The Family As It Really Is

Stephanie Coontz

STEPHANIE COONTZ IS the author of two recent books on the American family, The Way We Never Were (Basic Books, 1992) and The Way We Really Are (Basic Books, 1997). She was interviewed by Susan Weissman for the KPFK (Los Angeles) radio program “Beneath the Surface.”

SW: There seems to be a media frenzy about how families have changed in literally a single generation, sometimes harkening back to a golden era, which you say never really existed. Can you give us a portrait of then to now.

SC: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the changes that have been happening with families, and on the other hand there’s been a lot of denial. The debate is distorted in two seemingly opposite but related ways. In the first place people overestimate how much has changed: They look at today’s problems and pose them against a background of some golden age, when elders were taken care of by their families, women and children were always protected and everything was just hunkey-dory inside families.

So on the one hand you have this exaggeration of how things have changed and how much has gone wrong. On the other hand, usually among the same people, there’s a total denial of the truly novel and largely irreversible changes, such as women’s entry into the work force, the growing diversity of family life, and the fact that marriage is no longer the only way through which gender roles get organized and caretaking of young and old takes place.

The result of this clash between denial and exaggeration is to divert attention from the constructive things we can do to build on the gains we’ve made in the expansion of personal options and minimize the losses associated with the decline in family stability, especially in the access of children to both parents.

SW: Would you say that the whole hype about the `50s and `60s is about denial?

SC: Only partly. I understand why many people are nostalgic for the 1950s. This is sometimes hard to understand for people who got the downside of the `50s—for African Americans, for women stuck in really toxic marriages, for victims of incest or abuse—when society was in total denial about their problems and needs, and for them there was no place to go.

But many working-class families might think, yes, the 1950s were a better time, or at least an easier time, to form and sustain families. This has less to do with the family arrangements and gender roles, which were often very repressive, than with the fact that there were a lot more economic and political support systems for families.

Forty percent of young men coming home from World War II were able to get very generous veterans’ benefits, not like the recent ones for Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. Government paid up to $500 a year for tuition, and in those days that would pay the entire tuition even at an elite private college. In addition, college retooled to accommodate this new generation of students—creating new orientation classes, new ways of teaching, new support systems, in a real affirmative action program.

This and other programs such as home ownership subsidies—a dollar down for veterans—took an entire generation of young men—many who had never even aspired to go to college—and bumped them into the middle class by paying for their entire college education and by helping them to purchase homes.

It was also economically an easier period if you were employed: Rates of unionization were higher, real wages were rising. Poverty was actually higher than it is today, but it was falling rather than increasing. Real wages of the bottom twenty percent of the population, unlike the trend since the early 1980s, were increasing faster than real wages for more affluent Americans, and social inequality was decreasing.

There was a greater sense of hope for the future and a greater sense of social trust, even among many African Americans who could look at the progress of the civil rights movement. So I understand why people look back to the period with some nostalgia. But the successes of the period lay in the support systems for families, not in the families themselves.

People forget the downside as well: Fewer kids graduated from high school in the `50s than today, and there was no place for disabled kids, who were often stuck in institutions that were absolutely horrible. There was daily violence, including brutal beatings and even killings, of African Americans who tried to use public space in the cities.

Still, people had some hope, and after the hardships of the Depression and the war the showrooms and grocery stores and TV ads suggested that a decent, comfortable, even leisured life was within their reach. Even people who wouldn’t want to put up with the conformity and the gender roles and the political repression of the era can therefore look back and think that life seems to have been easier then.

But what gets forgotten, when the politicians and conservative pundits encourage people to take this as a model of how to live today, is that there is something hypocritical in telling us to live like 1950s families in a 1990s economy—when government support systems for families are about the level of that in the 1850s.

SW: People were very excited when Clinton became president and got the Family Medical Leave Act passed.

SC: Of course it’s an improvement, but look at the Act and how long it took to get through Congress, and the fact that what we ended up with—twelve weeks maximum leave, lower than the minimum provided by all of our European counterparts—and it covers only fifty percent of U.S. workers. It’s also unpaid, which means that the people who probably most need time off to spend with their kids instead of sending them to daycare centers or home care situations that may well be inadequate, are precisely the people who can’t afford it.

We need much stronger and more extensive programs to deal with the new demands of caregiving in our speeded-up, winner take all, devil-take-the-hindmost economy. Employers can no longer expect that they get one employee to work for them fulltime, while that employee has someone at home to take care of the household fulltime. Three-quarters of American mothers are in the workforce.

But it’s not just being responsible for kids. There’s also more responsibility now for aging parents. One out of every four households in America is providing substantial time to an aging parent—triple the number of what it was just a decade ago.

We have to adjust our work policies and our social investment to deal with these kind of changes. And the fact that it took twenty years to get this totally inadequate act just shows us how much the family values rhetoric is precisely that—rhetoric.

