DEALING WITH MOTHERHOOD

By Heidi Grundetjern

Mothers who use and deal illegal drugs find themselves in particularly complex gendered situations. For these mothers, by being involved in crime and being perceived as failing to live up to normative gender expectations, they are stigmatized two-fold in society. In addition, they operate in a gender-stratified drug market supported by masculine “rules of the game.” Men often exclude women from accessing lucrative positions because of presumed dedication to caregiving.

Maternal Identities among Women in the Illegal Drug Economy

In my research, I examine motherhood among women who are part of the hard drug economy in Norway. Although such mothers have in common having little access to normative motherhood, I found vast variation in maternal identities among the mothers in this study. I identified four maternal identities, patterned by their gender performances and work situations: grieving mothers, detached mothers, motherly dealers, and working mothers. Timing of pregnancy, time spent with children, control over drug use, and place in the drug market hierarchy contributed in explaining their maternal identities.

Grieving Mothers

For the grieving mothers, motherhood was vital to their identities despite having lost custody of their children and having limited contact with them. Their strong embodiment of femininity suggested that motherhood fit neatly with their identities. The lost opportunity to engage in mothering on a daily basis brought them seemingly endless grief, which had pushed them into heavier drug use. In the drug economy, they held lower positions in the hierarchy. Holding on to motherhood as pivotal to their identities continuously fueled their grief, yet their sadness was important for negotiation of the stigma they faced.

Detached Mothers

Like the grieving mothers, the detached mothers had lost custody of and had limited contact with their children. Yet, their identities stood in stark contrast, as they did not attempt to present themselves close to normative motherhood expectations. They were young and still adjusting to their adult identities when they had children, all of whom were unplanned. After losing custody they (re)turned to embracing their masculine identities as “one of the guys,” an identification that had emerged as an adaptation to the male-dominated context they were in. This enabled them to partly mitigate some of the emotional stress of losing a child and navigate the drug economy more successfully than did the grieving mothers.

distress_1

Motherly Dealers

The motherly dealers had significantly more contact with their children. They constructed uniform identities that accommodated being both mothers and dealers. These mothers were relatively successful dealers, had their children prior to entering the drug economy, and had previously lived conventional family lives. They drew on maternal responsibilities when accounting for their involvement in the drug economy, and emphasized care and sociability as business strategies. Although they could not escape the stigma of failing to living up to normative motherhood expectations, they created leeway for themselves by widening such ideals.

Working Mothers

The working mothers took sole care of their children despite being active dealers. They differed from the others by not only combining mothering and paid work (i.e., drug dealing) but also by separating the two. By coming close to the normative mothering ideals, they reduced the stigma of being mothers and users/dealers. Still, other challenges surfaced as they faced the paradox of performing according to expectations of two highly different domains. For these mothers, such expectations were likely heightened, as the gap between work and home domains were more substantial than what occurs in most legitimate occupations.

 The Constraint of Motherhood Ideologies

Scholars have argued that mothers cannot escape the presence of normative motherhood in their constructions of maternal identities. The detached mothers were the exception that confirms this rule. Rejecting dominant motherhood norms seemingly also required rejecting femininity. Their experiences, as with the experiences of the rest of the mothers in this study, are a powerful reminder of the omnipotence of motherhood ideologies, and how those ideologies constrain mothers whose social positions make them unattainable.

Heidi Grundetjern is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her research focuses on the role of gender in illegal drug markets, with a specific emphasis on the experiences of women who deal drugs.

Advertisements

Young Men’s Involvement in Hormonal Contraception: Paradox or Possibility?

By Ann M. Fefferman and Ushma D. Upadhyay

It may seem like a no-brainer that women tend to take care of hormonal contraception.  They should have the right to choose a method, use that method, and manage side effects in a way that works best for them. Women have a wide range of methods to choose from, including the pill, patch, vaginal ring, implant, and intrauterine device. These methods allow people to ditch the condom and enjoy increased sexual pleasure and spontaneity with lower chances of having an unintended pregnancy.

