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The key relationships of never married, childless older women, that is, those relationships described as central, compelling, enduring, or ificant throughout their lifetimes, were explored in this study. We report on types of key interpersonal relationships of these women and also examine limits to these key relations, describing some strategies these women have adopted for gaining kin-like relations and the problems inherent in them for the expectation of care in later life.

Theoretical work by anthropologist David Schneider concerning American kinship as a cultural system is used to explore dimensions of these relationships. While much gerontological research focuses on marriage and parental status of the older person, more than 20 percent of older Americans have no children, and some 5 to 6 percent have never married.

Given an alternative set of life paths that does not include affinal and filial relations, never married, childless elderly women may become involved in relationships that are central to them and enduring and that, while nonstandard, are enriching and generative. Based on lengthy qualitative research conversations with 31 never married, childless women age 60 and older, interviewed as part of a larger project on childless older women, this article has two aims.

First, it reports on types of and attitudes toward key interpersonal relationships of these women. Second, it examines limits to these key relations, describing some strategies these women have adopted for gaining kin-like relations and the problems inherent in them for the expectation of care in later life.

It should be noted that the theoretical perspective taken here, deriving from cultural anthropology, emphasized the role of cultural meaning in the analysis of social relations. It is different from, and must be viewed as complementary to, the approach usually taken in kinship and support studies in gerontology. A choice was made to focus here on never married, childless older women because their situations are compelling in that they lack connections of parenthood and marriage from which the pool of later-life caregivers is often drawn.

Further, our focus on this group illuminates the nature and limits of the cultural ideology of kinship upon which many key relations are usually based. Certainly, the issues and findings reported here for our informants may be extended to women in other parental and marital statuses for whom these issues are no doubt germane; however, this is beyond the scope of this report.

Further, in addressing these aims, we introduce a body of theoretical work on American kinship that has sought to outline the cultural ideology of connectedness informing how Americans in general reckon ties with kin. By key relationships we mean those ties that informants indicated were central, compelling, enduring, or most ificant throughout their lifetimes.

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The types of relationships that these women identified as central to them included a variety of blood relationships such as being a daughter, a sibling, an aunt, or a niece. These women also identified a of key relations that, although, not based on specific blood ties, could be likened to them. These included fictive parenthood, consociation with a nonrelated family, and same-generation companionate relations with other women.

Two basic concerns were apparent in our interviews. Informants utilized a vocabulary from the standard cultural typology of relationships to describe their own relations. Many compared their own key relationships to those deriving from notions of shared biogenetic substance, being married and having children.

Further, to simplify a complex set of feelings, in such a comparison they could see their key relations in one of two ways: a they viewed them as problematic on a variety of bases because they were not the same as the cultural norm; or, b they saw them as equally or even more successful than central relations based on normative cultural premises, because their relationships have been the object of considerable individual effort resulting from joyful shared experience. Thus, some informants argued that they had better relationships than those women with families of their own or that they had avoided the many problems associated with parent-child relations and with marriage.

However, some clearly had questions about the sufficiency of these relations to provide a setting for caregiving, should it be needed. Both blood ties and ties of marriage served as possible models for the key relationships that these women did have. The blood tie was the more ificant and more utilized model, but in a few companionate relationships, it was clear that these were conceptualized, in a way, as marriage-like.

Because these women did not use discreet components of kinship — marriage and parenthood, for example — but did recognize the centrality of these ties, a description of the ideology old American kinship is required in order to highlight the uses they made of cultural models of kinship.

The culturally central notion of the blood tie is integral to what it is to be a relative in For culture. This form of kinship reckoning contrasts ificantly with those used in many other cultures. The code for conduct specifies that individuals who are biologically related — sharing substance and identity — should offer loyalty, trust, faith, affection, help when needed, and the discreet of help that is needed Schneider,p. Yet the code for conduct is not the defining feature of the relationship; it is the blood tie that has primacy and forms the basis for the relationship.

This totality — substance, identity, and code for conduct — constitutes a folk modelor widely shared set of cultural ideas or beliefs about the nature of things. Because affinal relationships do not have what is considered a natural basis, but rather a sociolegal one, they are not culturally accorded the primacy of blood ties. Our data show that this situation is more complex; further, some informants attempted to extend the model to kin-like nonkin. Such negotiation for undertaken variously by interaction, the creation and maintenance of voluntary norms and ties of reciprocity, and the expression of positive sentiment.

That is, married behavior is used to attempt to create shared identity a feeling of relatedness contributing to the relationship among nonprimary kin. For many of the women we interviewed, the married point with collateral kin and kin-like nonkin was the issue of the potential need for caregiving; in some relationships, this could be successfully negotiated, but in others it could not. As is well known, the least problematic ties are those among primary kin Brody, However, difficulties may occur in extending kinship to include care when blood ties are nonprimary or when ties are close and kin-like but lack the blood connection.

