THE DADDY HIERARCHY
I he cultural preferences of many Americans are probably expressed in a conversation between children described in Sweet Summer, a memoir by
Bebe Moore Campbell. In it, she tells of four African American girls growing up in the urban middle class of the 1950s. Their fathers had divorced ‘heir mothers, but to varying degrees the girls were still daddies’ girls. Comparing their fathers to an image of a “good dad” in a “good family" in their time and place, they located them as higher or lower on a “daddy hierarchy.” The children presumed the involvement of their mothers and so declined to arrange a hierarchy of mothers. At the top of the girls’ list was the daddy of a little white girl who spent time with her and built her a beautiful dollhouse. In the middle were daddies present but preoccupied with repairing broken cars or daddies who loved their children but spanked them too hard. At the bottom were “dead-beat dads” who disappeared from their children’s lives altogether.
Certain trends have pushed forward the ideal of the involved dollhousebuilding dad. Since the 1970s inflation and the globalization of capitalism have reduced male wages, creating a need for women to contribute to the family income. At the same time, a declining birth rate, higher rates of female education, and the industrialization of housework have created opportunities for women to work. This has created а need for men to participate more actively at home. Especially for middle-class wives who’ve invested in higher education and want to work at jobs they enjoy, the ideal of the “new man” is in. And among intact families, to some extent he is here.
In Michael Lamb’s 1986 review of large-scale quantitative studies on fathering, he distinguishes between engagement (for example, feeding the child, playing catch), accessibility (cooking in the kitchen while the child plays in the next room), and responsibility (being the one who makes sure the child gets what he or she needs). When wives go out to work, Lamb finds, men become more engaged and accessible but not more responsible for their children.” In two out of three ways, men are doing more at home than they have in the past.
But at the same time another trend points in an opposite direction. The rising rates of divorce and of unwed pregnancies are related to weakening bonds between fathers and children. Although fathers have long deserted families under the guise of seeking work or migrating, or under no guise at all, the modern scale of this is surely new. Half of all marriages now end in divorce and 60 percent of them involve children. In his large-scale study of children of divorce, Frank Furstenberg found that nearly half of the children had virtually no contact with the noncustodial parent (90 percent of whom were fathers) within the past year. One out of six had seen him as regularly as once a week.1 The proportion of children living with two parents has declined from 85 percent in 1970 to 72 percent in 1991. Fathers who lose touch with their children often retreat into what Judith Wallerstein poignantly calls phantom relationships with them, putting a child’s photo on an office desk, and thinking, “My child can call me any time he wants.”1
Such fathers imagine a relationship at one end that a child does not feel is being offered at the other.
In addition, based on the National Survey of Children, James Peterson and Nicholas Zill were able to compare the relationship of children (aged twelve to sixteen) with their parents as this varied according to different types of family situations. Even among children living with both biological or adoptive parents, a scant 55 percent had positive relations with both parents. Of children living only with their mothers, 25 percent had good relations with both parents. Of children living with just their fathers, 36 percent had good relations with both parents, perhaps because the mothers stayed more involved.5
Parallel to the rise in divorce is a rise in the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, largely though not exclusively associated with the growth of poverty. The percentage of children born to unwed parents increased from 5 percent in 1958 to 18 percent in 1978 to 28 percent in 1988 and 38 percent in 2000.The vast majority of unwed mothers know’ the identity of the father, and many cohabit with them, but the breakup rate is higher for cohabiting than for married couples, and fewer than a fifth of unwed mothers report receiving child support for the year after the breakup."
There is a social-class pattern here. The new ideal of the nurturant father seems to he spreading from the middle class down, while the economic insecurity familiar to the lower class and undermining stable family ties seems to be spreading up. As the culture in which capitalism has made the deepest inroads, the United States may prove to be the handwriting on the wall for other countries, even as the 1950s African American childhood of Sweet Summer has foretold the future of many white children in America today.
Not only the culture of men, but a sense of the full array of social class and ethnic vantage points on family life is missing in both Stacey’s and Popenoe’s analyses. Popenoe’s notion of decline, in particular, also presupposes that we imagine the particular history of a certain racial and class group, instead of doing a comparative analysis, he has selected certain white middle-class societies—New Zealand, Switzerland—-to illustrate his evolutionary story. So the “family in decline” turns out to be the one that white middle-class people had. In defining his topic, he sidesteps the issue of ethnic diversity, evoking a nostalgia for an undisturbed nest many African Americans and Chicanos never had.