SW: How many people are able to take advantage of this twelve-week unpaid leave?

SC: It tends to be people in the very upper echelons of the work force. I was just at a Family Life conference in New York sponsored by the magazine Working Women. There was some wonderful discussion of very innovative things companies are doing for their professional and managerial employees. Unfortunately most of them do not apply to the two-thirds of American workers who make less than $30,000 a year.

So the result is that women who are trying to cobble together some individual solution often end up quitting work. Women still earn less than men, so it makes more sense for the family for the woman to leave the work force and assume the responsibility. That leads to a woman’s further disadvantaging herself because if a person stays out of the workforce six months or longer, she never catches up.

And it doesn’t end there. Often, the woman quits again if there is a problem during the teenage years or when a parent or parent-in-law needs caretaking, with the result that only nine percent of the women aged 40 or older who are now in the workforce can expect to get retirement benefits on their job.

SW: How do single women cope? What proportion of the workforce are we talking about?

SC: The divorce rate peaked in the `70s and has actually gone down some, but there’s a cumulative effect. Fifty percent of all American children are not being raised in a home where the two biological parents are present. We are talking about a lot of people who are affected by our refusal to recognize that the nuclear family can no longer—to the extent that it ever did at all—be expected to provide caregiving on the basis of lifetime marriage and blood ties.

Conservatives often blame the transformation of family life and needs on divorce, arguing that if we’d just take marriage more seriously, people would stay together, women and kids would be supported. But this is not true.

While I think it is true that divorce has hurt some women—particularly those who played by the old rules, and then find that the men have thrown out the old rules and have established no new rules, and who then get left—the fact is that divorce is a very important option for women. That’s why sixty percent of divorces are initiated by women.

Traditionally, if a man was dissatisfied with the marriage he could have an affair and say to the wife, “You have to take it or leave it because you are economically dependent on me.” Now women don’t have to take it, and many of them are not. Nor do they have to take a situation where they are doing their fair share of the income earning and men won’t do their fair share of the housework and childcare.

Why do more marriages end in divorce? Part of it is because of increasing freedom and options, and part is because of women’s entry into the work force. Women are economically independent now, they don’t have to get married, they don’t have to stay married.

The result is that if you do want to save more marriages, you’ve got to reorganize and modernize marriage. You’ve got to make it a better deal for women.

SW: What could be done to modernize marriage?

SC: We know that one of the major causes of stress in marriage is the failure of men to do their full share at home. Women have changed their work roles very quickly, and men have not.

I want to say, in justice to men, that individuals are doing a better job than institutions in adapting to these changes. Although men don’t do as much child care and housework as women do, the gap has been halved since the 1960s. Forty-nine percent of couples say they do share equally as opposed to only twenty-eight percent twenty years ago.

So there are more marriages that are a truly equal proposition than ever before. That’s probably why the divorce rate is down some from its peak in the late 1970s. And it could fall a little lower if people continue to negotiate more equal relationships. But conservatives and liberals are kidding themselves if they think that either repression or better communication will substantially reduce the divorce rate.

The U.S. divorce rate has been rising steadily since 1899. This is no sudden thing caused by the 1960s student rebellion or the women’s movement. If you graph the rise of divorce over the first fifty years of the century it’s right where you’d expect it to be.

Divorce has to be seen as an issue that has complicated tradeoffs. There are clearly cases where it’s used as a substitute for working at a commitment, and where one or both parents just walks away from their obligations to kids. But there are at least as many cases where it’s a vital resource for people trapped in toxic relationships, and that’s sometimes better for kids than the parents staying together.

Another trend that’s kind of a good news/bad news gain is that the parent penalty and the stresses of combining work and family are no longer just confined to women. More and more men are wanting to spend more time with their families. The bad news, of course, is that neither of us gets to do that; the good news is that we are developing a larger constituency to demand reforms from politicians and from work.

SW: When you say we’re doing better individually than institutionally, what kind of institutional support do you mean?

SC: I’m talking about parental leave, flex time, health insurance, laws that enable parents or caretakers to be able to drop down to three-quarter time work without losing benefits or seniority.

As a country we also have to think about our definitions of productivity and job sharing. We have to rediscover things like Kellogg’s six-hour day, which actually improved productivity. We have to invest in decent, high-quality child care that’s available to everyone. That’s all at the institutional level and I think that will save more marriages.

But the other side of it is to realize that there’s a bottom limit to the number of people who can be forced to get married and how many marriages can be forced to stay together. And there should be a bottom limit because sometimes it’s important to the individuals—and to the children—to get out of those marriages.

There is no way we can coerce people into staying together. So at the same time as we modernize marriage —and this shocks the family values people—we have to normalize divorce.

We have to make divorce less traumatic, less acrimonious, we have to make sure that people understand that just because you’ve ended a relationship with another adult, your obligations to the kids don’t end. It’s not a deal where you can just walk away when you’ve lost the sexual services of the spouse.

