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Brown women shape the new family

By
Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage?

Not always so for female students at Brown, who envision their futures in a myriad of ways. From marrying as an undergraduate to promoting community childrearing, women at Brown are stretching the definition of family.

New notions of family are also growing in the United States, according to “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” a report released by the Pew Research Center last week.

“How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question,” according to the executive summary. “Even as marriage shrinks, family — in all its emerging varieties — remains resilient.”

Women are especially creative in carving out new types of families, said Carrie Spearin, visiting assistant professor of sociology.

The paths women choose to follow are now far more numerous than they used to be, agreed Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center. “People are really thinking about the different ways families get made,” she said.

Six undergraduates agreed to share their views with The Herald.

Married at 20

Catherine Pflughaupt ‘11.5 used to hide her Brown card and keys on the windowsill of her ground floor room in Marcy House.

She had to ensure that her husband Justin, who does not attend Brown, had access to the single they shared.

Pflughaupt, a 21-year-old from Texas, married her high school flame last Christmas Eve. They began dating when she was a freshman in high school, but broke up by the time she came to Brown. They reconnected during her time at home, and Justin proposed to her last Thanksgiving. Though the two got engaged independently of their families’ desires, Pflughaupt said her husband’s family’s Christian values precipitated their marriage.

“I wasn’t looking for someone to prioritize. But then prioritizing him became a priority,” Pflughaupt said. “I’ve taken on this other person, and he’s taken me on too. I see my life in more of a long-term way.”

But not everyone shares her vision. In her hometown, people have expressed disappointment that she wed early. “I get a lot of people who talk to me like I’m young and stupid,” Pflughaupt said. “But I don’t think I’ve lost anything. I think I’ve gained.”

She said adults are often the most judgmental — and the most skeptical. Their eyes often dart to her engagement finger — where a diamond-encrusted ring shines — to verify that she really is married.

Recently, a repairman who was working in the off-campus apartment she now shares with her husband told her she was naive to have gotten married. “But at what magical age do you know enough to get married?” Pflughaupt said.

Her husband will return to Texas next fall to continue his studies. She plans to join him after graduating and hopes to enroll in an Officer Training School for the Air Force. And in five years, Pflughaupt said, she will probably begin to think about having children.

A triad of childrearers

For Aida Manduley ’11, Queer Alliance head chair and Queer Coordinating Committee leader, three is the ideal number. She would like her children to be raised communally — preferably by a triad. Manduley, who said she is queer and practices polyamory, feels that society is too focused on matrimony to the detriment of other valid alternatives.

“I don’t feel marriage is necessary to have a stable life or to have a long, fulfilling relationship,” she said.

While Manduley said she remains open to marriage, the idea of non-monogamy is more appealing to her at the moment. But Manduley’s family, which lives in her native Puerto Rico, isn’t as enthused about her alternative ideas.

They expect her to maintain a career and a family, which Manduley also desires — albeit in a different structure. “But there’s no shame or worry in having different opinions to my family,” she said.

They do align on career — which Manduley has prioritized as far back as in her childhood diary.

“I’m not happy or fulfilled unless I am working,” said Manduley, who wants a career in sexual education. At the same time, she added, children are an increasing draw for her.

“But I don’t want to be a parent who (only) sees their kids before they go to bed,” she added. “I wouldn’t have children if I didn’t feel I could devote enough time to them.”

A single mother by choice?

After reaching the age of 35, a woman’s fertility starts to decline. That’s why Safiyah Hosein ’11, who wants up to two children, says she’ll have them on her own if she doesn’t have a partner when she hits 32.

“I’ve looked into being a single mother,” Hosein said. “Though I’d love to have a partner, kids are more important to me.”

Much of her desire for a family can be traced to her own upbringing in Massachusetts. Her extended family — including grandparents, her father’s three siblings, one great aunt and one great uncle — all lived on the same street.

