By Ashton Applewhite

In recent years much has been made of the demise of the beleaguered American family. In fact the family is far from defunct, but as it struggles to accommodate the social revolution of the past thirty years, it is changing form. Because the roles of men and women at work and at home are in radical transition, the definition of "family" needs updating. The proportion of "traditional families" in the United States has declined by 35 percent since 1970. By the year 2000, nearly half the population will be part of a stepfamily. Sixty percent of American families are headed by a single parent, and more than half of those parents have never been married at all.

Washington's "pro-family" groups are busy portraying these statistics as a pernicious trend undermining women's most important role: staying home and bringing up babies. "The top priority this nation faces for the next generation," declared Alan Keyes, a former Reagan Administration official in a 1995 campaign speech, "is the restoration of moral and material foundations of the marriage-based, two-parent family, pure and simple." Conservatives hold up a simpler, safer era, in which kids walked home to Mom banging their lunchboxes on the picket fence, as the way it used to be and the ideal to which we must return. Even if we could turn back the clock, this scenario is not the way things used to be -- nor is it ideal.


The postwar "golden era" of the nuclear family, with Dad the breadwinner and Mom the homemaker, was actually a blip in America's history that lasted for less than a decade. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did courts begin questioning fathers' absolute ownership of their children and identifying mothers as the principal caregivers and granting them custody. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that women became responsible for the unpaid work of child care, as production shifted out of the home. Postwar child care policies encouraged women to be homemakers, and those who did work turned largely to other women, whether family or friends, to watch their kids. Mothers who wanted day care had a very hard time finding it, and were guilt-ridden if they succeeded because of its association with poor and dysfunctional families. That stigma lingers to this day, as does the shortage of options for working parents.

Certainly more women than ever were able to stay at home with their children during those prosperous postwar years, but these mothers remained a privileged minority, and now represent only 3 percent of the population. Full-time homemaking was never an option for the majority of the working class, or for families of color. And a collective amnesia prevails about the dark side of those postwar years, which were charactrized by soaring rates of juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and depression among tranquilizer-popping stay-at-home moms. Amnesia prevails too when it comes to the fact that many prominent family values spokesmen - including Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and Newt Gingrich - are themselves on their second wives.

Romanticizing the traditional nuclear family is a mistake, because growing up with bio-mom and bio-dad is no guarantee of psychological well-being or financial security. What's more, that nostalgic and narrow minded definition of family excludes not just the divorced, but also widows and widowers, adopted and foster children, and all those who love and are loved outside a legal contract. It sanctions job discrimination against parents who work, and who need all the help they can get. It ignores the fact that divorce simply brings to light problems that were already present (and that continue to seethe privately and damagingly in many intact families), and that divorce is very often the right decision for both the adults and the children involved. It denies the reality that many divorced parents continue to collaborate successfully in raising healthy children. It perpetuates the myth that divorced people do not honor or value marriage. It's elitist, anti-feminist, racist, and homophobic as well, because gay people are good parents too, as many studies evidence. For all its rhetoric, the family values agenda is profoundly anti-family at its core.


Everyone seems to be " pro-family" these days: feminists, the religious right, gays claiming the right to marry and parent without prejudice. (After all, who would call themselves "anti-family"?). Everyone's jumping on the bandwagon because images of family breakdown are so prevalent and unnerving. Talk shows, sitcomes, made-for-TV movies, therapists' offices, and 12-Step programs are filled to overflowing with offspring raised in the dysfunctional variety: victims of incest, marital rape, paternal abandonment, beatings, even satanic ritual abuse. Home, in fact, is where women are most likely to be beaten or raped and children molested or killed, and not by strangers but by members of their own families. "At some deep, queasy Freudian level we all know this," notes Barbara Ehrenreich, going on to comment that "Americans act out their own ambivalence towards the family without ever owning up to it."

The problems confronting the American family are cause for genuine concern, but the comforting reality is that true family values - the loving collaboration between family members who nurture and look out for each other - are not inherently dependent on Dad-as-protector. The current family values mania is part of a last-ditch effort to find stability in an era of shrinking economic and personal security, and to restore to men a clear-cut definition of masculinity. Male authority, already diminished in the workplace by growing intolerance of sex discrimination and harassment, is now waning on the home front. Seeing their power base erode, many men are exhorting a return to a family life that never was and in which their sovereignty over women and children was unquestioned. Many women also buy into the false security of the "good old days," but it's too late to stuff the genie back into the bottle or the woman back into the kitchen. Too much turf has already changed hands, and a more equal distribution of responsibilities within a family benefits all its members.

Divorce-Online wishes to thank Ashton Applewhite and her publisher, HarperCollins, for permission to reprint this most thought-provoking excerpt from "Cutting Loose" (1997). We will soon be announcing the dates for our live discussion forum, offering our readers the opportunity to discuss this issue with the author.

Posted on Saturday, February 24, 2007 at 02:19PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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