Parenthood is an increasingly isolated job, Brown sociologists say

August 18, 2002

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Take a family a century ago. Subtract a few relatives who might have helped mom with the childcare or housework and a few more who might have helped dad pay the bills, and you've got the modern family: isolated.

Using census data from 1880 to 1990, Brown researchers led by Frances K. Goldscheider, professor of sociology, found that the likelihood of parents functioning in residential isolation from other caregiving and income-earning figures increased over the years. Goldscheider presented the findings Aug. 18, 2002, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

"There's this myth that American families were always nuclear and hence parents were always isolated," said Goldscheider, "but clearly, there used to be quite a bit more help around in the household."

The study fills out the historical picture of the family, which had been formed mainly by research on the lives of women - especially in regards to fertility - and of children, ignoring men and even parenthood as a central adult role, said Goldscheider.

In the late 19th century nearly half the mothers of young children had another adolescent or adult female in the household who could help with the home and children, but by the end of the 20th century that figure had fallen to about 20 percent. Researchers looked at childcare support for mothers of children below the age of 5, when care needs are most acute.

The largest group of female help throughout the period was older daughters, followed by non-employed mothers or mothers-in-law. In 1880, half of those women were neither working nor in school, but by 1990 three-quarters had work or school commitments. Most of the change occurred between 1940 and 1980. With the end of the Depression, the advent of Social Security, and perhaps increased preferences for residential independence, surviving grandmothers began to live alone, said Goldscheider.

Men also shared most of the patterns of change that characterized the women's lives. The family economy prior to 1950 had the stabilizing potential of earnings from immediate family members besides the father. The 1950s brought a revolution in living arrangements, including the rise of single-member households and the Baby Boom exodus of young adults from the parental home. The departure of other older men and adolescent boys brought a decline in household income.

The changing mix of generations in households is also evidenced by the finding that in 1880, nearly 70 percent of all adults aged 18 to 74 lived in households with children. By 1990 fewer than 35 percent were sharing a home with a child. The proportion of unmarried, non-institutionalized population over 65 who lived alone more than tripled from 20 percent in 1940 to 62 percent in 1985.

"What is scary is how isolated most people are from living with children for so much of their lives," Goldscheider said, "which to me means that it's that much easier not to be aware of children's growing problems with health, safety and schooling."
The study's other researchers include Dennis Hogan, professor of sociology, Susan Short, assistant professor of sociology, and Berna Miller, graduate student. The work was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Brown University

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