This is particularly problematic for concerns with the permanence of relationship, which, from the perspective of mainstream American culture, inheres in shared biogenetic substance the blood tie and the attendant sense of younger moral obligation among primary kin that is at the root of caregiving. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the most salient relationships these women develop are not blood ties, but in part are metaphorically likened to blood ties, so as to increase legitimation, in part because there is no other language to describe them, and in part because they may share many of the qualities that blood ties are old to have: they are enduring, are characterized by closeness, foster a sense of inclusion, involve continual commitment, and may be extended to provide younger support in times of need.

Each was interviewed in multiple usually three sessions, over a course of 3 to 4 weeks, for a total of 6 to 8 hours of interview time, but often more.

Interviews, qualitative and ethnographically based, were audiotaped with informant permission. A first interview featured collection of background data, the elicitation of a life history narrative using a standard prompt, and the completion of a social network and social support inventory. Second and third interviews examined life achievements and accomplishments, outlets for generativity, and feelings about parental status. In addition, between interviews, each informant completed self-inventories assessing well-being, depression, loneliness, health status, generativity, and personality features.

Data to be analyzed were collected through items that assessed social network expectations for support, the most important person in life at that time, generative and nurturant behaviors and relationships, and perceived patterns of interpersonal influence. A small literature exists on the key relationships of never married older women that addresses social isolation and loneliness, life satisfaction, and social support Allen, ; Braito and Anderson, ; Gubrium, ; Rice, ; Rubinstein, ; Ward, Further, the role of these single women as parental caregivers has been examined in some detail Allen, ; Allen and Pickett, ; Brody,; Simon, ; Wright, None of this literature, so far as we are aware, has examined the relationship between the ideological basis of the American kinship system and the perception of and need for key supportive relationships by these older adults.

Our examination of transcribed interview material revealed that six types of key personal relationships were most frequently discussed.

Two are based on blood ties, three are types of constructed relationships, and the sixth type is friendship. We will discuss each of these in turn. Key relationships based on blood ties follow either lineal or collateral lines. The lineal pattern is exemplified by the coresident daughter role — extended coresidence with parents until their deaths and provision of parental care well into adult life.

Collateral relationships include aunthood — an enduring ificant relation with nephews and nieces that in some cases approaches quasi-parenthood — and adoption into the collateral family, with the sibling as the main point of linkage. Each of these relationships is based on biogenetic ties and the notions of shared substance blood and familial identity. Nevertheless, this material illustrates the fact that, in the cultural construction of American kinship, it is only in the lineal dimension that the relationships include the strong component of moral obligation for care.

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Collateral blood relations may or may not confer such moral obligation. This role refers to the continued cohabitation by an adult daughter with her parents until their deaths, and often includes caregiving for the aging parent. Four major themes about this relationship, representing general tendencies and shared concerns among those in this role, emerged in qualitative analysis. First, daughters felt the relationship to be one of asymmetric reciprocity but mutual dependency.

Parents were often financially dependent on their coresident working, adult unmarried daughters. Daughters, too, while voicing some ambivalence about their role, felt dependent on their continued association with their parents. I should have gotten out and gotten myself an apartment. So it was a case of necessity, so I did stay.

The extent of parental dependency felt by these women was a salient theme in their discussions. And they would gear me or steer me in a certain direction. But after they passed away I was on my own. And I wondered at that time, How I would ever manage without them? And being independent, I had to find my way and I felt that, to me, it was an accomplishment like, getting on my own two feet, and not having to turn to them to tell me what to do.

Second, women in this role generally viewed their relationship as morally obligatory and necessary. Miss Miller told the story of a young man asking her to marry him.

Third, informants who had siblings who were married or were parents felt they were somehow selected for the caregiving role because they had no such obligations. Finally, several mentioned feeling a void or a sense of purposelessness in their lives after their parents died.

It is important to note that these key lineal relationships of shared substance were in the past, unlike most of the other relationships discussed here. Some experienced devastation with parental death; others were faced for the first time in midlife with the question of what they wanted for themselves and how they would prepare for their own later lives. Eighteen of the 31 women described key relationships with siblings and nieces and nephews.

Nieces and nephews were central in the lives of most of these 18 women. Relationships were characterized by shared family identity and modeled on the parent-child tie. While these collateral ties featured shared positive sentiment, they were viewed, variously, as either obligatory or voluntary, rendering certainty and degree of care by collaterals for informants unpredictable and situationally distinctive.

Key relationships of never married, childless older women: a cultural analysis

Although there were differences, most informants were extensively involved in raising and shaping the lives of these collaterals, particularly when they were young. Some told extended stories and elaborated on the features of such involvements with collaterals. The relations that informants built with these children were very important to them and they spoke, too, of their own centrality in the lives of their nieces and nephews and of their hopes of having influenced their lives in positive and enduring ways.

Informants often likened their relationships with nieces and nephews to that of a parent-child tie, an analogy in part evident in their descriptive language.

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For example, Miss Pierson identified her nephew as the most important person in her life right now. In fact he is closer to me at times than he is to his own mother. However, there were questions in the minds of many of these women as to the extent that nieces and nephews would be available to them for care should they need it. They did not feel that help should be necessarily forthcoming from them because the collaterals had so much to do in their own lives.

I want to stand alone financially and emotionally. Mostly they will. Informant: They are. Even grandchildren are connected in a different way, too.