of whom owned virginity pledges, about sexual behavior and commitment to church and religious beliefs. In “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment vs. Religious Participation”, an article published in July’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, the researchers discovered that 65% of virginity pledge owners did not follow through on their pledge. 77% of virginity pledge owners reported having oral sex.

My hope is that learning of the ineffectiveness of abstinence-based programs, even when they are couched in religious language, is not news. Numerous studies have defined the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs (government-funded and otherwise). Bible Belt states, such as Mississippi and Texas, not only promote abstinence-based sex education, launched by the fear that teaching teenagers more about sex will convince them to have sex, but also have higher levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs (and in Mississippi’s case, higher levels of general sexual activity from teenagers.)

Landor and Simons’ research provokes some really interesting questions about the intersection between religion and adolescent sexuality that will be explored in the next three blog posts. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the gray areas of virginity and the concept of “how far is too far”. Landor and Simons identify that virginity pledges are more likely to work for those with higher levels of religious commitment; in Monday’s blog post, we’ll explore the consequences of virginity pledges “working”. And on Tuesday, we’ll explore Landor and Simons’ discovery that college students who signed virginity pledges as adolescents but have lower levels of religious commitment have more sexual experiences and partners than those who didn’t sign virginity pledges in the first place.

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Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream (part 2 of 2)

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Ana Garcia shares an experience of many first and second-generation immigrant teenagers. She studies and makes good grades, even catching the attention of her English teacher Mr. Guzman, who encourages her to apply to universities. Ana gets accepted to Columbia University, and many in her community celebrate with Ana as she prepares for life in New York City with the chance to study with some of the most brilliant professors. Everyone except for her mother, Carmen. Carmen is educated as well, and longs to teach her daughter how to sew, be a supportive wife, and take care of a house. She becomes anxious when Ana develops a romantic relationship with Jimmy, a Caucasian, upper-middle class boy at their suburban high school. Everything that Carmen knows from her upbringing in Mexico clashes with everything Ana learns and experiences in Los Angeles:

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival award-winning Real Women Have Curves takes viewers to the barrios of east Los Angeles, where Carmen (played by Lupe Oliveres) and Raul (Jorge Cervera Jr.) attempt to create an improved life by immigrating to California from Mexico. Though they’ve lived in the United States for some time (Ana, their oldest, is a senior in high school), they’ve had challenges establishing themselves professionally, as much of their income depends on Carmen’s sister’s sewing factory. The film focuses on the tension between Carmen and Ana (America Ferrera in her on-screen debut), which results in Carmen challenging many of her daughter’s educational, professional, and relational decisions. Ana explores the convergence of both cultures, working at the sewing factory with her aunts during the summer while also pursuing her academic gifts (with the help of Mr. Guzman, played brilliantly by George Lopez) and exploring her sexuality. Real Women Have Curves is not just Ana’s story; it narrates the evolution of the Garcia family as they struggle to collaborate national (Mexican, in this case) and American cultural norms and expectations.

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Dr. Meifen Wei, psychology professor at Iowa State University, and Stephanie Carrera explored relationships similar to Ana and Carmen in their research project ““Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology. Their subjects, Latino/a university students, grew up in immigrant families: at least one parent (and numerous immediate family members) were born outside the U.S., English was spoken second, if at all, and families defined clear, if not somewhat rigid, expectations for mother and father, male and female. Wei and Carrera observed the differentiation process (the ability of a teenager/young adult to live interdependently from their families of origin) of these teenagers. Keep in mind, differentiation supports the values of the larger Western culture–independence, personal achievement–and may come in conflict with the values of Latino (and other collectivist) cultures–the group before the individual, cohesion.

