Interview with Dr. Jennifer Randles – Intersectionality, Parenting, and the Diaper Dilemma

In 2019, the Journal of Family Theory & Review Digital Scholarship Board began seeking out scholars to interview about how family theories can be drawn on to understand contemporary events, issues, or challenges impacting families. In our inaugural piece in this series “Theoretical Perspectives on Current Events” we present an interview conducted with Dr. Jennifer Randles, Ph.D. Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Sociology, California State University – Fresno, U.S.A.

We provide here both a brief infographic with excerpts on Dr. Randles’ work around “The Diaper Dilemma” as well as the full content of a longer interview on this and other work in which Dr. Randles has utilized critical gender, race, and intersectional theoretical lenses.

You can search for more articles about Intersectionality in the Journal of Family Theory and Review here:

And see our special issue on crafting theory-informed public policies at:

Interview with Dr. Jennifer Randles, by Dr. Casey Scheibling

What are your main research subjects and theoretical lenses?

Using critical gender and race and intersectional theoretical lenses, I study low-income parenthood and policies that help parents meet their family-formation goals and children’s needs. As a qualitative researcher who primarily uses in-depth interviewing and ethnographic methods, I seek to understand how family policies are implemented on the ground and whether they resonate with parents’ perspectives and lived experiences.  

Why are these lenses relevant and important for these subjects?

Attention to how gender, race, class, and other axes of inequality intersect in the lives of marginalized families is necessary to create and implement policies that best meet parents’ needs as they, themselves, understand and experience them. As practitioners and family scientists, we must inform programs and policies that reflect how families really are, not how policymakers wish for them to be. This requires careful empirical and theoretical attention to the various inequalities that shape parents’ lives.

 More generally, what do critical gender and intersectionality perspectives add to contemporary family science research?

Understanding the larger social and economic context of family relationships is crucial for crafting programs and policies that meaningfully address the challenges marginalized parents face in caring and providing for their children. These challenges are both cultural and economic, and critical gender and intersectional perspectives draw necessary attention to how ideas and material constraints interact to undermine parents’ best intentions. For example, in my first book, Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America (Columbia University Press, 2017), I detail how marriage promotion policies targeting poor, unmarried parents have generally missed the mark because they did not account for how financially insecure couples ideologically associate marriage with already being middle class. 

What are the differences between constructionist and essentialist views of gender?

Social constructionist views see gender as a system of inequality that operates through behavioral expectations and norms associated with being appropriately masculine or feminine as it relates to one’s assigned sex at birth. Gender norms also shape expectations associated with family “roles” such as mother and father. Essentialist views instead see gender as based on innate, static sex-based traits associated with being male or female, while ignoring issues of power, privilege, and context. Scholars who take a constructivist perspective, like myself, try to understand how gender norms shape, not only individual identity and interpersonal interactions, but also cultural logics that infuse organizations and institutions, including families and public policies.

In what ways are family policies shaped by assumptions about essential gender difference?

“Good” parenting is a gendered construct and women are still expected to be primary caregivers, while men are tasked with being primary family wage earners. Recent anti-poverty family policies focused on marriage promotion and “responsible” fatherhood reflect these gendered norms of parenting by endorsing heterosexual two-parent, married families as the best social context for raising children. Programs funded by these policies promote the idea that children need both a mother and a father to model proper femininity and masculinity and healthy heterosexual intimacy. By codifying the idea that children’s success depends on having two married parents who conform to gender norms, U.S. social policy belies the underlying inequalities that shape distinct life chances for children.

 How do particular family policies operate to sustain or reinforce gender inequality, rather than redress it?

U.S. family policies often implicitly or explicitly promote gender norms of parenting without addressing the structural factors that undermine marginalized parents’ abilities to care for their children, such as declining job opportunities for those without a college degree and the racialization of the criminal justice system. U.S. social policy has historically treated fathers as wage-earners and payers of child support without supporting fathers’ caregiving. My second book, Essential Dads: Politics and Inequalities of “Responsible” Fathering in the United States (under contract with the University of California Press), details how fatherhood programs are trying to change this by challenging gendered ideas that fathers are primarily valuable as financial providers.   

How do arguments about gender complicate the so-called crisis of fatherlessness in the US?

