Modern Families: Deconstructing and Renegotiating Close Relationships in the 21st Century

… like a point and a line in basic geometry”: Rethinking a conceptual configuration that underpins the study of modern families and parental caregiving in the global north Andrea Doucet

The study of modern families involves a myriad of challenges as researchers attend not only to the complexities of diverse household formations and practices, but also to the difficulties of coming to know people’s personal and intimate lives. My presentation addresses conceptual challenges that plague the study of everyday family lives and practices. Rooted in a twenty-year research program on breadwinning mothers and stay-at-home/secondary earning fathers and using a wide spectrum of relational theories and ontologies, ethics of care scholarship, and new feminist materialisms, I focus specifically on how we research and theorize parental caregiving practices and responsibilities.

I argue that many studies of parental caregiving in the global north have been informed by a conceptual configuration of gender divisions of domestic labor that relies on particular ontological, theoretical, epistemological and methodological concepts; this conceptual configuration includes specific concepts of subjectivities, care as divisible into measurable time units, and boundaries between work/care/consumption. There is a logic to how these concepts fit together; they are linked, as sociologist Margaret Somers notes, “like a point and a line in basic geometry.” My presentation builds from a different “point and line,” as I aim to construct an alternative conceptual configuration for researching, theorizing, and making arguments about meanings and practices of parental care in twenty-first century family life.

Session Info: 
Mommy/Daddy, PhD (Candidate)? The decisions that influence first-time parenthood among doctoral trainees

Stephanie Chesser 

While research has steadily been produced over the past several decades on the topic of motherhood within the academy from the perspective of female faculty (Cuddy, Fiske & Blick, 2004; Evans & Grant, 2009; Huang, 2000; Krembes-Grottenthaler, 2003; Krais, 2002), significantly less attention has been paid to the factors that influence when doctoral trainees may decide to have children.  Additionally, men’s perspectives have been found to be missing from conversations surrounding academic parenthood, and are largely invisible within the small amount of literature on graduate student parents (Marotte, Reynolds & Savarese, 2011).  As we hopefully move towards a modern generation of female and male academic trainees (many entering their studies during a period of their lives when they may be contemplating a family), it seems important for research to delve into their decision-making surrounding family planning and the gendered factors that might influence this process.


This research project sought to examine the specific factors that might influence the decision-making of doctoral trainees and their partners surrounding having their first child during this period in an academic career.  Ten couples (aged between 18 and 45) were recruited from a variety of disciplines in a mid-sized research university in Ontario and asked to participate in a series of three active interviews (i.e. one individually with each partner, one together as a couple).  Interview transcripts were analyzed using narrative analysis, looking for common themes relating the individual experiences across the couples.  Within the interviews, factors such as academic, gender, family, or societal pressures, work/life balance, and lifestyle factors, were all well represented.  Preliminary findings suggest that trainees may face unique challenges when trying to combine first-time parenthood with their work within the academy, particularly related to their perceived ability to establish a healthy work/life balance.

Common Law Relationships: Mysteries of the Un-Married

Nici Heron

Once upon a time, common law unions or relationships were not something people often did; couples living together prior to legal and religious marriage was not the norm, and could even be seen as an abomination (Waetjen, 1996). However, recent literature has demonstrated that times are quickly changing with the increasing societal and legal acceptance of these cohabitating relationships. Common law unions often refer to relationships between two individuals whose agreement is solidified by cohabitation of a specified amount of time, rather than by traditional ceremony or legal documentation. Common law relationships can occur between various couples, and are not reserved for heterosexual relationships (MacIntosh et al., 2010). However, how do we distinguish between roommates, for example, and common law couples?


From a postmodern feminist perspective, this presentation aims to analyse and debunk some of the confusion surrounding common law unions. The goal is not only to inform the public of what common law relationships are and who is partaking in them, but to look at the increasing trend of this type of union. Are they “taking over” traditional marriage in our Western culture? What does this mean for those within common law relationships, either with or without children? What does this mean for those who legally marry, either following or prior to cohabitating? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed in this presentation. Overall, this presentation will attempt to investigate an increasingly accepted form of modern family, and the implications for future relationships in our society.

Smart phones, smart choices? How ‘sexting’ challenges constructions of childhood, adolescence, and sexual risk in a digital world.

