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 are full, we meet, in Judith Stacey's recent book, Brave New Families, a woman named Pam Gama. We meet her first as the young bride of a striving 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 post-feminist, reborn Christian at the alter of the Global Ministry's Church where she exchanges vows, again, of lasting love.

Three important recent books, two by sociologists and one by historians, present contrasting responses to an odyssey like Pam's. They all say if s a modern story. They all think it's a sad story. After that, they differ on the central questions: Should we be nostalgic for more stable times? Is the family in permanent decline? Does the greater freedom and power of women inherently weaken it? Can we honor a diversity of types of family and also push for stronger family bonds? If we can, how do we do it?

In his 1963 classic, World Revolution and Family Patterns, William Goode describes a worldwide trend toward urban industrial life on the one hand and independent "conjugal families" on the other. Stripped of ties of authority to a wider 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? These three new books show that the conjugal family has grown fragile. All of them lack the reassuring tone of Mary Jo Bane's 1976 Here To Stay, but avoid the shrill alarm of Christopher Lasch's 1977 Haven in a Heartless World, two books which 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 of family history, but they differ on what this stage means for both human happiness and political action.

Stacey argues that the "modern family" (a term she uses to refer more narrowly to a stable marriage between a breadwinner and a homemaker) is giving way to a collection of diverse, often fragile domestic arrangements that comprise the "postmodern family" -- single mothers, blended families, cohabiting couples, lesbian and gay partners, communes, and two-job families. She describes the "modern" family as patriarchal, culturally predominant, and stable, and she describes the "postmodern" one as largely non-patriarchal, diverse, and unstable. She treats these two sets of characteristics as fixed packages. The postmodern family, Stacey says, fits with the postmodern economy and with "postfeminism," the three "posts." Loosely illustrating this thesis are twenty-eight lively oral histories of the mostly white and working-class kin and friends of two women living in Santa Clara County in the 1980s, Dotty Lewison and Pam Gama.


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The history of Dotty Lewison's family is as grim a catalogue as Emile Zola's Germinal of everything that can go wrong with human interaction. Lou Lewison beats his wife, Dotty. When Dotty isn't protecting the children from Lou, she's beating them herself or taking off. One daughter has a child she neglects who is sexually abused. A son drinks and fights and dies driving his car 120 miles an hour after a quarrel with his wife. Another son is arrested with 100 hypodermic needles and PCP. Another daughter attempts suicide when her husband impregnates a new lover. And so it goes.

Dotty and Pam each marry young. Each woman separates from her husband. One divorces and one reunites and each has one child who marries happily and many others who pretty much don't. In each generation, mid-life women try to heal the hurts of ex-spouses, children, and the original kin and friends, and to add a new spouse, step-siblings, friends, and kin -- a difficult, miraculous work too blandly called "blending the family.

These portraits of two topsy-turvy working class families in Santa Clara County in the 1980s are "deeply revealing," Stacey says, of what we can expect when the irreversible "three posts" are "here to stay" in every other class and place. She mentions some long- and short-term trends propelling us toward a model of family like that of Dotty and Pam. The long-term trend, the one William Goode tracked, is the loss of wider kin control over couples. Stacey describes this, rightly I think, as the "vulnerable linchpin of the modern family," the premise of "enduring voluntary commitment between two young adults acting largely independent of the needs, interests, or wishes of their kin."

Shorter-term economic trends also weaken the family: the loss of union protected jobs that allowed a man to support his wife and children, and the growth of low-wage service jobs that wives and husbands now take to make up for the lost pay. Another is decades of government neglect obscured by Reagan's and Bush's pro-family rhetoric. Stacey also claims that feminism "provided ideological support for divorce and for the soaring rates of female headed households." This is the only feminist position on the family she mentions, and at one point she describes feminism as "being in remission," as if it were a form of cancer.

These economic and ideological forces, Stacey says, came first to Afro-American and white, working-class families whose women are the postmodern "pioneers." Many women are good at pulling broken families together, as Pam Gama eventually did, according to Stacey. This is mainly women's work, because the postmodern family is a woman's place, from which men watchfully come and go.