The missing story of ethnic diversity in all its richness is found in Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg’s Domestic Revolutions. A descriptive rather than a “thesis” book, it offers a thorough, carefully documented, vividly written social history of the three hundred years of American family life. The authors trace white Anglo-Saxon families, as well as Dutch, French, German, Irish, Swedish, Swiss, and other European immigrant families, from 1920 forward; drawing on the most recent scholarship, they describe Native American families and African American families from slavery to the present. The emerging picture of the past—fourteen-hour workdays in factories and mines, children of all social classes fostered out for long periods as apprentices or servants, families tom by slavery, death a common visitor, endless toil and trouble, harsh punishment of children—while not contradicting Popenoe, puts a quick end to the nostalgia his description of the peaceful New Zealand middle class might inspire as an image of “where we’ve come from.”
But just because family life has been rough before doesn’t mean it has to be just as rough today, Judith Stacey gives us powerful evidence of families in crisis but ends up giving the crisis a hip new name and quixotically welcoming it. Popenoe recognizes the problem but, hesitating to say it openly, implies that to provide children a good life, women should go back to what they were doing in New Zealand in 1950. Both conceive of the family as a passive victim of history; neither envisions a happy realistic future. Curiously it is Mintz and Kellogg, the pragmatic historians, who, noting many earlier crises to which the family adapted, conclude that the “future of the family ultimately depends on whether we take the steps necessary to help the institution adapt to the unique conditions of our time.” History, as they see it, has provided a series of challenges to the family—colonization, the industrial revolution, enslavement, immigration, the depression, wars. And they see the family as a spunky litde institution, which has rolled with one punch after another.
Now we have another challenge—the entrance of most women into the labor force. To stabilize the family, both the workplace and the family need to change. To start with, we can work out a way of thinking about the family that both honors our diversity and also strengthens bonds between parents and children, and parents with each other, whoever they are. Mintz and Kellogg get it right when they say, “Nor do we need to worry obsessively about the increasing diversity of family arrangements, since ethnic, religious and economic diversity has always been a characteristic of American family life.’’ Instead of dwelling on the question of whether or not the family will survive, they conclude, “We would do better as a society to confront the concrete problems that face families today.”
We might turn to one major trend of our time that has indeed disturbed many nests and acknowledge that we are living in a time of a stalled revolution, a time in which women have changed much faster than the men they live with or the institutions in which both sexes work. This stalled revolution has marginalized family life and turned it into a “second shift.” To resolve this tension, we could renew a feminism that has been there quietly all along, and that calls for honoring the work of nurturance and getting men into the act. We could strengthen a coalition between organizations such as
the National Organization for Women, the Women’s Legal Defense Council, and the Children’s Defense Fund. This coalition might find a receptive audience among women such as Pam Gama and Dotty Lewison and their war-tom kin. Just as Stacey sees the isolated housewife as a source of revolt against the wage-earner/housewife marriage, so Popenoe, perhaps rightly, sees children as a potential source of revolt against the postmodern family. This would not be a revolt, I think, against alternatives to lasting marriage, but a revolt against the larger conditions that have made divorce the happier alternative for so many.
We could also enact family-friendly reforms. Indeed, I believe the Swedish programs of paid paternal leave, sick-child leave, and other supports for working parents should remain our model and primary goal. We need to extend these reforms with a comprehensive program of job training or retraining for the economically dispossessed. Parental leave is of little use if we lack decently paid, secure jobs from which to take those leaves.
We need to enlarge our image of what a family is and honor all the families we have, especially single-parent and gay families. That means pressing for the legitimacy of gay marriage and working on the same underlying societal conditions to make those marriages happy and lasting, too. We should get clear that working to increase the chances for commitment between adults and loving respect for children does not mean being antigay any more than being gay means you have to oppose the family.
Finally, we need to reduce the isolation of the elderly, and not simply for theirsake. In the end, what I learned from David Popenoe is that a benevolent state and a prosperous economy are not enough to strengthen commitment between adults and increase the welfare of children. We will also need to strengthen social supports for these relations. This can be done in many ways, but one support for young parents may be found in strengthening bonds to their own older parents. Here we chart a path through what Third World visitors inevitably say is the saddest part of our postindustrial wilderness: the isolation of the old in America.
Many older people spend their days watching too much television in exurban retirement communities or midtown hotels in large cities and, like divorced fathers, retire into “phantom relations” with their young. We lament their isolation because, after all, the old need the young. But these days the opposite is more true. It is the young who need the old, to help them through the bad moments of marriage and parenthood and complete a larger circle of meaning. And it may be the old who need persuading. By the time Pam Gama is a great-grandmother, her children and their children may well have walked the same rocky road she has. What a pity, then, that we still seem stuck with a false choice—between stable tradition and unstable modernity—and that our government isn’t taking a clue from Sweden on how to help stabilize all the many kinds of modem nest.