When caregiving gives out

News from the journal Cancer is that serious illness is much more likely to lead to separation or divorce when the wife is the one who’s sick. In a study of more than 500 patients with a malignant primary brain tumor, a solid tumor with no nervous system involvement, or multiple sclerosis, researchers found that 21% of the couples with sick wives separated or divorced, compared with 3% of those with sick husbands. In fact, they report, “female sex was found to be the strongest predictor of divorce or separation in each of the 3 patient populations.”

Oddly, perhaps, the authors attribute the disparity to levels of caring ability, rather than willingness or emotional commitment. The Science Daily release summarizes:

Why men leave a sick spouse can be partly explained by their lack of ability, compared to women, to make more rapid commitments to being caregivers to a sick partner and women’s better ability to assume the burdens of maintaining a home and family, the study authors said.

In the study they provide references for this theory, but none of them appear to measure ability to provide care. These are slippery things to capture. I am reminded of a study I co-authored in which we found:

Children with disabilities are more likely to live with single parents, and especially their mothers, than are other children. Further, those who do not live with either biological parent are more likely to live in households headed by women than are other children. The results suggest that gendered living arrangements among children with disabilities are a neglected aspect of inequality in caring labor, which is an underpinning of gender inequality in general.

We also know from previous research that parents of children with disabilities are more likely to divorce than other parents, though whether that results from fathers’ or mothers’ initiation is not clear. It all suggests to me that the allocation of responsibility for unpaid care work is partly negotiated implicitly with the structure of families and living arrangements – who lives with whom and in what sort of relationship – not just in the division of tasks within the home.

Note: Tara Parker-Pope at NYT later posted on this, and you can see the 200-comment discussion here.

Exemplary parenting, same-sex style

As long as same-sex couples can’t get married, research can’t tell us much what same-sex marriage will be like – especially how legal recognition might affect their social legitimacy in the eyes of others, as well as their commitments and investments as partners and parents. The main U.S. data collection agencies are working on collecting data for those legal marriages that are occurring in the U.S. – with a new license to truth from the Obama administration – but that will take time. We do have some leads, meanwhile, either from studying same-sex partnerships that don’t involve legal marriage, or from studying those legal same-sex marriages where they are occurring elsewhere.

Lots of these couples parent through adoption or fostering. The numbers are growing, as more gay couples marry or otherwise commit, and long to be parents, as Gary Gates and colleagues have reported:


In today’s NYT Magazine, Lisa Belkin summarizes research on same-sex couples parenting from two new books, Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children, by Abbie Goldberg; and When Gay People Get Married, by M. V. Lee Badgett.

Belkin summarizes:

In most ways, the accumulated research shows, children of same-sex parents are not markedly different from those of heterosexual parents. They show no increased incidence of psychiatric disorders, are just as popular at school and have just as many friends. While girls raised by lesbian mothers seem slightly more likely to have more sexual partners, and boys slightly more likely to have fewer, than those raised by heterosexual mothers, neither sex is more likely to suffer from gender confusion nor to identify themselves as gay.

More enlightening than the similarities, however, are the differences, the most striking of which is that these children tend to be less conventional and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than those raised in more traditional families.

She extends the interview with Badgett here.

This is consistent with an earlier meta-analysis I have been using in class for years, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?“, by Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz from American Sociological Review. We still have more data on lesbian parents than gay parents – and many are re-partnered parent-stepparent couples, which have their own dynamics – but this is good progress on the research side at least.

Who needs marriage?

When it comes to suicide, at least, the answer is: “men.”

Jessie Bernard famously argued that every marriage is really two marriages, his and hers – and his was more beneficial than hers. We know, for example, that both men and women have more family income when they’re married, but that’s mostly because men earn more than women, and married men earn more than single men. We know that women often depend on marriage for their health insurance, because men’s jobs are much more likely to provide coverage. The recent debate about women’s reportedly-declining happiness highlights the slipperiness of subjective indicators of wellbeing.

