Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Doing Family Ambivalence": Nuclear and Extended Families in Single Mothers' Lives

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Doing Family Ambivalence": Nuclear and Extended Families in Single Mothers' Lives

Article excerpt

Little research today examines the connections between nuclear and extended family ties, especially among single mothers. I congratulate Margaret Nelson on her refreshing examination of this issue and commend the Journal of Marriage and Family and its editor, Alexis Walker, for inviting a public debate on this article. Nelson examines single mothers' accounts of their family experiences, describing their choices in defining their families and negotiating the relationships with their own parents, nonresident fathers of their children, and new boyfriends or fiancés. Importantly, Nelson shows how extended kin ties of single mothers are affected by the cultural expectations of "nuclear" family ties.

Nelson's main theoretical framework is that of "doing family. " Furthermore, her analysis elaborates on this theoretical approach by revealing the structural and cultural forces behind doing family processes. To fully account for Nelson's findings, however, it is necessary to combine the notion of doing family with that of family ambivalence. I address three concepts related to the broader family ambivalence framework-boundary ambiguity, role ambiguity, and intergenerational ambivalence-and discuss their value for understanding Nelson's findings. Further, I discuss her findings with regard to the cultural ideal of the Standard North American Family (SNAF; Smith, 1993) and address the role of nuclear and extended families in contemporary American society.


As mentioned above, Nelson interprets her findings through the lens of "doing family." This perspective emphasizes interactional work and activities that create and sustain family ties, define family boundaries, as well as specify appropriate behaviors for different family members. Nelson is correct to point out that the concept of doing family has been traditionally undertheorized, especially when compared with the concept of "doing gender," the meaning of which is far better fleshed out and developed.

Although Nelson mentions that her use of the term doing family remains "far more casual" than the more elaborate notion of doing gender, in fact she develops this concept more deeply than much prior work on doing family. Agreeing with Naples (2001) that the activities of doing family are most apparent for nonnormative families, Nelson focuses on single mothers. In contrast to much prior work on doing family that focused on activities that create and enhance links between family members (family meals, trips to the zoo), Nelson emphasizes the boundary work that involves decisions on who counts as family and who does not and what rights and obligations are accorded to those who do. Further, in line with the work on doing gender, Nelson also identifies the structural and cultural forces that shape how single mothers perform families. Structural forces involve financial need and the need for child care that require single mothers to rely on their parents for help; cultural factors involve the ideal of SNAP. The combination of these forces introduces a substantial amount of ambivalence into single mothers' family life.

Although Nelson emphasizes doing family in her analytic framework, "doing family ambivalence" might be a more accurate description of what is going on in these single mothers' lives. Even though these women construct the boundaries and create the rules, they experience indecision, conflicted feelings, and uncertainty in the process. That is, there is a high degree of ambivalence involved in their choices. As Nelson puts it, "individuals within what might be defined as a family grouping might themselves have conflicting notions of just what family they are doing, and for just what reasons they are doing it" (p. 794). Addressing the normative structure of kin obligations, Rossi and Rossi (1990, p. 198) emphasize two primary areas where "ambiguities show up with particular force," grandparenting and remarriage. The single mothers that Nelson studies experience ambiguities and ambivalence stemming from negotiating the issues related to both of these areas as well as to nonresident fatherhood. …

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