Depression of young adults is often linked to challenges with differentiation. Ana, for instance, wants to go to college out-of-state but meets strong resistance from their family of origin, who “encourage” their child to stay closer. (The “encouraging” process may be rationally driven–out of state tuition tacks on an additional 40-50% of an already expensive collegiate experience, or emotionally driven–the parent frequently reminds the teenager how much they’ll be missed or how things won’t be the same without them, a message tinged with a bit of guilt. Ideally, the encouraging process is strictly rational, but is realistically usually an emotion-driven process.) Ana’s decision to go to Columbia carries a risk: mom’s disappointment and the coinciding criticism/reminders of her disappointment. However, her decision to go to Columbia was also a differentiated one, as her decision was not controlled/affected by either the emotional process of her mother or the desire to upset her mother. Had Ana decided to blow off Columbia to stay in Los Angeles for the sake of her mother’s happiness, perhaps she’d experience lower self-esteem, higher regrets, and a greater risk for more serious risks of depression.

A parent launching their teenager out of their home and into adulthood is emotionally challenging enough. Imagine that you’re sending your teenager/young adult into a community of “other” that doesn’t share your values, your language, the prioritization of religion or community. The difficulty of an immigrant family launching their child increases exponentially due to differences in their culture and American culture.

As stated in part one, Wei and Carrera discovered that immigrant families with bicultural paradigms, exploring and validating two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, had a greater likelihood of launching healthy, confident teenagers into university, while students whose parents/families struggled with accepting the practices of both cultures were at greater risk for depressive symptoms. They refer to the research of Teresa LaFromboise, professor of sociology at Stanford, who has spent much of her career exploring the resilience strategies of immigrant families. Successful families, “biculturally competent“, to use LaFromboise’s terms, meld the cultural norms and expectations of their countries of origin with their immigrant nation in six ways:

1) They have sufficient understanding of both community’s values and beliefs. For example, these families may intentionally spend an equal amount of time pursuing individual and familial goals. They identify and practice family values from both communities.

2) They have positive attitudes toward both groups. These families spend quality time with members of both community groups and give family members the ability to explore relationships with people in both groups. They also seem to experience limited social injustices, either interpersonal or systemic.

3) They believe that they can participate in two groups without losing one’s cultural identity. The New York Times reports that approximately 1.2 million Hispanic Americans re-identified themselves as White or some other race between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Nate Cohn provides some interesting explanations for this trend. Bicultural families still identify themselves through their country of origin, even as they participate in a diversity of cultural experiences.

4) They are bilingual. Spanish may still be the primary language at home, but English is widely used. Older generations agree to learn English, either through ESL education or watching English-language forms of media, and identify clear rules around language. Some families prefer speaking at home while speaking English in social situations, for instance. Much has been written about the anxieties of children who have to interpret for their uni-lingual parents.

5) They have flexible social and gender roles. Stereotypically, Latina mothers are responsible for housekeeping and child-rearing duties, while Latino fathers contribute through working and establishing some kind of statesmanlike authority. The male is overtly powerful, while the female covertly. Bicultural families establish a greater equality amongst adult partners concerning work roles, providing their children with a diversity of ways to explore their masculinity/femininity.

6) They initiate and create social networks in both culture groups. Perhaps their family’s athletic pursuits are with a multicultural population, while they choose to practice religion with a Latino community. Bicultural families also step outside of their extended families to create these social networks.

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Creating a bicultural paradigm for immigrant families involves entire communities. Racism, sexism, and systemic injustices prevent these families from succeeding not only during their acculturation process, but also in launching a generation of healthy, self-confident second- and third-generation immigrants. The process around undocumented immigration and naturalization seems to result in the same. Though documentation doesn’t necessarily result in greater financial gains, families may have a challenging time creating diverse social networks, cultural experiences, and positive attitudes towards their host country if they fear deportation or feel compelled to keep their naturalization status secretive.

Politically speaking, I’m not sure what the solution is to the problems around the Texas-Mexico border. On the one hand, we could create a slightly more attainable naturalization process by funding English and government courses and more organizations (for-profit and non-profit) that provide professional skills to the unemployed. We definitely need to eradicate stop-and-search and other profiling practices that overtly perpetuate the idea of “other”.  On the other hand, does a steady increase of immigration result in a limited amount of resources for a nation already struggling to find employment and healthy food options for a sizable portion of our population? I do think that participating with immigrant communities in creating bicultural families will increase the success of the acculturation process and the self-esteem of generations of immigrant families.