But does the fact that these contraceptive methods affect women’s bodies mean that men don’t see a role for themselves in pregnancy prevention?   No. Some men do see themselves as partners in contraceptive use and management. Our research identifies how young men are involved in contraceptive management in helpful and supportive ways. Our research focuses on young low-income men and women of color and the ways they work together to manage contraception without restricting women’s choices. We show examples of men helping with contraception, such as coming to appointments with their partners, discussing risk of pregnancy with partners, helping to choose a method, and reminding partners to take pills or to remove the vaginal ring. We also note how men and women work together to prevent pregnancy despite the different circumstances constraining their choices, such as immigration laws, gang membership, neighborhood violence, and poverty. In this way, our research works against the stereotypes often applied to young low-income men of color when people talk about unintended pregnancy.

While our research shows these positive examples of how young men can work within or against difficult circumstances to support women with contraception, we also show how they aren’t as “feminist”, or “egalitarian”, as they might think. Even though the men in our study were really involved in choosing and using contraception, they still thought women were the ones responsible for contraception and its effective use. Men were just helpers, much like many men “help” in the kitchen or “help” with taking care of the kids. Men used language that seemed equitable, saying that they were not responsible for contraception because they did not want to undermine women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies. Even women we interviewed agreed with these ideas.

fefferman_2

The assumption here is that men cannot respect women’s bodies and choices while still taking responsibility for the possibility of an unintended pregnancy.  Following this logic, men then can use their secondary place in contraception as a justification for assigning blame or shame to women when contraception fails. We aim to show in our research that m en’s involvement in contraception and men’s accountability for unintended pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. Men can help with contraception and also share in contraceptive responsibly (including when contraception fails). Men and women can work together to change these norms and help sustain a positive, respectful place for men in contraceptive management.

Ann M. Fefferman, MA is a PhD candidate in Sociology at University of California, Irvine. Her research interest focus broadly on gender, masculinities, reproductive health, the family and inequalities.  Currently, she is working on her dissertation, which investigates and compares masculinities in different stages of reproduction, with a focus on contraceptive management, pregnancy intentions, and abortion decision-making. In particular she intends to further her studies in medical sociology.

Ushma D. Upadhyay, PhD, MPH is an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and Director of Research for the University of California Global Health Institute’s Center of Expertise in Women’s Health, Gender, and Empowerment. She holds a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award to study gender-based power among young men and women and its effect on contraceptive use. Her current research focuses on the development and validation of the Sexual Health and Reproductive Empowerment for Young Adults (SHREYA) Scale.

How Do Race and Gender Show Up In Youth Sexual Health Promotion?

By Chris Barcelos

Elizabeth Randolph, a white woman in her late 50s, manages a sexual and reproductive health clinic in “Millerston,” a small, former manufacturing city in the US northeast that is known for its high rates of teen pregnancy among Puerto Rican youth. “Not to sound racist at all,” she told me, “but teen pregnancy really is a Latino cultural issue. It’s just not a bad thing if a kid gets pregnant. It’s just much more socially acceptable within that community.” Although Elizabeth was clear that she didn’t want to “sound racist,” she did frame Latinx culture as a cause of Millerston’s high teen birth rates, and this no doubt informed her professional work. Like other people involved in the city’s youth sexual health promotion efforts, her understanding of the effect of culture on sexuality and health are part of what I call a “gendered racial project,” meaning the ways in which race and gender interact to create social meanings, experiences, and inequalities. In sexual health promotion, the ingrained ways in which race and gender show up are often unnoticed by the people who design policies and programs; in Millerston, these professionals are usually not members of the communities they serve. Ideas about race and gender affect the kinds of youth sexual health promotion that communities implement and can reinforce, rather than fix, gender, race, and health inequalities.

My article “Culture, Contraception, and Colorblindness: Youth Sexual Health Promotion as a Gendered Racial Project,” explores how sexual health promotion aimed at young, low-income Latinas in Millerston can be understood as a gendered racial project. I spent three years interviewing professional stakeholders like Elizabeth and participating in coalition meetings, teen pregnancy prevention events, and provider trainings. I found that youth sexual health promoters understand “Latino culture” as stable and uniform in its approach to sexuality and reproduction. They assume that Latinas are against contraception and abortion, and that Latinx families are silent about sexuality and promote teen childbearing within the family. This understanding allows health promoters to justify their efforts to regulate the sexuality and childbearing of young Latinas, including whether they should have sex, what kinds of contraception they should use, and whether they should become parents.