Erin Watson

Recent years have seen an increase in sexting among youth (Strassberg et al., 2013). Sexting lies at the crux of how youth experience their sexuality in a digitally-mediated culture. Currently sexting is framed as a “risk behaviour” (Benotsch, Snipes, Martin, & Bull, 2013) and the literature on sexting is saturated by discourse aimed at protecting youth from exploitation (Baley & Hanna, 2011; Paraveccia, 2011). However, the risk narratives and concerns over youth ‘sexting’ stem from a romanticised view of childhood which some argue is not accurate and which does not provide space for important developmental experiences of sexual autonomy and empowerment (Gulland, 2009).


The ease with which sexual content can be transmitted through digital communication technologies, and the subsequent legal, educational, and media attention exposes the reality of children’s and adolescent’s sexualities. Blurring the boundary between adulthood and youth by acknowledging youth sexual identities is key in determining the best way families can advocate for their children’s wellbeing and create safer environments for the development of healthy sexual identities.


There is a paucity of research on how youth experience sexting as part of their sexual explorations, however emerging studies have identified several positive outcomes from ‘sexting’, not limited to sexual identity development. Challenging the risk narrative—which seems more concerned with regulating sexualities than fostering healthy identities—is integral to shifting discourse towards modern conceptualizations of childhood, adolescence and sexuality in a digital world.

This talk will offer a critical perspective of the current research literature on sexting by addressing the risk paradigm around ‘sexting’ and its implications for youth. This talk will offer suggestions as to how parents and families can use digital communication technology to help youth navigate sexuality and risk in digital world in a way that still honours sexual identities and expression.

“Reliable communication saves lives and marriages”- Make a plan!

Neil Lackey  and Lee Horton-Carter       

First Responders (Military personnel, Police, Fire, EMS and Hospital ER workers) plan meticulously and practice regularly to respond to crisis when it comes to other people but often fail to plan on how the job will impact upon their family and the marital/couple relationship. This seminar will introduce common impacts of emergency services work on marital/couple dynamics and will suggest ways in which First Responders and their partners can plan for those impacts.


We all live in a variety of “cultures” – home and work being two. These cultures have their own rules (systems) of influence and impact which determine the protocols by which we function in each. During this seminar, participants will learn how the culture of working as a First Responder may have bearing on a variety of areas:


  1. It may deeply impact a First Responder’s primary relationship at home
  2. It may lead to a “shut down” (communication, emotional experiences) and shame cycle, which is explained through a Shame Model that we have developed. This model identifies how a repetitive coping cycle can occur due to an emotional “shut down,” and result in consequent addictions/affairs/PTSD.
  3. The work may have an impact on intimate relationships at home, which can be rectified by the creation and implementation of a good plan. We propose “Essential Skills at Work vs Essential Skills at Home” which aid the development of a planned response for the unique stressors of First Responder work, and facilitate development of a healthy intimate marital/family relationships.
From Faggot to Father: Reconceptualising the Gay Male Identity

Derek Straatsma

The homosexual male has been conceptualized, both historically as well as in contemporary society, through a derogative and prejudiced lens (Herek, 1988; 2002). Ascriptions of stigmatic labels such as mentally ill, sexually deviant, and pedophile have had a significant influence in the process of homosexual identity development (Troiden, 1988). In recent decades however, there has been a noticeable shift in how homosexual men are perceived and understood (Norton & Herek, 2013). Through the tireless efforts of LBGT advocates and their allies, the gay identity has been expanded to include the revered status of father, an identity once inconceivable for these individuals. This reconceptualization has permitted gay men to adopt roles traditionally reserved for heterosexuals; as such, there lacks predefined social scripts for how gay men are expected to perform these new roles and assimilate them into their identity (Mallon, 2004). These individuals therefore, have a unique opportunity to actively negotiate the manner in which this identity will be defined, both individually and as couple. This openness to interpretation and implementation raises many questions as to how this process actually occurs. What factors influence how this new parental identity is constructed? How do gender and socially constructed roles associated with gender contribute to the parental identity process? What influence does systemic oppression embedded in our culture have on individuals in both their decision to become a parent, as well as performing the parenting role? Questions such as these will be explored utilizing the available research literature, as well as critically examined through media representations. Arguing from an interdisciplinary and postmodernist approach, it will be argued that the decision to parent, as well as the manner in which that role is performed, is achieved through a multifaceted reconceptualization of the self from the historic faggot to the modern father.

