THE FRACTURED FAMILY
In Silicon Valley, where peach orchards have disappeared and electronics factories have sprouted in their stead, where low-paying jobs have replaced high – paying jobs, where neighbors are new and the singles clubs full, we meet, in Judith Stacey’s 1990 book, Brave New Families, a woman named Pam Gama. We meet her first as the young bride of a striring drafter and ten years later as a struggling single mother of three (ages eleven, nine, and six) working odd jobs and taking classes on the side. We next meet her one precarious remarriage later, and finally as a postfeminist, reborn Christian at the altar of the Global Ministry’s Church, where she exchanges vow’s, again, of lasting love.
Those who have studied the family have very different responses to an odyssey like Pam’s. To clarify these differences it is interesting to compare Stacey’s view with those of David Popenoe (Disturbing the Nest) and Steven Mint/ and Susan Kellogg ( Domestic Revolu). They all agree that it’s a modern story. They all think it’s a sad story. After that, these authors differ on central questions: Is the family in permanent decline? Does the greater freedom and power of women inherently weaken it? Should we be nostalgic for more stable times? Can we honor a diversity of types of family and also push for stronger family bonds? If so, how7 do we do it?
In his 1963 classic, World Revolution and Family Patterns, William Goode describes a worldwide trend toward urban industrial life on one hand and independent “conjugal families” on the other. Stripped of ties of authority to a wader kin circle, able to move more easily with shifts in economic opportunity, the conjugal family fit the new industrial order. Sooner in some cultures, later in others, Goode correctly claims, it came to prevail.
But for how’ long? The three books just mentioned show7 that the conjugal family has grown fragile. Ail of them lack the reassuring tone of Mary jo Bane’s 1976 Here to Stay, though they avoid the shrill alarm of Christopher Lasch’s 1977 Haven in a Heartless World, two books that mark the boundaries of the 1970s response to unsettling news on the domestic front. Updating Goode, all three books claim that we’ve entered a third stage o;i family history, but they differ on what this stage means for both human happiness and political action.
months at minimum pay, and an optional six months at no pay, Sweden has waged a massive campaign to convince fathers to use the leave (a quarter of fathers now use it) and subsidized research on the fathers who don’t. It of fers free parent education courses, and if asked to do so, employers must offer to subtract up to two hours from the workday for parents of children under eight. Sick-child leave is available at nearly full salary to parents of children up to the age of twelve, and a portion of the leave may be used to help children with adjustment problems at school. The Swedes passed a law condemning physical punishment and humiliating treatment of children and established the hrst ombudsman for children. The Swedish state sup ports many social workers, psychologists, physicians, and educators who help families with children.
Popenoe thinks this pro-family state actually has weakened the Swedish family. It has done so inadvertently, he thinks, by usurping functions traditionally located within the family, and inspiring the idea among parents that “the state offers a service. My taxes pay for it. I might as well use it instead of doing the job myself.”
But is this true? If “too much” welfare weakens the family, we might expect a stingier government to promote a stronger family. This is not what we find. Like Stacey, Popenoe doesn’t pay close attention to his own evidence. The United States is the only major industrial nation that still lacks guaranteed unpaid parental leave, and when Popenoe wrote his book— before Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act—the United States lacked a sick-child leave policy, indeed lacked any family policy at all. So the American family might be thought to prosper more, according to Popenoe’s theory, than the Swedish family. But no: the United States, not Sweden, holds the world record for marital breakup (in 1982 it was 5.03 divorces per 1,000 persons versus 2.49 in Sweden). The U. S. rate of teen pregnancy is also higher (the pregnancy rate for fifteen – to nineteen-year – olds is 96 per 1,000 in the United States and only 35 per 1,000 in Sweden). Half of American divorced fathers lose regular contact with their eleven – to sixteen-year-old children whereas less than a third in Sweden do. In all these ways we are in far deeper trouble than the Swedes.
Yet Popenoe is making the confusing case for family decline in Sweden, as the model we are “about” to adopt, though American families, further back on his evolutionary scale, are actually worse off. The problem is that Popenoe throws together rates of divorce, abandonment by fathers, and teen pregnancy (which to most people indicate trouble), with trends toward later age at marriage, smaller families, and more cohabitation (which indicate change but not necessarily trouble), and he labels all of these indicators of “decline.”
All these trends count as decline for him, I think, because he has only one particular type of family in mind—a heterosexual married couple, with the father working and the mother staying home with their two kids. Two – job families don’t count as good or strong families because, he presumes, women’s economic independence prevents them from “pursuing joint goals/’ Like Stacey, Popenoe blames Feminism for the decline of the family. As he lightly observes, feminism is widely accepted in Sweden, at least by women. But Popenoe makes the additional claim that the resulting higher expectations women have of men have weakened the family. Among residents of Stockholm seeking marriage counseling in 1980, he notes, “conflicts related to sex roles” ranked second as a problem in marriage. Another study of Swedish divorce found that one of the two most common reasons alter poor sex life was “problems related to work inside and outside die home." So the more women want men to share childrearing and house care, Popenoe reasons, the bigger the strain, and the weaker die family.
But is the problem that working mothers want more help at home, or is the problem that they aren’t getting it? If Popenoe had done a truly comparative study he would have compared Sweden and the United States with other industrial societies that have many women doing paid work but do not have feminism. A good example is Russia (where I lived for six months in 1992). Neither in the state nor in the popular mind has feminism established itself; eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the word. Adding paid work to home work, Soviet women average seventy hours a week and Soviet men forty-two. With the exception of an outspoken and discredited few, no one publicly defines this gap as a problem. Echoing what Francine du Plessix Gray reports in her book Sennet Women, the refrain I hear from Russian women is “We do it because we’re stronger." If, as Popenoe believes, women’s high expectations are a main cause of family decline, Soviet families should be islands of everlasting peace. I11 fact, though we lack good sta – i istics, Russian marriages seem to be almost as fragile as ours and more fragile than those in Sweden.
The clue to family tension is not to be found, I believe, in prosperity, government aid, or feminism in any ot these countries, nor is it to be linked to the sheer fact that many mothers work for pay outside the home. If working women were the cause of family tension, we would have to explain why, despite large structural obstacles, many two-job parents in all three countries have happy, stable marriages. For a large part of the answer, I think we have to look at something Stacey and Popenoe ignore: the culture and the social world of men. In some sense, we have recently raised our cultural expectations of fathers while the growing instability of economic and marital life have made those ideals harder to live up to.