In places like Millerston, where there are high rates of teen pregnancy among women of color, health professionals heavily promote LARC, or long-acting reversible contraceptive (methods such as the IUD, shot, or implant), while downplaying their undesirable side effects. For example, a white social worker in her 40s shared a story about a young client who she characterized as irresponsible because she didn’t want an IUD, while minimizing the client’s real concerns: “There’s all these reasons – they don’t want something inserted into their body, they don’t want to gain weight [sarcastically], there’s all these things, but in my head those are just excuses.” It’s also important to note, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains, that many Americans believe we live in a post-racial, “colorblind” society where race no longer matters. Yet, race very much still matters, and imagining that race and racism don’t affect reproductive health allows health promoters to overlook the long history of how LARC has been used to control the childbearing of women of color, disabled people, and others whose sexuality and reproduction are seen as outside the norm.

Barcellos_1

Fortunately, there are seeds of racial and reproductive justice being planted in Millerston and in the field of sexual health promotion more generally – for example, in partnerships between reproductive justice organizations and the Black Lives Matter movement. Health promoters in Millerston and elsewhere could contribute to planting these seeds by participating in organizing efforts among white people committed to dismantling white supremacy, such as Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), or  by seeking technical assistance and training from national reproductive justice organizations such as Forward Together.  Shifting youth sexual health promotion to incorporate gender, racial, and reproductive justice frameworks means moving from a focus on paternalistically trying to modify “culture” and promoting specific contraceptives, to focusing on how to dismantle racism and enable a world where people can create the kinds of families they want.

Chris Barcelos is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their research uses ethnography, discourse analysis, and visual methods to interrogate how health promotion discourses both reveal and reproduce inequalities along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability.

Gender Conformity, Perceptions of Shared Power, and Marital Quality in Same- and Different-Sex Marriages

By Amanda M. Pollitt, Brandon Andrew Robinson and Debra Umberson

Marriage is often considered a place where two equal partners come together to start a life, form a family, and grow old together. However, there has been what seems like an increase in news and blog articles about women in different-sex marriages who feel that their home lives are anything but equal. For example, in her article about emotional labor (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a12063822/emotional-labor-gender-equality/), Gemma Hartley describes the emotional and relationship toll that being her family’s manager had: “It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.”

Feminist theorists have been talking for decades about heterosexual marriage as a place where inequalities between women and men are created and recreated, and these themes persist even today. Nearly as many women work outside the home as men. Still, women married to men continue to do the majority of unpaid labor in their relationships. This is true even when women make more money and have more highly respected careers than their husbands, and even when their husbands are stay-at-home dads. Clearly, gender inequalities between women and men in marriages persist.

However, what we know about power inequalities in different-sex relationships has relied on comparisons between women and men. These comparisons do not address the degree to which women and men within these couples are gender conforming, or how women conform to femininity and men conform to masculinity. When couples enact gender in conforming ways, this can maintain gender norms and inequalities in relationships, such as the belief that men should hold more power in marriages. For example, some research shows that within marriages in which women earn more income than men, women and men do more and less housework, respectively. These couples recreate relationship inequalities in household labor to maintain gender norms.

Now that we have marriage equality for same-sex couples in the U.S., questions arise about power dynamics and equality within these couples. Some scholars have argued that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in same-sex marriages have more equality in their relationships because the traditional divisions between women and men are not at play. This may be because lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are less gender conforming, or assumed to be, than heterosexual people. There may also be less pressure to adhere to the same power dynamics that heterosexual spouses tend to follow. At the same time, same-sex couples may feel pressure for their relationships to look similar to heterosexual relationships to combat stereotypes and gain legitimacy.

Pollitt
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Couple_on_a_bike_(9180325890).jpg

Understanding how gender conformity influences inequalities is important because these inequalities contribute to poorer relationship quality in marriages. In our recent study in Gender & Society, we wanted to explore how gender conformity shaped perceptions of shared power in same- and different-sex marriages and how these perceptions influenced relationship quality. It is important to expand our understanding of relationship dynamics in same-sex marriages which have received much less research attention than different-sex marriages. However, it is also important to consider how gender conformity shapes power dynamics in heterosexual couples.

We examined survey data collected from both spouses in lesbian, gay, and heterosexual marriages which allows us to consider not only how each spouses’ responses influence their own outcomes, but also how spouses influence their partner’s outcomes. We asked participants to what extent they agreed that their physical appearance and demeanor and interests, hobbies, and skills are typical of someone of their gender. We found that women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men who were more gender conforming believed that their relationships were more equal in terms of how much power they shared. These findings suggest that maintaining masculinity norms is particularly important in relationships involving a male partner. This could be true even among gay men who many would assume have flexibility in gender expression, perhaps because these men want to appear masculine so that their relationship appears more “normal”. Our findings also suggest that power between women and men in different-sex marriages may be seen as more equal when both partners are gender conforming. Considering few heterosexual marriages share power equally between spouses, these couples may perceive greater shared power because their relationship dynamics map onto gender norms and inequalities.