Alice’s Adventures Beyond Wonderland: Identity Development in Older Adulthood

Sarah Burley

Seniors, older adults, the elderly, mature adults, grand parents, old people: these are all terms commonly associated with members of our society who fall into the age category of 60+ years. But how do individuals within this group identify themselves? Long after Wonderland, the potions that Alice drinks may have changed, but the effects remain quite the same: leaving Alice questioning if she is still the same woman, and what her place is in society. Drawing from Burke and Stets’ (2000) work on social aspects of identity, and Erikson’s (1994) psychosocial theory, factors that affect the maintenance and continued formation of older adults’ identities will be explored from four angles: parent/grand-parenthood, social and romantic relationships, sexuality, and health:


  1. Because modern ideals have shifted, grandparenthood is not part of everyone’s later-life identity.  The impacts that such role changes may have on later life are examined.
  2. Older adults’ relationships may be changing or ending (e.g., through divorce or death), often leaving them single for perhaps the first time in many years. Identity implications resulting from relational changes are also explored.
  3. Sexual relationships begin to shift and change shape as well (e.g., different forms of penetration are replaced by masturbation, mutual masturbation, and cuddling [Kleinplatz, 2012]).  The self as a sexual being is also part of identity reconstructions in later life.
  4. Finally, the higher risk of health complications, accidents, and reduced mobility all play a role in the overall well being of older adults (Townsend et al., 2006) and how they interact with the world around them.


In following Alice beyond Wonderland, the impact of these interactions and relationships on the continued identity development of older adults will be critically examined.

The Way Through: The Identity Transition for Adolescent Cancer Survivors

Caitlyn Young

Recent advancements in cancer treatments have increased the number of adolescents who experience cancer remission and are expected to be long term survivors (Ellison, Pogany, & Mery, 2007). However, prolonged periods of hospitalization and recovery can interrupt experiences which allow for identity development during adolescence. Many adolescents with cancer experience isolation from peer influences and above average involvement from parent and health care providers. These can inhibit these youth from developing an independent identity, which is often named as the main task in adolescent development (Erikson, 1963). As well, this exclusion from school and peers can lead to confusion surrounding sexual identity, as adolescents experiencing hospitalization might miss out on sexual education classes and informal learning through peers.


This presentation will encompass an overview of current literature surrounding adolescent identity development, and how this affects familial, friend, and romantic relationships. In particular, attention will be paid to the formation of sexual identity and self-esteem. As adolescents experience higher rates of remission from cancer also have to deal with an identity transition to a survivor identity (Jones, Parker-Raley & Barczyk, 2011). This survivor identity has been named as an identity paradox because, while youth are no longer sick, they are also unable to return to the healthy identity they had pre-cancer (Jones et al., 2011). This presentation will address the difficulties faced during this time of transition and possible implications for assisting with youth who have, or are survivors of, cancer.

But if I Can’t Have Sex, How Can I Be a Real Man/Woman?

Angela Underhill

This discourse examines the traditional ideals of gender and relationships in Western society, and how these ideals impact individuals who may not be able to experience “traditional intercourse,”- or as some have declared it, “real sex”. Looking specifically at research that has explored the experiences of individuals with a sexual ‘dysfunction’, this presentation will address a variety of issues related to sexual ideals and the impacts they have on individuals’ sexual and gender identities. For the purpose of the presentation, ‘dysfunction’ will refer to disorders that interfere with a full sexual response cycle, including arousal and performance. Sexual dysfunction will be limited to those individuals who desire sexual activity, and experience some sort of distress when they cannot engage in intercourse. The experiences of men and women will be taken into account, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders suggests men and women can experience different sexual dysfunctions. Using a social constructionist lens and traditional gender roles, experiences of individuals facing sexual dysfunction will be explored with the following questions in mind: Does sexual dysfunction impact one’s self-perception? What kind of impact does sexual dysfunction have on intimate relationships? Does the inability to engage in intercourse impact platonic relationships? Can someone with a sexual dysfunction feel like a “real” man or woman?