In a final bugle call, for me unexpected and inexplicable, Stacey writes "The family is not here to stay. Nor should we wish it were. On the contrary, I believe that all democratic people, whatever their kinship preferences, should work to hasten its demise...the 'family' distorts and devalues a rich variety of kinship stories...there is bad faith in the popular lament over the demise of the family."

Ironically, Stacey embraces the postmodern family in the name of democracy, while her informants, whose stories are so sensitively told, vote against it. At one point Pam Gama says, "A rock bottom commitment is so important. Otherwise you don't know what's going to happen if you're not as beautiful as you used to be or you lose a job or you get sick..." Pam Gama and Dotty Lewison know that postmodernism can hurt, a message Stacey has conveyed through her informants' stories but has failed to internalize.

This may be because Stacey confuses respect for the rich variety of kin stories she has collected with an obligation to deny the pain in many of them. She rightly admires the heroism of many working-class women like Pam Gama who can blend a post-divorce family, make friends with her ex-husband and his girlfriend, or pull off a good Thanksgiving again. But we can't generalize from Pam. Colleen Leahy's research on middle-class divorced couples and their parents, for example, shows that two-thirds do not maintain ties with ex-spouses and their relatives.

Underlying Stace/s welcome of the postmodern family is an implicit choice: Either we're worried about the family, want to reinstall patriarchy, and devalue gay or non-married partnerships, or we value democracy and diversity without really worrying about the family. Pam Gama, reborn Christian, picks one side, and Judith Stacey, postmodern feminist, picks the other. I put down the book wondering: where's the third choice?

The Perils Of Postmodern Childhood
David Popenoe would draw very different conclusions from Stacey's evidence. Indeed, Stacey's evidence lends far more support to Popenoe's argument than it does to her own, and much of his evidence goes better with her conclusions. Relying on national statistics from a half-dozen countries, and carefully detailing secondary sources on attitudes and family patterns, Popenoe posits a "global family trend" from an "extended" family at one pole to a nuclear family (as Goode did), and extends it to a "postnuclear family" (as Stacey does). He details the cases of two countries that are "behind" the United States in his evolutionary scheme, Switzerland and New Zealand, and one that he thinks is ahead, Sweden. (Although he says this is a historical, comparative study, Popenoe starts with an evolutionary schema and picks illustrations for it, which is another project entirely.)

Popenoe argues that in all modern societies families are in "decline" in five senses: a) families are less directed toward collective goals; b) they carry out fewer traditional functions, such as procreation, control of sexuality, and socialization of the young; c) they have lost power to other institutions such as the state and school; d) they are smaller and less stable; and e) the commitment to the family is weaker.

Once the family becomes weaker in these ways, he reasons, new, looser norms emerge that weaken it further. The more it has become normal to have sex before marriage, for example, the less sense it makes to marry after children are born. Since the rate of break-up is greater among cohabiting than married couples, mothers in such relationships are less likely to stay with fathers, and children are less likely to grow up in intact homes. Once established, divorce increases, since people who divorce are more likely to divorce again, creating more divorced people, many with children. Popenoe's foremost concern, he says, is the well-being of children, and in the postmodern family, he believes, children's welfare declines.

Examining Sweden today as a preview of the American future, he sees a high rate of family dissolution, a high and rising rate of single-parent families, and serial monogamy as a norm. The rates of divorce and single parenthood are not actually more extreme in Sweden than in the United States, although he doesn't make this clear. Swedes do, however, marry less, marry later, and cohabit more. But their birth rate is the second-highest birth rate in Western Europe, after Ireland, and higher than ours.

Popenoe fears that the trends he thinks he sees in Sweden weaken the family. Take serial monogamy. Some have argued, Popenoe acknowledges, that it is a measure of family strength, not weakness. "Look how much people still value the family; when one unit breaks up they quickly form another," he quotes. Then Popenoe rightly counters without cracking a smile, "This is like arguing that high residential mobility is an indicator of community cohesion; since people are moving to other communities they apparently continue to favor community life. In fact, community cohesion is highest in those communities where people have lived the longest."