“The one thing I’ve been taught is that family matters,” she said. But at Brown, Hosein feels that valuing children above career is rare. “I definitely feel like an anomaly,” she added.

While she has attended an increasing number of baby showers for her friends from home, Hosein said there would be judgment from her peers at Brown if she chose to prioritize children over her career.

Hosein is following a pre-med track and hopes to become an OB-GYN. But ultimately, children come before both career and marriage.

“I don’t think there would be judgment if I chose not to have a partner,” she said about her Brown peers. “But it would be the exact opposite at home.”

Revaluing relationships

Jessie Papalia ’13 grew up in France, where her American mother was not permitted to work. So she stayed home to raise her children — a role her mother, whom Papalia describes as a staunch feminist, had never envisioned undertaking.

When Papalia came to Brown, she was adamant about not playing a similar role in the future. But her peers’ judgment toward women who opt to stay home surprised Papalia, who said she had anticipated more openness at Brown. She began to reconfigure her ideas and now sees herself as more family-oriented than before.

“I realized where we go wrong is the judging,” Papalia said. “My parents had very traditional roles but the ways they spoke about them were very nontraditional. You can have an equal relationship regardless of the structure of the relationship.”

Judgment of women who prioritize their families is symptomatic of a larger undervaluing of interpersonal relationships, according to Papalia.

“And that,” she added, laughing, “is the only main conclusion I’ve come to.”

Though she said she remains unsure about her ideal trajectory, Papalia wants to work and have children. To fulfill those goals, Papalia is eyeing France — where women are granted three years of maternity leave and certainty of returning to their jobs.

“Family is a new phase of your life,” she said. “And when I get to that point, I want to dedicate myself.”

The fragility of family

The parents of Sara David ’12 divorced when she was a child. She grew up with her father in New Jersey and visited her mother in New York on the weekends. Two years ago, they both simultaneously cut off ties with their children.

“It was a jarring experience,” said David, who still doesn’t have any contact with her parents. “It’s redefined my entire idea of family.”

They didn’t want the familial commitment anymore, said David, whose father returned to the Philippines and whose mother moved to the West Coast.

As her parents also cut off financial assistance, David left Brown to work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a year. Her older brother, who lives in Brooklyn, has become her famil
y. The two will spend Thanksgiving together in his apartment, and they have promised to take up some of the actions traditionally performed by parents — like hanging up each other’s college diplomas.

Though David’s family was always fragmented, she nurtured strong bonds with her blood ties. But since her parents’ departures, she said she has become fearful of the fickle nature of many relationships.

“It made concrete to me how easy it is… to pull the switch,” David said. “What if that lies inside of me?”

David said she therefore doesn’t want to have children and probably won’t get married. She had never been oriented toward children because of the divorces she witnessed during her childhood, but her parents’ leaving further steered her focus away from family.

“So job is definitely number one,” said David, who wants to pursue a career in arts administration and teaching. “I’ve known what it’s like to have zero dollars in the bank.”

A physician’s family planning

Jyotsna Mullur’s ’12 parents emigrated from India to the United States in the 1980s. By the time she was born, her father had accumulated four master’s degrees, she said.

“My parents instilled in me the idea that they came to the United States so that me and my brother can be whatever we want to be,” said Mullur, a former Herald staff writer. “I want to do well and make them feel their investment was worth it.”

To that end, she is studying neuroscience and aims to be a doctor. Mullur, who is a student coordinator for Women in Science and Engineering, said it is difficult for women to succeed in a field that is traditionally known as “an old boy’s club.” And with medical school and residency looming, Mullur is also worried about finding time to create a family.

“I think a lot about whether I can maintain a healthy relationship when all that is going on,” Mullur said. “It’s not very pretty, but you almost want to schedule in a family at a proper time in your life.”

Though she ultimately wants a spouse and children, Mullur said she is presently focused on her educational path. “I think it’s great that we can have this uncertainty,” she said. “It’s a testament to how much independence women have gained.”

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