Friday, September 9, 2011

The Meta-Report - 9.9.11

Before our entire household got sick last week, I was following a number of hot topics in the news and blogosphere. Here’s an overdue (but still relevant, I promise!) Meta-Report for your enjoyment.

In this week's female-focused edition of Meta-Report:
A Woman's Place;
Pretty Girls Don't Do Homework;
The Cohabitator Procreater

A Woman’s Place
A longitudinal study of 1600 mothers by a University of Washington graduate student has found that a mom’s level of expectations forwork/life balance can be a risk factor for depression later in life. It appears that women who expect to perfectly "balance" work and home life were often disappointed, and consequently at greater risk for depression, as compared to those who are able to more realistically manage their expectations. Several of my past posts (Keeping up with Mama Jones, Built for Guilt, The Over-Achieving Parent) touch on parenting guilt, the dangers of comparing oneself to others as a parent, and the drive among parents today to do everything perfectly.  For you stat-heads - yes, that is 25% of my total blog posts ever that focus on guilt and comparisons in parenting. Hey, it's a prevalent problem! Expectations frame a lot of our experience when it comes to parenting - expectations of one's self, of other parents, and of children.

What’s particularly striking about the results of this study, as compared to many other studies that the media has disseminated in the past, is that it does not show that work is bad for mothers or their children overall. In fact, looking at stay-at-home versus working moms shows that those who stay at home with their children full-time are generally more prone to depression. The reasons for this – while easily presumed (umm…it’s HARD to be a stay-at-home mom!) – are not found here. However, this study – along with others like it – does seem to support the idea that within the working mothers set, those who accept that they can’t “have it all” are better off.
One of the most interesting observations that came out of the media focus on this study (an intriguing thing in and of itself, considering the study is not even published, but was presented by a grad student at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting – lucky girl!) is that there seems to be a difference between women and men – at least anecdotally – when it comes to balancing work and family. Men don’t question their roles, while women do.  Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Pretty Girls Don’t Do Homework
Just days after the University of Washington study was released, the media caught hold of JC Penney’s latest public relations mishap – a t-shirt that read “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework…So My Brother Has to Do itFor Me.”  The shirt had barely hit the virtual shelves when JC Penney opted to pull it due to customer complaints.  The feminist blogosphere blew up with cries of poor judgment at best, and sexism at worst.
While the cause for female equality has made great advances, there’s no denying that shirts like this one show we still have a long way to go. One little t-shirt may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the message the shirt conveys speaks volumes about how many view the female condition. Much like the work/life dilemma discussed above, when it comes to intelligence or looks, women have to choose. We can’t have it all, we’re told. Women are still frequently reduced to one of two archetypal roles – bitch orditz. And sometimes they are labeled as both. This is particularly so when they are in positions of power. Look at Michelle Bachmann. I’m just saying.

The Cohabitator Procreater
And finally, a new report from the Guttmacher Institute has found that partners who cohabitate are at greater risk for unplanned pregnancy. According to the study, which periodically surveyed a nationally representative sample of up to 10,000 women over a period of ten years, unmarried cohabitatingwomen were more than twice as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as compared to those who were married, or those that were unmarried but not cohabitating. The study attributes this discrepancy to unmarried cohabitating women’s relatively higher rates of sexual activity, and overall higher fertility levels (due to a younger age on average), compared to those found in married women. This explanation, however, does not account for inconsistencies in the rate of unintended pregnancies between cohabiting and non-cohabitating unmarried couples.  In other words, if younger, unmarried women are more fertile and more likely to engage in sexual activity, why would we not also see an increase in unintended pregnancy among non­-cohabitating couples? 

The study also doesn’t consider the variations in self-reporting among married women versus unmarried women – meaning, how many married women would actually report that their pregnancy had been unintended?  It’s my personal opinion (take it for what it’s worth) that there are some possible reporting biases at work here, colored largely by a still very strong social stigma on unintended/unwanted pregnancy.
I wanted to know more about how the principal investigators on this study defined an “unintended” pregnancy, so I went straight to the source to find out.  According to the official project report, an “unintended” pregnancy was considered to be one which fit one of two descriptors: 1) the woman had never planned to get pregnant at any point, or 2) the timing of the pregnancy was unintentional (meaning she had wanted to become pregnant, just not at that precise point in time). 

This sort of categorization – lumping together completely unintended pregnancies with those that were simply “mistimed” - could be problematic in terms of the results of the study. For example, take me. While I perhaps did not intend to have Little Man at the exact time I did, I would never label my pregnancy as “unintended.” But this study would. How did this influence the supposedly higher levels of unintended pregnancy among unmarried cohabitating women?

My concern about the reported results – and the methods behind them – is that this information will be added as fuel to the fire against the already strong stigma against cohabitation. Although cohabitation has beensteadily on the rise for years now, cohabitation does not receive anywhere near equal footing as a valid relationship choice. Most states still do not allow unmarried partners any sort of legal rights, and cohabitation is still considered taboo enough that many young people feel the need to hide it from their families, particularly when religion is part of the picture. Add to these issues a frequent media focus on research that sheds a harsh (and non-comparative) light on the disadvantages of cohabitation (among them higher rates of divorce, relationship ambivalence, and many more) and you have the potential for a lot of backlash against couples who choose to cohabitate.

As is often the case with research, this study seems to raise more questions than it answers. While I do think it’s important for reasons related to public health and women’s health to be aware of a possible increased risk for unintended pregnancy among cohabitating couples, a greater focus on pregnancy prevention efforts among this population may be unfounded, given the source of the results.

What do you think...?
What do you think about the topics in this edition of Meta-Report? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. And in my opinion (for what its worth), While you would not personally consider your son "unintended", I believe the authors are just that term to describe the situation. I doubt they used that term with the women directly. In my experience doing studies in reproductive health, and reading lots and lots of similar studies on unintended pregnancies, contraception, etc, that term is one that is sort of a catch-all to describe whether a pregnancy was planned, or unplanned at that moment. We would never frame it that way to the mother. I am sure you are completely right about the biases present in that study, but I am not convinced that that term itself was one of them.

    Good job, as usual. I always love reading your reports to see what news I have missed out on :)And I am glad you all are feeling better so you can start spitting these out again :)

  2. Thanks, Jen. That is really interesting about the "unintended" terminology - I had no idea there was a standard use of that word in reproductive health.