Bilingualism, Undocumented Immigrants, and the American Dream

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Rick Perry is at it again. A month ago, Perry, the governor of my home state, enlisted 1,000 National Guard members to help shore up the 1200 mile border Texas shares with Mexico. Two days ago, the New York Times reported that Perry’s administration has since hired game wardens, generally responsible for enforcing boating, hunting, and fishing regulations, to help make arrests and deportations of illegal immigrants. The Times also reports that Texas has spent $500 million in the last ten years on immigration policy and enforcement.

Immigration, particularly from Mexican and Central American citizens, presents an interesting ethical conundrum. What do we do when destitute internationals escape national poverty and violence, cross our borders (with or without appropriate documentation) and seek to participate in the “American Dream”? Do we accept these people with open arms and help them acculturate? Is the U.S. even structurally capable of accepting millions of immigrants a year when it struggles to provide consistent employment and adequate housing and healthcare for many of its own? I disagree with the process by which Governor Perry enforced his solution, but at least he presented a solution, something many in border states claim Washington has been arduous in providing. I don’t envy Perry’s position, as his state hosts approximately 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, accounting for around 7% of the population and 9% of Texas’ labor force.

Governor Perry’s cries about immigration have recently been the loudest (surprise), but many states have been affected by a recent influx of immigrants. Massachusetts, for instance, has around a million residents that were born outside of the United States, approximately 17% of which are undocumented. Governor Deval Patrick has offered to host thousands of Central American children, leading to a recent protest at the State House, where hundreds of Bostonians held up signs such as “Americans before Illegals”. While it’s easy to blame President Obama’s administration for recent border woes, in reality, as the above chart, presented by The Migration Policy, suggests, the current immigration anxieties seem to be a culmination of a 40-year long trend. In the 1990s, for example, approximately 12 million immigrants (the above chart assesses for both documented and estimated undocumented immigrants) arrived in the United States, so that by 2000, over 10% of American residents were born outside of the U.S., a number that’s increased a few percentage points this millennium.

Many policy conversations seem to center around how to stop the bleeding by sealing up the borders or increasing deportation, After all, as Reuters reports, approximately 70% of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants will take away American jobs, beliefs, and customs. (There haven’t been studies done on one’s ability to distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants, though I hypothesize that many Americans tend to lump them, particularly Latin American immigrants, together, especially recently.) Few policy conversations have discussed long-term care and development for immigrants.

Immigrants utilize their strengths and cultures to participate in the U.S. job market. Immigrants begin families in the U.S. Anna Brown, analyst at the Pew Research Center, reminds us there were approximately 800,000 more Latino births than deaths in 2012. The median age for Asian immigrants falls close to the national average (late 30s), while the median age for Latinos is 28. (Note: Undocumented immigrants provide statistical challenges for researchers. Brown analyzed data from the Census Bureau, which only counts documented citizens. We can only provide estimates for undocumented immigrants, which range between 12 and 20 million. Nevertheless, these people start/relocate families into the United States, creating second-generation immigrants, or people born in the U.S. to immigrants.)

How can we create policy and social structures that ensure that immigrants attain and maintain a high quality of life, with successes passed through generations?

Family research provides a wonderful venue for assessing how current immigrants describe their sense of self and ability to succeed. Dr. Meifen Wei, professor of psychology at Iowa State, and her student, Stephanie Carrera, gave approximately 240 Latino/a university students, 63% of whom were second-generation immigrants, and 70% of whom were Mexican, a diversity of assessments regarding their personal and familial acculturation process, differentiation (the ability to separate and live interdependently from one’s family of origin with limited anxiety), and depression levels. In “Bicultural Competence, Acculturative Family Distancing, and Future Depression in Latino/a College Students”, published in July’s Journal of Counseling Psychology, Wei and Carrera discovered that Latino/a students with low risks for/levels of depression were more likely to come from bicultural families, families that lived comfortably within two cultural groups without sacrificing the beliefs and values of their original culture, while families that struggled with biculturalism were more likely to produce young adults who struggle with depression and anxiety.