In contrast, we found that gender conformity had little to do with perceptions of shared power among lesbian couples. Inequalities in lesbian marriages may relate to types of femininity we did not measure in our study, such as motherhood roles. These women might also share power by creating relationship dynamics outside normative relationship structures, such as the belief that work inside or outside the home should be divided separately between partners, because there is no male partner in their relationship or because they consider gender less important.

We found that greater perceptions of shared power are better for relationship quality. Though we expected this finding, our work shows that, among women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men, relationship quality may require maintaining gender norms including men’s power in marriages. For different-sex marriages, this finding is in line with research showing that women who believe in traditional gender roles in unequal different-sex marriages have more relationship satisfaction than women who hold egalitarian beliefs in unequal marriages. Finally, we found that partners of men, regardless of their own sex, gender, or gender expression, might need to ensure that the men in their lives perceive there to be shared power in the relationship in order to maintain their own relationship satisfaction. This negotiation of power has the potential to reinforce inequalities in relationships because it is the man’s perception of power that influences their wives’, or husbands’, marital quality. Rather than assuming women and men express gender in conforming ways, we considered how gender conformity is associated with perceptions of power and marital quality to add to our understanding of the ways that gender influences how spouses interact with one another to shape inequalities in marriages.

Amanda M. Pollitt is a NICHD Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. Her research focuses on the health and wellbeing of sexual and gender minority people across the life course. Currently, she is extending that work into research on intimate relationships.

Brandon Andrew Robinson is a UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. Brandon’s research focuses on gender and sexualities, race and ethnicity, health and HIV/AIDS, and urban poverty and homelessness. Their co-authored book Race & Sexuality is forthcoming with Polity Press.

Debra Umberson is professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. She studies social ties and health across the life course. Recent work considers marital dynamics and health of same-sex couples and racial disparities in the loss of relationships across the life course.

Men and Population Control in Postwar India: The Role of Gendered Knowledge

 

By Savina Balasubramanian

Population control efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have typically focused on managing women’s fertility. This is largely the result of longstanding cultural, political, and scientific associations of reproduction with women. Unsurprisingly, when the Indian state instituted population control as a national policy priority in 1952, it centered its initial efforts on women and the promotion of female contraceptive techniques.

A new focus on men

 Yet, from the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Indian state expanded its efforts to incorporate men and male contraception. This shift was accompanied by efforts to promote the economic benefits of contraception through mass media targeted at men and interpersonal communication campaigns among government fieldworkers and lay male citizens. During this period, vasectomies accounted for the vast majority of recorded sterilizations in the country. Many occurred in government-authorized “mass sterilization camps”—makeshift events in which thousands of men were persuaded to undergo surgery, often under coercive conditions. These camps were highly theatrical and public affairs, involving poster and media exhibits, song-and-drama routines, and interpersonal exchanges among men and government-appointed “motivators” that touted the economic advantages of planned childbearing. Likewise, the Indian government invested in a heavily marketed, government-manufactured condom brand called “Nirodh.” Together, these communication campaigns were termed the “extension” approach: they attempted to use persuasive information to convince audiences of the relationship between planned conception and economic uplift. How and why did the Indian state come to target men’s reproductive decisions and fertility in these particular ways?

Framing men as “decision-makers”

Through qualitative analyses of primary archival materials, my article in Gender & Society argues that this focus on men was linked to the political influence of social scientific expertise on the Indian program and the gendered aspects of this expertise. Unlike their medical and biomedical contemporaries, social scientists in the field of “family planning communications” framed reproduction as a “cognitive” and not merely biological phenomenon—one that involved beliefs, attitudes, and decision-making. In doing so, they argued that population control was a matter of (1) increasing people’s psychological motivation to use contraception, (2) convincing people that childbearing could be manipulated to achieve economic uplift, and (3) using persuasive mass communications to attain these two goals. However, these arguments reinforced prevailing gendered ideologies that associated rational calculation, social motivation and leadership, and economic participation with masculinity. Working under these gendered assumptions, communication scientists maintained that it would behoove the Indian state to target its nascent communications campaigns on the economic virtues of planned conception at men.