Many of the political discourses about “fatherlessness” claim that children who grow up in homes without men as parents miss out on a necessary parental influence. One iteration of this discourse is the idea that boys without dads in the home fail to learn how to be good fathers—and presumably good men—from same-gender parents who model responsible work and family behaviors. The so-called crisis of fatherlessness is therefore often really about a perceived masculinity crisis. However, social problems often blamed on missing fathers are largely the result of structural inequalities, including poverty, the targeting of men of color by the criminal justice system, and inequitable educational access across lines of race and class. Scapegoating missing fathers is a compelling and convenient explanation for these problems, one that conceals how inequalities prevent marginalized men from staying involved in their children’s lives.

How are race and class implicated in current discourse about absent fatherhood?

Many race and class stereotypes are embedded in the current discourse of “absent” fatherhood. The stereotypical image of the “deadbeat dad” presumes absence, neglect, and deliberate disengagement without accounting for the numerous obstacles to involvement marginalized men face. Characterizations of deadbeat parents have always been racialized and gendered in the popular imagination, and this reinforces racist beliefs that fathers of color are negligent, promiscuous, and predatory, and therefore to blame for the social problems disproportionately experienced in communities of color. Fortunately, those who run fatherhood programs that target low-income men of color are working hard in these communities to empower men to challenge these race, class, and gender stereotypes.

On the surface, policies and programming that encourages men’s non-financial contributions to families is laudable, but what tensions, contradictions, or problems have you encountered in examining this discourse more closely?

Responsible fatherhood programs redefine paternal masculinity in non-economic terms to be more nurturing, caring, and expressive; they teach that emotional involvement with children is a legitimate and valued way of being both a good father and a fully masculine man. The program I studied in-depth challenged the idea that men who are not successful providers are failed fathers, which is indeed laudable. However, there is an underside to this seemingly progressive revision of fatherhood. These messages rarely translate into calls for truly egalitarian parenting, perhaps best evidenced by government-supported ad campaigns calling for men to “Take Time to Be a Dad Today,” which mostly show men playing with children. The household, emotional, and mental labor involved in childrearing—which still falls mostly on the shoulders of women—remains peripheral to social and political constructions of “involved” or responsible fatherhood.

What are some of the positive and negative outcomes of contemporary fatherhood responsibility programs for low-income and marginalized men?     

According to the fathers I studied, programs give marginalized men access to rare spaces where they can develop positive paternal identities that challenge racist, classist, and sexist ideas of “good” parenting. They also help men improve their economic prospects through education and work opportunities and to access basic resources needed for involvement with their children, including food, housing, and diapers. Although programs do not necessarily improve men’s marital odds, they help fathers develop communication skills and enhance coparenting alliances and abilities, regardless of their relationship status with mothers. By connecting fathers with the child support enforcement system and giving them legal assistance, some programs have been found to increase frequency of child support payments and help fathers feel less disempowered by child support bureaucracies. While they do not seem to improve significantly fathers’ income or employment rates, they give them a chance to prove their parenting to mothers and others who control access to their children. Ultimately, though I am critical of how some programs promote the idea that fathers are valuable to children because they are men—and as discretionary, part-time “helpers” at that—they are revolutionary in how they support marginalized men’s efforts to claim successful father identities, which our society so often denies them. 

What is the current “diaper dilemma”?

There are actually many “diaper dilemmas.” One refers to diaper need, a common and often hidden consequence of poverty. One in three mothers in the U.S. experiences diaper need—lack of sufficient diapers to keep a baby dry, comfortable, and healthy—and 45 percent of children younger than three live in low-income families that cannot easily afford enough diapers. Diaper need can lead to many problems for babies, including infections and rashes, as well as challenges for parents, such as the inability to access childcare and go to work, and higher levels of stress, guilt, and anxiety and lower levels of parental self-efficacy. Another diaper dilemma is the almost complete lack of public support for diapers, as no wide-scale, needs-based policy covers diapers. Parents cannot use WIC or food stamps to buy diapers, and the value of cash assistance is often too low to cover diaper costs. The average monthly diaper bill of $75 would alone use up between 8 and over 40 percent of a family’s cash aid check—and only one in four U.S. families in poverty receives any cash benefits at all. A third dilemma is how the conditions of poverty make using potentially cheaper and more environmentally friendly cloth or reusable diapers prohibitively difficult.

How can an intersectional analysis deepen our understanding of the diaper dilemma? 