Biculturalism seems to play a significant part in a Latino (and potentially other recent immigrant populations) child’s success. In the next post, we’ll think a little bit more about attaining biculturalism, including how undocumented immigrants and families may struggle to attain it. But for now, I want to return to the current immigration conversation. Acculturation decisions lie mainly in the hands of immigrant families–which language is to be used at home, how homogenous a family’s social network is, etc. I’m curious about the effect of our current conversation about immigration, specifically the process by which some are having it, on immigrant families. If biculturalism is a key to success for immigrant families, what role do American nationals (including myself) play in helping immigrant families achieve it?

60 Hours of Work

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Some of the couples that we work with can pinpoint the reason for their struggles to a specific event–the affair, the moment of intense, violent anger, the relapse. However, many of our couples enter the first session with exhausted expressions. Both partners have full-time jobs, a growing trend (both partners work in 59% of two-parent American families), but also a necessity for survival, as Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. These couples play multiple roles–partner, parent, and employee–and struggle with juggling each of these tasks. One of these roles (generally, the role of partner) often takes a backseat to prevent a stressful situation from becoming completely overwhelming.

The Pew Research Center recently published a chart that highlights the stressful schedules that dual-income families keep. On average, dual-income fathers work more than 40 hours a week. The average dual-income mother works almost as much to maintain the needs of the house and children as she does in her actual paying job. The average father spends an hour a day in activities strictly devoted to his children; the average mother spends just under two hours a day connecting with her children. This chart accounts for almost 60 hours a week.

Notice that the chart doesn’t account for time partners spend together. Perhaps the Pew Research Center didn’t assess for that in this particular survey. Nevertheless, as dual-income couples attend to the needs of their jobs, homes, and children, often their relationships suffer as they want to spend their remaining hours decompressing in isolation or sleeping.

Many of our couples try to justify their prioritization strategies, claiming that the extra shift they pulled, for example, is to provide for the family. The reality is, dual-income families, particularly those with children, require tons of effort as adults shift in and out of the roles and expectations of partner, parent, and co-worker. Here are some tips that can help couples find a balance between these roles, with the ability to reduce stress and increase the amount of time you and your partner can spend together.

1) The relationship with your significant other comes first. Many families establish their calendars around work and children’s obligations, while hoping to find gaps in their schedules for date nights. Prioritize your schedule so that date nights are the first things that enter your calendar each week, and organize other family events around shared partner time.

2) Identify core beliefs about what it means to be a good parent and partner. How much time and money should be spent with/on the children? How much do we want to rely on a support network to help us rear our children? Is organized childcare worth the financial and emotional investment? These core values should establish future decisions about the details of daily decisions, such as whether or not to pick up the extra shift at work.

3) Identify your village. There’s a tendency to think that others are just as busy as you are and may not have the time or willingness to help your family, an assumption that prevents many families from opening their social network. Who are people that can provide babysitting services? Who can pick up your children in case of an emergency? It’s important to mix your community with family members and non-related friends. Many families fear asking others because they don’t want to be a burden; overcome that by offering to reciprocate services

4) Initiate flexibility in your job. How flexible can your schedule be? Is it possible to work from home? Can you work four longer days and take Fridays off? Depending on the flexibility and family-friendliness of your office, you can define your schedule so that one of you can leave early to begin the afternoon with your children or carve out some time during the day to share breakfast/lunch together. Many people don’t realize the flexibility in their occupation because they don’t talk with their boss or management about their needs. You may discover you have limited adjustability with your schedule, but the only way you’ll find out is if you ask.

5) Strive for equity with your partner in the decision-making process. Define clear parenting and housekeeping expectations for you and your partner. If you can’t take time off together, alternate duties such as picking up the kids and running errands. Many couples develop unproductive patterns where one partner perceives they do (or actually do) more than the other, which increases the potential for blame.