Unfortunately, this understanding of men as primary “decision-makers” in the Indian context obscured Indian women’s influential roles in the family, community, and economy. It also reinforced the notion that Indian women were less concerned with rational calculation and economic decision-making than their husbands, which historians of women in modern India have shown was rarely the case. Intriguingly, the sterilization abuses inflicted on men during Indian Emergency Period of 1975-1977 made the promotion of vasectomies politically “unviable” thereafter, which led to a refocusing of the program on women despite their status as parallel targets of state coercion.

Future research on masculinity, science, and reproductive control

My research undercuts assumptions that men are generally precluded from state-led reproductive control. In postwar India, social scientific knowledge—however myopic—about who contributed to decision-making in the family, economy, and community significantly influenced the Indian state’s attempts to shape men’s reproductive practices. Relatedly, it encourages sociologists of reproduction to analyze the role of social scientific expertise in reproductive control. Doing so means expanding the definition of reproductive control beyond medicalized interventions into the reproductive body to include social and behavioral interventions into reproductive practices and ideologies. Examples of such interventions include sex education for adolescents and young adults, male contraceptive marketing, and even “responsible fatherhood” programs in the contemporary welfare state. As in the Indian case, it is worth exploring whether attempts to govern men’s roles in reproduction might in part be driven by enduring cultural and political associations of men and masculinity with calculative decision-making, rational thought, and economic participation.

Savina Balasubramanian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. Her research examines the global politics of gender and reproduction, science and technology, race, and law and society. Her previous work has appeared in Political Power and Social Theory and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

Do No Harm: Confining Young People

By Ann-Karina Henriksen

Confinement of children and young people is a contested issue, because confinement can have detrimental effects on their mental and physical development. However, sometimes confinement can be the only way to keep young people from harming themselves or others. Thus, providing for troubled and troublesome young people is a difficult task imbued with dilemmas and contradictions between safeguarding, caring for and disciplining young people placed in state care.

Confinement is punishment

The research I conducted took place in secure institutions in Denmark, where young people are placed on either legal grounds for serious offending, or on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or well-being. There are only 10 percent girls and all the units are gender integrated. This made me curious about how girls experienced everyday life in secure institutions and how the staff handled girls in this setting. These institutions are difficult to access for outsiders and I felt grateful for being allowed inside to study how young people experience confinement and how gender comes to matter in these institutional spaces. I wanted to understand the institutional practices in the nexus between criminal justice and child protection, while also giving voice to the experiences of young people embedded in the punitive materiality of secure institutions. I became committed to relay their frustrations about being confined, uncertainties about the length of their stay, and struggles to comply with the rules and minute regulation of everyday life.

Marginalized girls in units “for boys”

The large majority of young people are placed in secure institutions as a form of surrogate imprisonment, to comply with UN Convention of the child, stating that minors should not be imprisoned with adults. However, the girls I interviewed and interacted with during my research were mostly placed in secure institutions on social grounds due to serious concerns about their safety or wellbeing. Their troubles entailed exposure to violence as victims and witnesses, drug abuse, truancy and socio-psychiatric disorders such as personality disorders, anxiety, self-harm or risk of suicide. Most of the girls in my study lived in units where the remaining residents were boys. The discrepancies in gender and grounds for placement were concerning and became a key issue in my research.

The girls become ‘doubly deviant’ in the institutional context, as a gender minority and a minority being placed on social grounds rather than legal grounds. While the staff were committed to providing gender-neutral treatment, I found that everyday activities largely served the needs and interests of the boys placed on grounds of serious offending. This was evident in sports activities such as soccer, basketball or lifting weights, the priority given to the wood and metal workshops, the selection of films and games in the units. Changes in everyday practices to include the girls or protect the girls from sexualized interaction with the boys often resulted in the marginalization of the girls in the units. The girls were always observed by staff and could not be alone with the boys. Thus, living in a unit with boys effectively denied the girls a space for unsupervised peer interaction, and girls were marginalized because the boys often chose to interact with other boys to avoid adult supervision.

