Human Development and Family Studies

Bridging the Divide

(Article about Monsy Bonilla copied from p.26-7 of the Spring 2008 UNCG Research Magazine)

For young couples from Mexico, the language barrier is only one of many challenges in the United States. Cultural differences and distance from family can put an enormous strain on marriages as couples attempt to raise children in a new land. Despite the rapid growth of the Spanish-speaking population in the United States, little research has been published about these issues. Senior Monsy Bonilla and Dr. Heather Helms, associate professor of human development and family studies, have been working during the past several years to change that. Funding has come from a UNCG Regular Faculty Grant and an Agricultural Research Service Award. Monsy, who was born in El Salvador, has interviewed dozens of couples with young children, often spending two hours in one-on-one interviews with each husband and each wife. She has conducted the interviews in the couples’ homes and, with only one exception, in Spanish.

Helms hopes the research can offer insight into how best to support poor immigrant families. The payoff would be healthier, better educated children. If that goal is realized, much of the credit will belong to Monsy, Helms says. “Monsy has been an invaluable member of the research team and played a major role in subject recruitment, retention and interviewing,” says Helms. “Ours is a story of a truly collaborative student-faculty mentor endeavor.”Siler City is home for Monsy and her parents. Latino immigrants are often reluctant to be interviewed or to seek out services for their families, but Monsy has been able to recruit families in the Siler City area through word of mouth. Since the interviews began in fall 2006, Monsy and others have interviewed more than 100 parents. Husbands and wives are interviewed separately in their own homes. Some things aren’t surprising. “The interviews with dads take more time,” she says. “They struggle with the open ended questions because they’re men. They don’t want to discuss some issues in their marriage with a stranger.”

Other findings are far more serious. “There are many families that don’t have a lot of information about education for their children, especially when those children have special needs.” Her experience has modified her career plans. She had wanted to be a classroom teacher, but now wants to educate families by working with a community service agency. Monsy and another student researcher presented their findings, based on data collected from the first 25 couples interviewed, at the second annual Undergraduate Research Expo April 3.

Raising Her Voice: HDFS Student Explores Parenting Stress

Written by Mike Benning in the December 2007 edition of Eunomia, the UNCG Graduate School Magazine

Jill Walls, a doctoral student in the UNCG Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), wants to change the way we think about parentinging. She's dedicated her research to studying parents, with a sharp focus on the stress impacting women's everyday lives. "No change can happen until women's voices are heard," Walls said. Through her research, she's giving them a voice. Walls received her master's degree from UNCG in HDFS, with a concentration in Family Life and Parent Education in May 2005.

"I'm interested in parents, mainly," Walls said. For her, the importance of the research she conducts goes deeper than just understanding the parents' lives. "Whatever happens to parents will later affect their children. When parents experience higher levels of stress they're more likely to use harsher forms of discipline, which affects their relationship with their children." This interest led to Walls' master's thesis, "Associations Between Closure Relationships and Experiences of Parenting Stress." In her doctoral program, Walls divides her time between classes and working on two separate research projects, one involving the study of Mexican couples, and another focused on fulltime employed mothers of infants. Walls' research on Mexican couples is being conducted through UNCG and is headed up by her advisor, Dr. Heather Helms. Walls is excited about working with Helms on this particular project because, up until now, there has been little research conducted on the experiences of Mexican couples with young children living in the United States. Walls and Helms have recently collected data from 25 couples and have been awarded funding to research an additional 25.

Though much of her research is dedicated to the understanding of factors influencing the well-being of parents of young children, Walls has strong opinions on the pressures facing women today. She believes society has inherent contradictions about the roles women play. They're expected to cultivate careers and still have time and energy to be mothers. The reason for this, Walls said, is because "our cultural ideals have not caught up yet with the reality of women's lived experiences." Women striving to meet both of these expectations are sometimes trying to achieve what she refers to as "Super Mom," which is not always an achievable goal. To shed light on the "Super Mom" phenomenon, Walls is working on a study in collaboration with Dr. Joseph Grzywacz at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, a contact made possible by UNCG HDFS professor Dr. Esther Leerkes. She spends many of her evenings commuting to Kernersville to interview participants—full-time working mothers raising four-month-old infants. "Women shouldn't have to sacrifice one for the other," she said. But they often feel the pressure to do so, which is why Walls hopes her research will eventually trickle down into applied practices, such as parenting education programs that would help mothers negotiate and balance work and family life.

While Walls has already made her own accomplishments, she is insistent about giving credit to other people in the field. She cites Helms as an example of someone she looks up to who is very passionate about her work. She also lists Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, and Sharon Hays, author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, as women whose writing has inspired her. Her research on Mexican couples will conclude in the spring, but Walls has no intention of quitting anytime soon. She hopes to one day be a full time faculty member at a major university where she can work not only as a researcher, but also as a teacher. If Walls continues contributing in her field, it's only a matter of time before her research takes root.