The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 4 of 4)

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So far, we’ve discussed single parenthood through the lens of divorced/separated relationships. Some single parents and their children completely break free from their non-custodial parent/former significant other with minimal anxiety. However, many researchers, such as Ulrike Zartler of the University of Vienna, suggest that most members of single parent families want some kind of unification, either because they miss features of the nuclear (two-parent) family, or because their friends or larger society overtly/covertly suggest that nuclear families create the most successful, healthy families. Therefore, many single-parent families either imitate nuclear families by creating reunification in public or private settings, or attempt to adapt current roles, take on new roles and/or include new custodial members in an attempt to compensate for the contributions of the non-custodial parent.

But what happens if the separation process between parents left severe scars, emotional or physical? Or worse, how do we speak for young widows and widowers?

Take Chas Tenenbaum. Chas’ wife, Rachael, died in a plane accident, and at the beginning of his story, The Royal Tenenbaums, we see Chas (played brilliantly by Ben Stiller) awakening his children to a midnight fire drill, timing his boys’ (Ari and Uzi) efficiency at leaving the home, practicing for another disaster, lest the remaining family members receive a similar fate as their mother. Chas refuses to let his boys talk about their mother, and meets similar resistance when other family members attempt to address her loss.

Zartler, in her article “How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single Parent Families”, published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, mentions a third resilience skill that single-parent families use. Rather than attempt to imitate or compensate two-parent families, they shut out other two-parent families (including their own family members), if not completely withdrawing from the world. Zartler refers to this process of creating boundaries between custodial parent/child and the rest of the world as delimitation, and describes two ways single-parent families can achieve this.

First, they can strive for complete withdrawal.. These families avoid talking about the absence of the non-custodial parents. Children may bring up memories of their absent parent, only to find their custodial parent withdraw into anger or silence; they learn quickly not to bring up the subject again. The closed-lipped approach of the family transfers into the child’s educational and social experiences, where he/she tries to invisibly blend in and say as little as possible to teachers and peers. Many of these parents find themselves in Chas Tenenbaum’s shoes, overprotecting their children from fantastical disasters, closing them off from the outside world in the name of safety.

Second, these single-parent families openly criticize other two-parent families, namely their own. Royal Tenenbaum, Chas’ father, comments on the closed-off family structure of Chas and the boys and tries to take Ari and Uzi out for a day of excitement:

Chas has no idea, by the way, that Royal has encouraged the boys to ride dangerously on moving vehicles and commit misdemeanors with him; nevertheless, when they return, Chas flips out on his father:

Part of the humor of the movie involves the young adult generation of Tenenbaum’s deal with the neuroses of Royal. Royal encouraged his children to become experts in certain fields (Chas was a young stock broker) rather than creating emotional connections with them, so thirty years later, he brings Chas and his siblings to his home as an attempt to make up for lost time. All of the children catch onto Royal’s plot and resist his efforts in some way, but Chas’ resistance toward Royal is the most significant, particularly when Royal attempts to discuss Rachael.

Delimitation is one of the more powerful resilience strategies a person/family can use. If I don’t talk about the pain of separation, I don’t have to think about it, and I can convince myself it didn’t happen. If I don’t let others in, nobody has to get hurt further. Delimitation creates family secrets, where children learn they must hide information from the outside world in order to protect their parents (or themselves). Holding these secrets establishes a dangerous, stress-filled precedent where children learn to hide other bits of information, stunting their ability to develop healthy relationships. Family therapy can be a useful, safe place for these families to share their experiences.

The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 3 of 4)

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I just discovered today that Robin Williams will be starring in Mrs. Doubtfire 2, to be released sometime in 2015.