Misplaced in institutions for offenders

My research published in Gender & Society demonstrates how institutional practices produce a range of gendered vulnerabilities that potentially harm girls placed in secure institutions. A secure institution is not a treatment facility and not all the staff are trained to deal with trauma, anxiety or self-harm. The young people placed on social grounds, and the girls in particular, were referred to by staff as a demanding task, requiring not only more but also different skills and resources in the staff, such as relational and communicative skills and insights into psychiatric treatment. I found that a range of gendered needs were omitted, such as those caused by gender based violence, that the voices of girls were obscured by viewing them though a lens of pathology, and that providing special treatment often resulted in peer group marginalization. While secure care may be a lenient measure, compared to prison, for young people with records of offending, it is a punitive form of treatment and protection for the young people placed on social grounds.

Ann-Karina Henriksen is a postdoctoral researcher in criminology and social work at Aalborg University, Denmark. Her research focuses on gender, youth and crime using qualitative methods. She has previously published particularly on issues related to girls’ violent conflicts and currently explores gendered practices and experiences of young people in secure institutions. Her research has been funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

“The Gray Divorce Penalty: Why Divorcing Over Age 50 Shortchanges Women”

 By Jocelyn Elise Crowley

The “gray divorce” rate, or the marital dissolution rate among Americans age 50 and older, has recently skyrocketed.  Now, 1 out of every 4 divorces is “gray.”  While liberating for many mid-life women as a chance to start over, such new beginnings also come with a substantial financial price tag that should cause us all to worry.

Several years ago, researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin at Bowling Green State University were the first to document the rising gray divorce rate.  One direct cause has been the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.  The Census Bureau reports that while in 2010, there were over 99 million Americans age 50 and older, by 2050, there will be over 161 million.

Rising life expectancy has also driven this trend.  Men now live to 76.1 years and women to 81.1 years, an increase over time which has exposed both sexes to a greater chance of becoming divorced.

The problem for women facing a gray divorce is that it hits them extremely hard in the pocketbook.  During their prime earning years of their 20s and 30s, many women take time off from the workforce to raise their children.  When they return to work, they immediately find themselves earning less than the men who remained steadily employed in the same jobs.

Wage discrimination and occupational segregation into low paying “pink collar” jobs also depress women’s earnings.  All of these factors mean that women deposit fewer dollars into their savings accounts, put less money into their retirement plans, and make smaller contributions into the Social Security system.

The cumulative effects of these disadvantages are backed up by the stories of the 40 women I interviewed about their own gray divorces in 2014 and 2015 in my recently published book, Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits (2018; Oakland: The University of California Press).  The 40 men I also spoke to—who were unrelated to the women—had very few concerns about their own financial health after their gray divorces.  The women, in contrast, were facing much more difficult circumstances.

Some of these mid-life women, like Theresa, relied on their parents to help them pay their bills after their gray divorces.  At 51-years-old and previously married for 21 years, Theresa recently returned to work as an administrative assistant after years of raising the couple’s daughter.  As she thought about going into her retirement years, she worried, “There’s probably no possible way that I could keep a roof over my head with just Social Security.”

More disturbing were the women with no family safety nets in place.  Janice, 61-years-old, divorced her husband after 36 years.  She had stayed at home many years to take care of their two daughters, and when she returned to work, she made very little money and had no long-term health care insurance policy in place.  She agonized about her health and this made her “panic because I don’t have the money now to get insurance.”

Connie, also 61-years-old, was married to her husband for nine years.  Throughout her career, she had worked as a Head Start teacher and then as a home health aide, both of which were low-paying.  After her gray divorce, she had no savings and qualified for Medicaid.  Connie noted that if she took her “retirement this summer at 62, I get a whopping $695 a month [in Social Security], which means that I will have to continue to work until I can’t, obviously.”

A gray divorce should not spell financial ruin for American women.  Stabilizing women’s economic futures involves a series of protections that should immediately be put into place by policymakers.  First, instructing girls in high school about financial planning for all of life’s contingencies should be a mandatory part of public education.

Second, implementing paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and increased funding for child care would help ensure that women do not fall far behind men in the workforce due to their disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.

Third, Social Security reform desperately needs our attention.  Overall benefits remain too low, and women do not receive any Social Security credits for the years when they take time off from employment to care for their children.  Raising benefit levels and providing caregiver credits for those “time off” years into the Social Security benefit formula would help raise their standard of living once they retire.  These changes would help guarantee that mid-life women not only survive, but also thrive in the new, post-gray divorce chapter of their lives.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D., is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She is the author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits. (2018; University of California Press).