Dissertation Summary

In my dissertation, entitled Untangling the apron strings: Making sense of the delayed transition to adulthood, I explore the connection between gender, parental dependence, romantic partnership, and subjective feelings of adulthood. Relying on over 1000 pages of qualitative data from in-depth interviews with college-educated young adults, I find gender differences in the construction of adult identity. Drawing on feminist theory, I find that family roles remain more salient for women’s subjective feelings of adulthood. Because relational work and family roles are deeply embedded in feminine identity, delayed marriage has translated into prolonged attachment to parents for many women. In postponing the adoption of new family roles, women are more likely identify primarily with the default role of child.

I create three ideal-type categories through which to interpret different pathways to adulthood: dependence, independence, and interdependence. I define dependence as an asymmetrical relationship of emotional and financial support between parent and child. Dependent young adults maintain a subordinate position vis-à-vis their parents and report low subjective feelings of adulthood and control. Independent young adults claim that they have attained financial and emotional independence from parents. They rely primarily on themselves for support and decision-making, and report high subjective feelings of adulthood and control. Partnered participants, defined here as married, engaged, or cohabitating, present an interesting contrast to dependent and independent respondents. Rather than a unilateral pattern of dependence, they describe a relationship of reciprocal dependence and support and joint decision-making. They define adulthood as a new set of dependencies and responsibilities and report high subjective feelings of adulthood and control.

My research uncovers important gender implications in the transition to adulthood among middle-to-upper class young adults, in terms of parental dependence, pathways to independence, and subjective feelings of adulthood. In categorizing respondents, gender differences emerged, with an overrepresentation of women in the dependent category, and of men in the independent category. Consistent with demographic research on prolonged parental dependence particularly among the privileged, the majority of my sample report receiving financial assistance from parents in young adulthood. But the amount and types of financial aid provided by parents differ by gender. Men are more likely to turn to parents for financial aid only under extenuating circumstances such as unemployment, whereas women are more likely to also depend on parents for regular financial subsidies that grant them access to a lifestyle beyond their means. There are also gender differences in the feelings attached to financial support. Women tend to associate economic dependence with guilt, indebtedness, lack of control, and low subjective feelings of adulthood. Men tend to have the ability to disassociate parental support from their sense of adulthood.

In keeping with literature on parent-child relationships, I find that women are more likely than men to share a close relationship with parents (Aquilino 1997; Booth and Amato 1994; Chodorow 1989; Suitor and Pillemer 2006; Umberson 2003). I find gender differences not only in the closeness of ties between young adults and their parents, but also important differences in the ways in which men and women view their relationships with parents, and the consequences on their ability to make independent decisions, and on their subjective feelings of adulthood. Across the board, most of the young men and women profess that they are close with their parents, but the ways in which closeness plays out differs by gender. Men tend to report high subjective feelings of adulthood despite close ties with parents. For women, closeness with parents is more likely to be associated with low levels of subjective feelings of adulthood and lack of control over their lives. Women tend to seek their parents’ approval, and to privilege their parents’ opinions over their own, which can impede their ability to make independent decisions. Men also tend to solicit their parents’ advice, but are more likely to ultimately make decisions on their own.

Pathways to adulthood are also gendered. Women are more likely to move from dependence on parents to interdependence with spouse, whereas men are more likely to experience a period of independence in the transition to adulthood. For women, partnering is instrumental in pulling away from parents and developing feelings of adulthood. Men are more likely to report independence from parents and high subjective feelings of adulthood prior to partnership. The gender differences in pathways to independence from parents suggest a continued salience of family roles and relational attachment for women. With the declining significance of traditional markers, individuals can no longer simply use role transitions such as marriage and childbearing to locate themselves as adults. Men are more likely to experience freedom from family roles in their identity as adults. But women tend to continue to define themselves in family roles. In delaying marriage and parenthood, women are more likely to linger in the role of child, and to remain attached dependent on their parents for advice, assistance, and support.