We remember Mrs. Doubtfire–a fun loving, yet fiscally irresponsible dad who turns to geriatric cross-dressing as a way to cope with a pending divorce and the potential inability to not see his three children. Miranda Hillard, played convincingly by Sally Field, struggles to organize her life following separating from her husband, Daniel, and places an advertisement for a babysitter. Daniel, a master of impersonations, creates Mrs. Doubtfire, a Julia Child-esque nanny, who gets the nannying job with her sharp wit, wisdom, and oversized dresses. At first, Mrs. Doubtfire seems content to just connect with the children, taking them for ice cream while encouraging them to get work done around the house. Then, he meets Stu, played by a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan, a gentleman who attempts to wine and dine his ex-wife. The children never connect with Stu, something Mrs. Doubtfire notices, and they attempt to split their mother/ex-wife and her new boyfriend apart, resulting in a catastrophic scene involving cayenne pepper and the Heimlich maneuver.

Mrs. Doubtfire provides a glimpse into the often tortuous process of uncoupling, single parenthood, and recoupling (well, attempted recoupling in this case) and its effects on all members: children, residential parent, and non-residential parent:

We’re thinking this week about the challenges of divorce and single parenting through the research of Ulrike Zartler, an Austrian sociologist, who recently conducted research around the reorganization and resilience strategies of single-parent families. Whereas society seems to stigmatize single-parent families less in the 21st century, Zartler observes that single-parent families attempt to imitate nuclear families by reconstructing a two-parent family structure in public (such as the residential and non-residential parents meeting at a child’s dance recital) and/or private (such as both parents having a joint birthday party or holiday feast). However, not all single-parent families successfully replicate two-parent families due to poor communication or residual anger about the relationship, usually to the dismay of the children.

Zartler writes that almost all single-parent families attempt to compensate for the absence of the non-residential parent.

Sarah had four boys, ranging from ages 6-14. When I started working with them, the father to the youngest two was incarcerated, while the father to the oldest two made occasional cameo appearances, enough to remain on his boys’ radar, but not enough to keep the teenagers from obtaining a consistent irritation with him. (The father to the youngest two would leave prison and re-enter the family about halfway through my work with the family.) Sarah played numerous roles: caretaker of an aging parent, banker, emotional thermostat, chauffeur, human jungle gym (for the younger boys), sparring partner (for the older two). There was one meeting where the older boys attempted to gang up on their mother, resulting in a two-on-one wrestling match involving posturing (from the boys), some impressive escape moves from mom, and lots of laughter. Sarah reminded the boys (and myself) that she plays the role of father and mother, male and female adult to her boys. Many single parents compensate by taking on some of the traditional gender roles and interests of the non-residential parent, especially to match the developmental needs of their opposite-sexed children.

Zartler acknowledges that a single parent’s effort to compensate by attempting to play both gender roles often results in exhaustion and loneliness. Many single parents compensate by bringing in a new partner, with the hope that the new partner can fill the shoes of the non-residential parent in some way. In a worst case scenario, the ineffective pattern of cyclical cohabitation exists,  in which a residential parent invites a merry-go-round of significant others into the home, generally for parental support. I’ve discussed the importance of wariness when involving new romantic interests in single-parent families in other blog posts; Zartler reminds us that when new adults are introduced into the family system appropriately, children perceive them as being helpful in their goals of imitating nuclear families.

Single-parent families also compensate by positively promoting the non-residential parents. This resilience strategy can be useful when the separate parents have negotiated an effective process for co-parenting. However, Zartler noticed that few of the children considered this a resilience strategy, perhaps because of the dissonance between this option and their goals of imitating nuclear families, or perhaps because they remember/have heard about the tension between their parents.

Finally, Zartler identified families that encouraged their children to make relationships with adults in the community. Most of the parents surveyed were single mothers, many of whom elaborated on the positive interactions between their sons and older male role models. Single parents also looked to their own siblings to provide same-gendered relationships for their nieces and nephews; Zartler noticed, however, that a single parent often felt they were burdening a potential aunt of uncle who had their own spouse and/or children. Children also seek out these common-gendered relationships amongst family members and peers, often regardless of the boundaries that single parents try to set around these relationships. Zartler suggests that single parents take the initiative to establish healthy same-gendered relationships with their children.