Popenoe then asks what the effect of family decline is on children. He notes that Swedish children have fewer siblings, fewer joint activities with their families, a diminished amount of time with parents, fewer family-centered routines at bedtime, mealtime, birthdays, and holidays, less regular contact with relatives (except for grandparents who live longer than their counterparts in the past), less contact with neighbors (as neighborhoods are emptied of adults in the days), and more fear and anxiety that their parents may break up than their counterparts three generations ago.

More and more, children live in their own separate world, which lacks connections to the past, and for whom afternoons of video games and television provide a debased substitute. Parents may be healthier, better educated, richer, even more psychologically sophisticated than 100 years ago, he notes, but children are worse off.

To shore up his contention, Popenoe examines evidence on the effects of divorce on children's relations with their fathers. A1979 study of Swedish divorced couples found that 28 percent of children living with divorced mothers had no contact with their fathers. But in the U.S., which is farther back on Popenoe's evolutionary scale, proportionately more divorced fathers lose interest in their children. Half the American children aged eleven to sixteen living with their mothers had not seen their fathers during the entire previous year.


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In Second Chances, Judith Wallerstein's fifteen-year, longitudinal study of sixty middle-class California divorced families, the author finds support for Popenoe's claim that an era of unstable marriage can hurt children. On one hand, half the men and two-thirds of the women in her study felt more content with the quality of their lives after divorce. At the same time, only one in ten children felt the same way. Within ten years, half the children had gone through a parent's second divorce and half grew up in continuously angry families. Only one in eight saw both parents remarry happily. Typically, one parent successfully remarried and the other either divorced again or never remarried. Incredibly, half of the women and a third of the men were still intensely angry at their ex-spouses ten years after the divorce.

Although the children Wallerstein studied graduated from high schools where 85 percent of the student population went on to college, only half of the children who were Wallerstein's subjects in Second Chances did so. Indeed, Wallerstein concluded that 60 percent are on a "downward educational course compared with their fathers." Over a third of the children in the study who were in their twenties seemed to be drifting aimlessly through life. Three out of four children felt rejected by their father. Yet Wallerstein found that, poignantly, fathers often maintain "phantom relations" with the children they don't see or support, keeping photographs and saying "he can call whenever he wants." Wallerstein does not compare children of divorce with a matched sample of children from intact marriages, so we don't know how many children from intact families share these characteristics. But if children from intact homes feel a similar degree of rejection and aimlessness, we have even more cause for concern for the family's future.

In the end, Popenoe concludes that we should strengthen the family. To do so, he argues, we need to reverse the trends that have weakened it. But here we run into surprises. Popenoe does not believe that the family has been weakened by poverty or insecurity, as Stacey and others suggest. The richer Sweden has become, he points out, the weaker the family. In the United States, too, it was during the more prosperous decades of the 1960s and 1970s that the divorce rate rose, and in the least prosperous, the 1930s, that it fell.

Popenoe also believes that more government help will weaken rather than strengthen the family. Sweden, a favorite liberal model of enlightenment, is the world leader in public child welfare, but, he also argues, the world leader in family decline. For the couple planning a family, the state guarantees a pregnancy leave at 90 percent salary for a maximum of fifty days, and fathers are guaranteed a two-week leave at almost full salary. The state offers a nine-month parental leave at nearly full pay, another three 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 the fathers use it) and subsidized research on the fathers who don't. It offers free parent education courses and if asked to do so employers must offer to subtract up to two hours from the workday to 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 first ombudsman for children. The Swedish state supports many social workers, psychologists, physicians, and educators who help families with children.

But Popenoe thinks this pro-family state actually has weakened the Swedish family. It has done so inadvertently, he concedes, 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."


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If "too much" welfare weakens the family, we might expect a stingier government to promote a stronger family. That is not what we find. Like Stacey, Popenoe doesn't pay close attention to his own evidence. The American family, in the only major industrial nation that lacks even unpaid guaranteed parental leave, lacks sick-child leave policy, indeed lacks any family policy at all, might be thought to prosper more, according to Popenoe's theory, than the Swedish family. But no: The United States 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. also has a higher rate of teen pregnancy (the pregnancy rate for fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds is 96 per 1,000 in the U.S. and only 35 per 1,000 in Sweden). As I've mentioned, about half of American divorced fathers lose regular contact with their children, while less than a third in Sweden do. In all these ways we are in deeper trouble than are the Swedes.