Diaper need affects over five million U.S. children, disproportionately children of color, those from immigrant families, and those whose parents lack a high school diploma or are unemployed. It both reflects and exacerbates other intersecting inequalities, including racial discrimination and lack of access to high-quality education and living-wage work. I have found in my research that mothers of color suffer more from having to manage diaper need by sacrificing their own basic needs such as food and clothing, spending enormous amounts of mental and emotional energy stretching limited diaper supplies, and performing physical and practical labor to earn money to buy diapers.

What stereotypes of race and class underlie the debate surrounding diaper need?

Paradoxically, the mothers who are often deemed unfit due to racist and classist stereotypes of responsible parenting invest the most in getting enough diapers for their children. That diapers are not covered by existing policies seems to rest on assumptions that poor parents make diapering choices within middle-class circumstances, or that they should have never “chosen” to have children in the first place. This is reminiscent of racist and classist “welfare queen” stereotypes that poor women should simply choose not to have babies if they cannot afford them.

Shifting focus to recent popular culture, we have seen a trend of representing caring fathers or men performing carework (like the new Pampers Pure ad featuring John Legend). While this is a positive shift in its own right, why might taking gender and intersectional lenses to these cultural images be useful?

While I applaud ads that feature famous fathers like John Legend performing the dirtier aspects of care labor, one must pay attention to how that carework is portrayed in popular culture. I have yet to see a diaper ad that does not show a father playing with his child during a diaper change session (Legend, of course, also sings!). Contrast this with ads that feature mothers who are shown holding and caressing their babies. While diapers are often advertised as a reflection of motherly love and care—almost as an extension of the maternal body itself—diaper companies are now targeting dads by selling diapers that can “survive” fathers’ stereotypically more rough-and-tumble style of parenting. As with the fatherhood programs and “Take Time to Be a Dad” ads, fathering is still too often portrayed as “helping” mothers while modeling a “manly” and therefore uniquely beneficial parenting style. Having studied almost 100 parents who struggle with diaper need, most of them poor women of color, every time I hear that John Legend ad I recall women’s stories about going without food, not leaving the house, and living in fear that their children will be taken away because of their struggles with diaper need. One needs an intersectional lens to see these gendered, classed, and racialized aspects of what I call “diaperwork”—which involves not only changing diapers like Legend, but the many sacrifices poor mothers must make just to get them. 

Reflecting on your research, are there any noteworthy similarities or differences in parenting and marriage education programming?

Parenting and marriage/relationship programs are quite diverse in terms of the families they target—some are tailored for married parents, while others specifically focus on the needs of unmarried non-custodial parents—and this leads to different service priorities. We increasingly see more family programs combine parenting and relationship/marriage education services, due in large part to government grant requirements, but also because family science increasingly reveals that how well parents get along, coupled or not, significantly shapes how much non-residential parents, usually fathers, are involved and children’s access to resources from both parents. In my research on programs for low-income parents, I have found that both parenting and relationship programs downplay the marriage message, in large part because parents struggling to raise their children in poverty have more immediate family goals and needs.

Why is it important to also examine and compare participants’ interpretations and opinions of these programs?

I have found that the intent behind a family policy or program does not always align with how parents will actually experience it based on their real life circumstances. In the marriage education program I studied, low-income parents found little use for the message that marriage is helpful for getting out of poverty. What they really valued was having access to relationship support services they would not have been able to afford otherwise and taking classes with couples who had lived through similar relationship challenges shaped by deprivation and economic vulnerability. With fatherhood programming, though policy generally emphasizes promoting fathers’ economic self-sufficiency, abilities to pay child support, and supporting two-parent families, fathers talked as much about how the program offered a community and social space where they could claim identities as responsible fathers, despite their struggles to provide financially. Focusing on the interpretive and experiential aspects of family programs from participants’ perspectives offers a fuller picture beyond important, though often narrow, policy priorities and metrics.   

Are there ways to measure or evaluate the impact or effectiveness of these programs? What criteria are evaluations based upon?