Whereas imitation is a resilience strategy preferred by children (even though they have limited power over this strategy due to their dependence on the negotiation skills of their parents), compensation strategies are used and preferred primarily by the single parent as he/she adapts and renegotiates his/her own roles within the family while filling in potential gaps for the children.

The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 2 of 4)

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My wife and I love Mexican food. We cook it together at least once a week. Whenever we come back to Texas, as I’m located for the weekend, we consume copious amounts of Mexican food within the first 24 hours. (By the way, Dallas readers, may I suggest Amigos in Richardson. Make sure you order the flan and anything involving their avocado sauce.)

When we transplanted to New England, we asked numerous people where to find good Mexican food. We tried one Mexican place in our town, only to find a “salsa bowl” consisting of tomato sauce mixed with pico de gallo. Another place had a similar salsa and unseasoned chicken in their enchiladas. Not impressed, New England.

So when my coworker, Laura, told me about a yummy Mexican food place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (a beautiful town about an hour away from us), I immediately brushed her off. My wife and I drove up to Portsmouth on Memorial Day; Laura continued to lobby for this Mexican place, reminding us that she shares the Southwestern culinary roots that we do. We decided to give it a shot, a last ditched effort for New England’s experimentation with tortillas and salsas to redeem itself.

Needless to say, Vida Cantina, though it’s in a different state than we reside, shot up the list of our favorite restaurants. Mango habanero salsa. Delicious fish tacos. Smooth guacamole. In fact, last month, we went to Canada for a week, and on our way back, we stopped into Vida Cantina again to experience the deliciousness.

And who should we run into but my co-worker Laura. It was a hilarious occurrence. Three Boston residents unencumbered by the potential mess of I-95, seeking out our favorite kinds of food an hour away from home at the same time.

Laura’s mother joined her that evening–her parents recently moved to Portsmouth. In fact, Laura explained that her parents divorced when she was in elementary school. Laura spent most of the time with her mother, and described herself as a holy terror during her adolescence, longing for her parents to connect, disrupting the attempts of her mother to introduce other men into the family, a la Parent Trap.

Eventually, Laura’s parents did reconnect; they got remarried, in fact. Laura explained, “I had the dream that every child of divorce has come true. My parents got back together.”

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Ulrike Zartler, a sociologist in Austria, recently visited with numerous single mothers, fathers, and children to evaluate the ways that single-parent families attempt to restructure themselves. Zartler discovered that single-parent families often view themselves in relationship to nuclear families, and develop resilience strategies to attempt to mimic that model.

Single-parent families emerge in a diversity of ways. As stated in a previous blog post, an increasing number of children are born into single parent families, as the relationship between parents never evolves. Some children have the misfortune of having widowed parents. Other children witness the dissolution of the marriage of their parents, in a worst case scenario, allying with one parent against another. Even in these cases, as Dr. Edward Kruk, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, reminds us, “Alienated children seem to have a secret wish for someone to call their bluff, compelling them to reconnect with the parent they claim to hate; despite strongly held positions of alignment, alienated children want nothing more than to be given the permission and freedom to love and be loved by both parents.”

Zartler learned that many single-parent families attempt to minimize the reality of having one less person in their home, imitating nuclear families in public and private situations. For instance, a child’s dance recital gets attended by both parents, giving the community the impression that they have a cordial, friendly relationship, even if the parents have to fake it for two hours. Parents seemed more interested in maintaining its image as a nuclear family in public situations, whereas children seemed more indiscriminate about the setting, wanting the family to reconvene its idealized structure behind closed doors. When residential and non-residential families connected behind closed doors, it generally centered around a child’s need: the celebration of a birthday or  holiday (generally Christmas).

The imitation process proves difficult for some families. For instance, if a child wants the non-residential parent to come over for dinner, the residential parent has to agree. Some parents in the study promoted the presentation of a nuclear family in public, but resisted reunifying in private circumstances. Children become dependent on the residential parent to coordinate the event, and experience high internal/external conflict when the parent refuses. Imitating nuclear families works when parents are able to communicate healthily post-separation. When parents are unable to do this, families must rely on other resilience strategies.