Sociologists have always considered suicide to be the gold standard measure of psychological wellbeing. And marriage has historically been a key indicator of social integration, the source of belongingness that makes suicide less likely. Although Bernard believed that, with regard to suicide, marriage is more protective of men than of women, recent research has been more equivocal. Now, however, we have a good long-term study with a large U.S. sample that tests this, and finds that, as suspected, marriage protects men more than women from themselves.

Suicide Risk by Marital Status

Source: My figure from Table 2 in Richard Rogers, Patrick Krueger and Tim Wadsworth, “Adult Suicide Mortality in the United States: Marital Status, Family Size, Socioeconomic Status, and Differences by Sex,” Social Science Quarterly, 2009 (90[5]:1167-85).

Controlling for race, age and the number of people in the family, those in marriage relationships have the lowest risk of suicide from 1986 through 2002 (these are called hazard ratios). But the pattern is only statistically significant for men, and it’s much more pronounced. The authors offer reasonable explanations for this:

Marital status—particularly widowhood—is significantly associated with the risk of suicide among males but not among females. These findings are compatible with prior research that suggests that marriage confers greater health benefits for men than for women, potentially because women invest more time and energy than other household members caring for the health and well-being of children, husbands, and older family members. In turn, men are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide when they lose that social support due to widowhood.

Women, marriage and health insurance

The Center for American Progress has a nice report on the health insurance barriers unmarried women face by Liz Weiss, Ellen-Marie Whelan and Jessica Arons. A good report to use for class, including specific policy recommendations. They offer lots of evidence to document how

unmarried women are uniquely challenged in obtaining and maintaining health insurance. They rarely have the option to get insurance through another person and generally have less income to pay insurance and health care costs. What’s more, married women are vulnerable to changes in marital status that could affect their coverage.

I’m struck by how much more dependent on state coverage single women are than married women. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon would say patriarchy uses the state to keep women alive while they are temporarily outside the care/supervision of a man (and his employer’s patriarchy-enabling health care). On the other hand, maybe this reveals the modern state’s role as protector of women from men’s control, because it opens up the possibility of escaping the marriage system.

Here’s the breakdown:

Health insurance for married and unmarried women

Good issue for feminism: how women are more dependent on men than the wage gap itself would suggest.

Four-out-of-five myths about America

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins from Brookings write “5 myths about our land of opportunity” in the Washington Post, four of which are really myths:

  • Americans enjoy more economic opportunity than people in other countries. [well, this one is actually not a myth compared with most countries, but they are right in the comparison with “Nordic countries and … the United Kingdom.”]
  • In the United States, each generation does better than the past one.
  • Immigrant workers and the offshoring of jobs drive poverty and inequality in the United States.
  • We can fund new programs to boost opportunity by cutting waste and abuse in the federal budget.

They have good reasons not to fall for those. But this one doesn’t fly:

If we want to increase opportunities for children, we should give their families more income. Of course, money is a factor in upward mobility, but it isn’t the only one; it may not even be the most important.”

But even if it’s not the most important, income sure helps. So the “should” in that myth is just a value judgment, while the rest were empirically based. They add,

“Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children.”

But having more family income (and other family advantages) makes all those intermediate outcomes more likely. They cite as evidence the 1996 welfare reform, which “dramatically increased employment and lowered overall child poverty.” That is the order of events, but the causal story is not so cut-and-dried.

An under-appreciated aspect of the recession is (was?) the toll it took on the already-poor, which reversed the long-term drop in welfare recipients driven by the Clinton reform. At last check the government hasn’t published TANF numbers for the first quarter of 2009, but the upward trend started in 2008 and seems sure to continue. How many of those will be “term-limited” off the program before they can find work from the end of the employment queue in the lagging-employment tail of the recession? Calls for a moratorium on term limits as part of the first stimulus package were not successful. Throwing some money at that problem would still probably do more good than harm.