Formal evaluation criteria tend to include changes in employment rates, income, child support payments, welfare receipt, self-reported ratings of coparenting relationship quality, communication abilities, and the like. Rather that focus on jobs, two-parent families, and marriage, measuring program efficacy in other terms that align more with marginalized parents’ lived experiences would be useful. For example, I found in a study of a fatherhood program that, rather than using program services to improve couple relationships, most fathers sought support for navigating and negotiating coparenting relationships with no hopes for romantic reconciliation. They wanted help with what they experienced as mothers’ “gatekeeping” and desired opportunities to prove their parenting to mothers and others who controlled access to their children. For some men, just getting diapers from the program so they would not show up empty-handed to visit their children opened doors to greater paternal involvement. Programs enhance parents’ self-efficacy in ways that are only indirectly related to money and marriage.   

Certain scholars (e.g. Dowd, 2000; Marsiglio & Roy, 2012) recommend “gender-specific” but not “gender-essentialist” strategies to increase father involvement and parenting equity. Would you care to weigh in on these recommendations?

I appreciate and strongly agree with Dowd’s and Marsiglio and Roy’s recommendation to put nurturance and emotional connection at the center of fathering and fatherhood policy. This will likely require a gender-targeted strategy, as to fully embrace paternal nurturance will necessitate overturning sexist ideologies that men are somehow less capable as caregivers. However, as I found in my research on responsible fatherhood programming, gender-specific strategies for promoting fatherhood involvement all too easily slip into gender-essentialist claims that fathers are valuable specifically because they are men, masculine, or male. We will never be able to promote fully equitable parenting until we dispense with the idea of gendered parenting responsibilities—and this includes the notion that men provide an essential and uniquely valuable form of care that is somehow distinct from mothering. Fathers are valuable because they stand to provide children with another set of parental resources in the form of care, time, and money. Family science does not support claims that fathers make indispensable or unique contributions to childrearing above and beyond what mothers provide due to their gender alone. Assertions that they do only perpetuate sexist and heteronormative ideologies of families.

How might these strategies look on-the-ground in the form of policy changes or social initiatives?

Parenting is a highly gendered experience, and I believe programs best serve parents of any gender when they provide a space to talk about and deconstruct gender ideologies about what makes a good, responsible parent. Poor men of color in the fatherhood program I studied found gender essentialist claims about the value of fathers empowering, but it was because they had few grounds due to racial and economic marginalization to claim a good provider status. Teaching marginalized men that they are valuable to their children because of their gender individualizes problems that emerge from race and class inequalities. Fathers are essential, I argue, not because they are men, masculine, or male, but because they can be just as loving and nurturing as mothers. This is what scholars like Dowd and Marsiglio and Roy argue as well.     

What other recommendations do you have for policies that can advance equality for parents and families?

We cannot overestimate the power of policies that help families procure basic needs, such as food, housing, and healthcare. However, I think we also need to broaden our understanding of basic needs to include goods such as diapers and hygiene items, without which parents and children are not able to access opportunities for upward mobility, including early childhood education and living wage work. Beyond this, I think we need broader political justifications for family services. There should be public support for things like diapers as a matter of basic human dignity and social justice for both caregivers and babies, not just because parents need diapers to be able to go to work and achieve “self-sufficiency.” We not only have a woefully inadequate social safety net that only covers a mere fraction of families in need, but it is increasingly porous for even those families. As for publicly supported parenting and relationship programs, I think they play a valuable role in social supports for marginalized families, but they must reflect families’ real circumstances. The reality is that most families in poverty would not be best served by learning about the “benefits” of marriage or any particular type of family; what they do need are spaces and resources that help them meet their parenting and family-formation goals, which almost always includes creating a better life for their children. For some, this will include marriage, but many are in situations where marriage is neither feasible nor preferred. We have an obligation to create family policies that address that, especially how improving the lives of the next generation is increasingly harder for families who suffer from the injustices of race, class, gender, and other inequalities.  

What is your research agenda going forward?

Moving forward, my research agenda will focus on low-income parents’ experiences of diaper need, the growing national diaper bank movement, and diaper-related policies. My third book, Diaper Dilemmas: Invisible Inequalities and the Politics of Diapering is a social history of diapering as a class-based phenomenon in the United States. It analyzes how diaper need and the political vacuum surrounding it reflect taken-for-granted norms dictating that children wear diapers and that individual parents provide them as part of responsible caregiving. Yet high-cost childcare, low-wage work, dwindling redistributive policies, and growing family complexity diminish parents’ abilities to do so. The social repercussions of diapering as a relational, emotional, and political process shaped by inequality has been overlooked, leaving a significant gap in our understandings of how poverty affects marginalized families with young children.

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