Psychologist Recognized for Outreach to Families
For Maureen Perry-Jenkins '81 (psychology), associate professor of psychology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst, it’s all about family. On any given day you can find her teaching “Child, Family and Community” to undergraduates, or “Human Development,” “Family Psychology,” or “Research Methods” to graduate students. Plus, she spends lots of time running the Work and Families Transition Project (WFTP), a longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health for the past eight years. This spring Perry-Jenkins’ efforts in family studies have been honored with the Distinguished Academic Outreach Research Award that recognizes excellence in teaching, research and service for the public good.
“Our research in WFTP examines the transition to parenthood for working-class parents and the second transition of returning to paid employment soon after the baby’s birth,” Perry-Jenkins explains. “We wonder how these multiple transitions impact new parents’ mental health and the quality of their intimate relationships with their partner and with their child.” Working with many undergraduate and graduate students, she focuses on everything from data cleaning, coding and entry to coping with problems on family interviews to running analyses, writing manuscripts and presenting findings at conferences around the country.
“I challenge my students and myself to think beyond personal biases and views of the world so that we can understand how families function and explore the varied paths they take to operate successfully,” says Perry-Jenkins, noting that there is no “right” way to be a functional, happy family. One way she addresses diversity in family life is by focusing on race, ethnicity, and social class as differential factors. “On a practical level, we document conditions of work—both policies and practices—that impact positively and negatively on parents and children,” Perry-Jenkins explains. “And we keep an eye on advocating for family-friendly policies. My graduate students focus much of their work on identifying key parenting practices and styles that have long-term effects on children’s socio-emotional and cognitive development. Given the longitudinal nature of the data, we are now exploring some of these processes over time.”
Perry-Jenkins has longstanding ties with UMass Amherst and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “I came from a Massachusetts family of five children, three of whom have UMass Amherst degrees” including her own, in psychology, earned in 1981. “We were all first generation college students, and my undergraduate experience was life-changing. I was supported and stimulated, not only by the psychology program but also by sociology and women’s studies. I tried so many new things, and my thinking was challenged at every turn. This is true today: all the opportunities are here—students only have to take the initiative to challenge themselves.”
After graduation Perry-Jenkins spent two years working in residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. Having witnessed the power of family relationships—both good and bad—she decided to go into a graduate program at Penn State University to focus on family life. “I became interested in the social and cultural factors that shape experiences within families,” she recalls, “which is how my interests turned to interaction between parental employment experiences and parents’ and children’s mental health.”
Perry-Jenkins is passionate about improving workplace and government support of families. “We are one of the richest nations in the world, and yet we have among the poorest family leave and support policies. What does that say about how we value our children and families?” she asks. Perry-Jenkins is now documenting ways in which both the positive supportive dimensions of work (e.g., flexibility, supportive supervisors, health care) and unsupportive conditions (e.g., rigid supervisors, poor work environment, no healthcare or sick time or family leave) affect family well-being. “Our findings will inform policymakers about the importance of family-friendly workplace policies,” she says.
More than 60 undergraduate research assistants have worked with Perry-Jenkins on the Work and Family Transitions project since its inception—currently there are six—and she says all of them have been “outstanding and motivated.” And at the graduate level, “we have the very best students from around the world.” Each year about 250 students apply for the clinical psychology Ph.D. program, but we can accept only between five and seven. “My graduate students are incredible scholars who bring passion, energy and excitement to our research.”
May 4, 2006