A family on a hike

Founded as the pandemic hit, a new center brings together experts on the changing family

Darby Saxbe, founder of the Center for the Changing Family at USC Dornsife, shares why the era of COVID-19 is the perfect time to focus on families, stress and health.

May 06, 2021 Jenesse Miller

Founded just before COVID-19 disrupted how families live, the Center for the Changing Family at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has become a hub for researchers studying families, stress and health at a time when there’s never been more public and policy interest in working mothers, child care and relationship issues.

USC News recently talked to Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology and founder of the center. The center’s affiliated faculty study family systems, close relationships and mental and physical health across the lifespan. As a diverse group of scholars spanning multiple fields, they define “family” broadly.

Darby Saxby
Darby Saxby (USC Photo/Mike Glier)

The Center for the Changing Family recently marked its one-year anniversary. Can you talk about how it got started?

Darby Saxbe: One thing that is sort of amazing about USC is how much expertise is scattered across all these different corners of the university. It’s both one of the best and worst things as a researcher because it can be hard to know if someone else across campus is also working on, for example, family relationships or new parents. Having been at USC for eight or nine years, I just started to recognize how many faculty members were working on close relationships and families.

Last year, USC Dornsife put out a call for faculty-led research working groups that were organized around a theme. I immediately thought the issues of families, stress and health would bring researchers together.

I visited different departmental websites and found someone in the sociology department who studies family conflict and working mothers’ employment; someone in the economics department who studies family relationships and health by neighborhood; faculty at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in pediatrics and at the children’s hospital — clinical psychologists who also work on child and family mental health. It ended up being pretty easy and fun to put together a list of experts that could be connected under the umbrella of a working group.

We were invited to submit a full proposal to be a center. Of the couple dozen working groups, they picked just a few to fund with three years of seed funding as a center, including ours.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

And these issues were suddenly on everyone’s minds as families dealt with lockdowns, remote learning, layoffs and other disruptive aspects of pandemic life.

The silver lining is it’s actually given us a focus and a voice at a time when there’s never been more public and policy interest in working mothers, child care and relationship issues.

It’s been personally resonant for me. My kids’ school closed, and I’ve had to find the bandwidth to run the center. Many of the affiliated faculty also have young kids at home. The personal has never been closer to home, in terms of the topics that we’re studying.

It’s been a great way to build a community. In the first year we went from around 30 faculty to over 60 faculty. The fact that we’ve doubled in size is a sign that there is a lot of excitement about this area of research at USC.

What are some examples of collaborations between affiliated faculty at the center?

Ashwini Lakshmanan is a neonatologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles who developed this really cool app called Baby Steps LA. It provides the same information that parents with babies in the NICU would receive at in-person transition-to-home programs, but it’s available on their mobile devices all the time. She connected with Professor Dorian Traube of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, who directs Parents as Teachers, a partnership between a national home visitation model and a university-based telehealth clinic that helps new parents.

They’re both interested in how technologies like apps and e-learning platforms can make parenting easier while promoting healthy child development, so they teamed up and wrote a piece for The Conversation about using digital tools to support parents. They’ve also worked on grant proposals and other projects together.

To share another example: I connected with Beth Smith, who studies babies’ motor development and directs the Infant Neuromotor Control Laboratory at CHLA. My work is about pregnancy, new parenthood and family stress, and her work got me thinking about how to bring that kind of contextual focus to work on infant motor development outcomes.

The center has been a great way to get to know people who are interested in the same things but wouldn’t necessarily spontaneously connect.

As lockdowns end and life starts to return to some semblance of normal, do you think these issues will continue to be a focus? Do you see this excitement and energy around this set of issues continuing post-pandemic?

I’m optimistic. I would like to think that we pulled back the curtain on a lot of challenges that have been going on for a long time and just became untenable during the pandemic. The fact that women’s workplace participation is now down to where it was in the 1980s — the fact that we’ve lost decades of progress on this — that’s not going to just get fixed overnight. I think there will be a continuing conversation about how we’ve neglected family issues as a society and what we need to do to have a more sustainable balance.

One thing that I feel really heartened by is the Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal, where care is being framed as a form of infrastructure. We’re so behind other industrialized countries in terms of our lack of federal family leave policy, our lack of universal child care and our lack of universal funding for university education.

As far as things that won’t get fixed overnight, I think about the kids who missed a year of school or in-person interaction. We will need to understand and address the long-term mental health consequences. Some kids have been really resilient, but other kids have really struggled. Even after the pandemic is resolved, we will be living with the effects.

I also think about the research that we’ve done on women who are pregnant during the pandemic. We know that prenatal stress has an impact on fetal development and on birth outcomes. So again, I think you’re going to see these pervasive developmental impacts that are going to require more targeted interventions, even after the threat of the pandemic is no longer with us.

That’s a great segue way into talking about your recent survey of pregnant women during the early days of the pandemic. Can you talk a little about the survey and what you’ve learned?

My lab has been studying a transition to parenthood. We do these lab studies where we bring couples in while they’re pregnant and then follow them after their baby is born. We do neuroimaging and other measures with them, and we have a lot of conversations with them. All of that got shut down in March 2020 and we had to suspend our lab research.

Within a few weeks, graduate student Alyssa Morris brought up that she was reading a lot of news stories about women having to give birth alone; stories about new babies who can’t see their grandparents and new parents who can’t get any child care support. We just started thinking about the impact of this on expectant parents. This is a time when you need a lot of support, when we typically come together as a community to support a new parent. She suggested launching an online survey.

We adapted what we had been doing in the lab to investigate stress related specifically to COVID and social connection and disconnection. We posted it online in early April, thinking we might get 100 responses, and we got over 700 responses. What we found was elevated self-reported depression, anxiety and stress, and a lot less social support compared to our pre-pandemic data.

You study how close family relationships “get under the skin” to affect stress and health. What are some comparisons and differences with how earlier disasters might have impacted expectant families?

Studies that have looked at the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Northridge earthquake in California have tried to find out what happens to babies who were in utero when those big events happened. They’ve found there are differences in birth outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weight. Some studies have suggested links between maternal mental health, postpartum stress and children’s development.

But what’s interesting about a lot of those natural disasters is frequently they bring communities closer together. What’s different about COVID is at the same time this huge pandemic was threatening our lives, we were also told that we couldn’t physically interact with each other. Pregnancy is a time where there’s a heightened need for connection and support, so one of the things I think we’ll find is the pandemic will take a different toll than prior disasters.

Of course, the pandemic has had such different impacts, depending on race and ethnicity and economic security. We see these really striking disparities, which we’re going to continue to look at in our follow-up surveys with these families. As our center turns one year old, so do some of the babies of the couples we surveyed in the early stages of the pandemic.