There’s No Place Like Home

In going through an old computer, I found a memo I wrote several years ago on the concept of home-what it means in my research and in my life. Below are parts of that memo but updated with my thoughts today (original memo in brackets; updates in italics).

[I’ve been thinking a lot about homes and what they mean. I’ve been thinking about what they mean to me personally; about how they fit into my work and the work of my students; and what they mean for people more generally.   D is trying to find a way into a study on homeless women. I haven’t studied this population since I did my masters’ thesis but I’ve also found it intriguing, especially issues of social support. Some of D’s latest thoughts (as expressed in discussions and memos) revolve around the meaning of home and the meaning of support networks. With home, she includes the issue of memories (both positive and negative) and is wondering how they might be associated with women’s experiences of social support and their future orientation with regard to finding a home. She seems to be looking more at the concept in terms of “home/less” rather than living without permanent housing. It is an interesting question: are homeless women really lacking in homes (however that may be defined) or are they lacking in permanent housing? Do we create temporary homes when we lose our own? If so, how?

To begin to answer this question you would first have to define the concept of a home. There are several studies (with some very different populations) that have tried to do this. Ultimately most people seem to equate the concept of home with relationships rather than with physical space. Sometimes it is a physical space that is associated with certain relationships. Some of the work with after-school programs have discussed how girls create homes in these spaces. The book on GEMS suggests that Rachel Lloyd creates a home for girls (or rather re-creates) who have only had warped homes. She says that people don’t bond to programs or spaces but to relationships.]

At the time of this memo, I was working primarily with community-based programming for adolescent girls, specifically pregnant adolescents, and developing health promotion programming for mother-daughter dyads. The concept of relationships in families and in community programs as facilitators of health behavior change was a big part of my approach. Now my work is really focused on service provision and relationships between clients and providers are important facilitators of program utilization and behavior change. However, I am now more interested in structural levels and how policies and procedures in communities and organizations serve as facilitators and/or barriers to those relationships.

[Some of H’s work seems to overlap with this concept as well. Holly is interested in immigrant and refugee’s expectations of coming to the US and how that affects whether or not they relocate a second time once they are here. She is working with an agency that is trying to create a sense of “home” through services and community-building for people who are displaced from their home. Part of their expectations seems to be linked to what they both need and want in a home (be it homeland or actual residence).]

D & H were two doctoral students I was supervising at that time. They have both gone on to their own careers. I am now working with another doctoral student, K, who is interested in refugee women’s experiences of maternal-child health care. At the moment I am helping her with a narrative case study of a middle-aged woman who has been twice displaced. She has had to re-create a home multiple times under stressful and traumatic circumstances. Her story is fascinating as she has had to defy strict gender norms to do so. Interestingly, it may be the forced re-locations that provided the space for her to successfully defy those norms. 

[For myself, there are two spaces I’m most like to equate with the concept of “home.” One is my first house, which I think of as my grandmother’s house. I have vivid memories of this house but they all revolve around my grandmother. Today I was talking about my affinity for roses and baking because they remind me of my grandmother but it is also because they seem like home to me. My grandmother’s apartment after she sold the house does not hold these feelings or memories for me. Possibly because I never lived there but also because my relationship with my grandmother and her relationship to the physical space was different at that time. So I think Time is an element as well. The second place I think of as home was our house in Putnam. Again the physical house and land come to mind when I think of home. The house was so well suited for us that it seemed to embody what I was experiencing as the formation of a family.  I also have memories of time spent in cars when the three of us were together and AJ was young enough to enjoy being with us. For me, these are “home” memories. Again there is a connection between relationships, space and time.]

My son had left for college when I wrote the original memo and I was experiencing a lot of feelings around being an “empty-nester.” This concept of empty-nest is an interesting one to explore vis-a-vis what makes a home. Our society equates “family” with having dependent children. When your child is no longer living in your house and is independent (or quasi-independent during those emerging adulthood years) it can shake your concept of family and home. Relationships are dramatically shifted and realigned. Even now, with him living across the country and our house occupied by two obnoxiously needy Bull Terriers, I am constantly re-assessing what I think of as home. Memories of our time spent raising him still feel much more home-like than any memories I’ve accrued since then.

[In my own research, I am interested in relationships within settings. Whether they be community-based organizations or families or even schools, it is the relationships that form and how they affect participants and programs that interest me. To some extent, I think I am examining what does or doesn’t make something a home for people and how the entity of a home affects their health practices or the success of a program. Certainly, at the YWCA it seems like it is the staff that makes it a home for the girls. It is not the relationships that the girls form with one another and it is not just the services provided (although they are helpful). What seems to really matter to the teen moms is that there are people who are willing to go the extra mile for them; people who see who they are and accept them; people who want them to do well and believe they will do well.]

As I mentioned above, I am no longer working so closely with a single agency or organization. Instead, I’m looking at structural aspects of service provision at the county and state level. Yet, my data are still filled with the importance of relationships; the importance of having a safe haven where you are free to develop trusting relationships; and the difficulty of providing these spaces. Since my research currently focuses on perinatal substance use, the concept of having a home-both literally and figuratively-can make a huge difference in a woman’s ability to keep custody of her child and, consequently, her own chances at staying in recovery. 


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