A Road Less Traveled: Redefining Parental Identity for those Parenting Children with Exceptionalities

Michelle Schick

According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 1 in 5 children will develop a mental, behavioural, or emotional disability before the age of 19 that is serious enough to affect daily functioning. Parents may thus need to alter the ways hey had expected to parent in order to best meet the needs of their child. However, altering one’s parental identity is not always a linear process and therefore caretakers may experience multiple difficulties. By using Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, this presentation explores how having a member of the family with a mental health issue can impact every member of the family. The identity development of parents of children with mental health issues is analyzed through a Family Systems Theory lens. Changes within the parental identity will be tracked by considering the Parental Identity Model developed by Milliken and Northcott (2003), which takes us through the reconstruction and redefinition of parental identity.

“All the Single Ladies” – Adolescent Identity Development in Today’s Modern World

Justine Fram

Communication today means something very different than it did 30, 20, and even 10 years ago. Today, communication doesn’t take place simply in person or on a telephone that has a cord attached to it. Instead, conversations occur over text message, iMessage, Facebook, BBM, email, Twitter, Skype, FaceTime, Tinder, Snapchat, and the list goes on. The methods of communication make it possible to talk to any person, in any place, at any time. We are available to be contacted 24/7. This affects the way that we maintain relationships with others. Because of the ability for relationships to form and be maintained virtually, adolescent romantic relationships look much different than they used to.


Erik Erikson’s developmental stages claim that romantic relationships formed in young adulthood are directly influenced by the identity development that occurs in adolescence, and that identity construction should occur before intimacy for optimal development (Erikson, 1968). However, romantic relationships often begin long before an individual enters the young adult stage; therefore, identity development may be different for adolescents who participate in romantic relationships than those who stay single.


Drawing upon psychosocial (Erikson, 1968) and social learning (Bandura, 1963) theories, this presentation examines the positive and negative outcomes associated with teenage dating versus non-dating, with critical consideration of how modern methods of communication may impact these processes.

“The Death of the Family Dinner”

Liz Meuse

Many families and cultures consider family dinner to be the glue that holds the family system together. Family dynamics are changing and evolving for a number of reasons (Cinotto, 2006), and communication within the family system is no exception.  Technological and other factors surrounding modern family life have impacted family dynamics, subsystems and relationships, and the way in which the family interacts.


The presentation will critically examine family dinners, locating them historically and culturally over the last 50 years (Cinotto, 2006). Technological advancements will be examined for their capacity to take away from meaningful family time, compounded by other factors, such as our ever-busy schedules and increasing work demands. The fact of the matter is, family dinner is no longer the glue it may have once been.


Mixed literature will be compared using contrasting sources that argue cell phone use can help families bond (Wellman, n.d), and others which consider it to be a major barrier to family time (Post & Senning, 2009). Elements such as family cohesion, communication patterns, misbehavior, and social skills will be examined in the context of their potential relationships to family dinners.


To complement and better illustrate the presented research, TV show clips from varying periods will be used to demonstrate, however theatrically, emerging patterns of interaction and communication.

(Digital) Connections: Students, Technology, and Online Dating

Skaidra Puodziunas

Computer-mediated technology has ubiquitous qualities, particularly within the student demographic. According to Odaci and Kalkan (2010), Internet use is most common among young adults between the ages of 16 and 24, and communication is the driving factor. The popularization of online “networking” through social network systems (SNS) has allowed for a shift in the way that young people approach relationship formation and maintenance.   No longer are they limited by traditional face-to-face interactions; virtual connections via SNS, such as online dating platforms, are adding to the menu of options available to young people looking for love, sex, and/or companionship.   Research thus far has focused on the use of online dating within an older demographic (over 40 years; Hogan, Dutton, & Li, 2011), but the use of this technology by emerging adults is yet to be examined.  Since Lenhart and colleagues (2010) reported that 72% of Internet users were between the ages of 18 and 29, it is important to examine how this population uses internet and related technology in their pursuit of intimacy and sexual needs.


This presentation explores the role that online dating serves in the student portfolio.  Given the absence of research on this demographic, this exploratory study examined current students’ attitude towards and use of online dating platforms.