Yet Popenoe is making the confusing case for family decline in Sweden, as the model we are "about" to adopt. 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 count as decline for him, I think, because he has only one particular type of family in mind, the familiar sort with at least two children and a mother home to care for them. Two-job families don't count as good or strong families because, he presumes, women's economic independence prevents them from "pursuing joint goals." Popenoe, like Stacey, blames feminism for the decline of the family. As he rightly 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 after poor sex life was "problems related to work inside and outside the home." So the more women want men to share childbearing and house care, Popenoe reasons, the bigger the strain, and the weaker the family.

But is the problem that working mothers want more help at home or that they aren't getting it? If Popenoe had done a truly comparative study, he would have compared Sweden and the United States to other industrial societies that have many women doing paid work but do not have feminism. A good example is the Soviet Union (where I am spending six months). Neither in the state nor 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 Plexis Gray reports in her book, Soviet 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. In fact, their marriages are as fragile as ours.

The clue to family tension is not to be found, I believe, in prosperity, government aid, or feminism in any of 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.


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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 their 1983 study of 1,360 husbands and wives, the sociologists Joan Huber and Glenna Spitze asked, "Has the thought of getting a divorce from your husband (or wife) ever crossed your mind?" They found that earnings and attitudes toward sex roles had no effect. So personal prosperity and feminism didn't seem to be the problem. But the more housework a husband did, the less likely the wife was to think of divorce. As researchers found, "For each of the five daily household tasks which the husband performs at least half the time, the wife is about three percent less likely to have thoughts of divorce."

In another study of 600 couples seeking divorce, George Klaus Levinger found that the second most common reason women cited for wanting a divorce, after mental cruelty, was "neglect of home or children." This came before physical abuse, financial problems, drinking, and infidelity. In my own research on fifty two-job couples, described in my book The Second Shift, I found the happiest marriages to be those in which husbands shared the work at home, believed in doing so, and valued it. It is not so easy to alter men's actions, attached as these are to a shared understanding of work, time, and self in the "real world." Among working couples, this conflict seems to be a major problem.

Popenoe's notion of decline 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 white, middle-class people had. In defining his topic, he sidesteps the issue of ethnic diversity, evoking a nostalgia for an undisturbed nest many Afro-Americans and Chicanos never had.


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The missing story of ethnic diversity in all its richness is to be found in Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg's Domestic Revolutions. A descriptive rather than "thesis" book, it offers the most thorough, carefully documented, vividly written social history of the three hundred years of American family life that I have read. 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 Afro-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 torn 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 earlier crises, 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." They see history as a series of new circumstances -- colonization, the commercial and industrial revolutions, enslavement, immigration, depression, and war -- and families' adaptations to them.

Now we have another new circumstance, the entrance of most women into the labor force. To make the family work, the workplace and the family need to adapt. What can we do? To start with, we can work out a way of thinking about the family that both honors our diversity and also claims to strengthen the 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 focusing our attention on the futile question of whether 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 has indeed marginalized family life and turned it into a "second shift." To adapt the family to this new revolution, to put children in the center again, we could do a number of things.

First, 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, and the National Women's Political Caucus, 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-torn 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. As I prefer to see it, this would not be a revolt against alternatives to lasting marriage, but a revolt against the larger conditions that have made divorce the happy alternative for so many.

Second, we could enact family-friendly reforms. Indeed, I believe the Swedish programs of paternal leave, sick-child leave, and other supports for working parents should remain our model and our 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 family leave. The family has not been a shelter from lay-offs and wage cuts but their victim.

Third, we need to enlarge our image of what a family is, and extend honor to 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 finally get clear that working to increase the chances for commitment between adults and loving respect for children does not mean being anti-gay anymore than being gay means you have to "oppose the family."

Finally, I think we need to reduce the isolation of the elderly, and not simply for their sake. 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 welfare among 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 post-industrial 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. Now that the war with Iraq is over, perhaps we can begin to turn guns to butter, and to craft the first American broad-scale governmental program for families as well. We can begin to pursue an agenda for diversity and stability, to modernize the nest.

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