This is the problem with the family values approach to these issues, of course, They seek a simplistic, one-size-fits-all answer to the dilemmas facing families. The truth is, though, that there are a lot areas where we have to work simultaneously, or on different levels, or even in seemingly contradictory ways, such as extending greater options for parents of new kids to stay home and also expanding the amount and quality of the care available to infants.

SW: In the whole debate over welfare reform we see the state wanting to give up its role in taking care of those who have been left aside, whether by companies or families, and going after “deadbeat dads” and stigmatizing those who are on welfare, and especially teenage mothers.

SC: I can understand people’s anxiety about the welfare system. In fact it has developed in the most convoluted way to help people out. It forces them into behaviors that are indeed counterproductive—for instance, you’re forced to lie, you’re forced not to save money. If you are somehow able to “work under the table” and save some money, immediately your welfare grant is cut.

So of course people lie, of course they cheat, and of course they develop habits that are in the long run not very helpful to holding down a steady job and planning effectively for the future. They’re not allowed to develop those habits by the same institutions and the same people who berate them for not having such habits.

What conservatives who like to talk about the work ethic conveniently forget is that our welfare system developed as a substitute for a commitment to providing full employment.

The UAW promoted a full employment act back in the 1940s and there was a lot of grassroots support for it, but the politicians and corporations decided it was a lot cheaper to write checks than create jobs.

I’m absolutely for the idea that it’s better for people to have jobs. I don’t think one can say “someone on welfare can stay home for three years with their kids” when most working-class and middle-class women can’t afford to do that.

But if you’re going to ask people to have jobs before they can live, then you’d better make sure there are jobs. And if you’re going to ask mothers—particularly single mothers without much education, and many of whom end up on welfare because of domestic violence—to get jobs, you better make sure there are support systems and high-quality child care in place. And that’s the problem with welfare “reform”—there aren’t those systems in place.

SW: What can be done to change from a punitive attitude to being supportive?

SC: I have a Chinese friend who once commented to me that she felt the most important thing to do was to have preventive policies—to prevent people from getting too close to a cliff they might fall off, but that in America it seemed nothing was done to build fences along paths on top of cliffs. Instead, she argued, Americans only throw support lines to people once they’ve actually fallen off and it is too late. Plus they penalize the people who walked too near the edge. I think that’s a very good analogy to the welfare system.

The result is that our society is penny wise and pound foolish. We spend $20,000 a year—or more—to keep a kid in jail, when we won’t invest in after-school programs and job creation for adolescents that might have done away with the need to put them in jail.

Part of the problem that leads to our punitive mentality is the narrow definition of morality that we have in America. Americans tend not to understand the complex relationship between situations, contexts, behaviors and values.

I just read a fascinating study of the homeless. Ethnographers traced the way people who become homeless change. Almost all of them, when they become homeless, don’t want to be homeless. They think of themselves as workers, as better than the other homeless.

They go through a period of ignoring the other homeless. They try to keep their shirts ironed and show up for work. Finally, though, they began to slip out of their old habits, often simply in order to survive. They become what the researchers call “scrabblers.” They try to hang on to older customs or ways of behaving but they have to cut some corners. And they have to make alliances with the people or con games they once despised in order to survive.

And sure enough, after a couple of years they begin to develop behaviors that we would consider, if you have a job, as not very constructive. But that’s not what made them homeless in the first place; it’s a response to the realities of having to adapt to an extremely disorganized kind of life.

Americans tend to forget something we all know about our own kids: people develop habits when they are reinforced for doing so, and they lose them when they get no reinforcement. So we’ll look at a group or an individual and won’t consider the experiences and conditions that underlie their values and behaviors. Many people won’t contextualize these behaviors and will say they are these because of everything—if the homeless or jobless or welfare recipients would just pull up their socks and stick out their chin and put their nose to the grindstone (quite an acrobatic thing)—they could pull themselves out of their situation.

SW: Would you talk about teenage mothers—and teenagers in general—who have a lot of pressures today?

SC: One of the things I feel passionately about is not just the way we have impoverished teenagers, but the way we are beginning to demonize all teenagers in this country.

People magazine about a month ago had a cover story called “Kids without a Conscience.” They lumped together a young Black man who killed his teacher in New York; a Belleville middle-class thrill crime; and the middle-class girl in New Jersey who dumped her baby at the prom.

Well, you can always create an epidemic if you do that sort of thing. In fact, child killing by young mothers is lower than it’s ever been in American history.

Look at the crime rates of young people. They go up in direct relationship to how many kids were living in poverty a decade before.

At the same time, there is an increasing alienation of all teenagers because as we demonize them, we’ve also been excluding them from public life. We talk about the gentrification of public space, there’s also been an adultification of public space and social roles.

Teenagers’ sexual maturity has never occurred earlier, their economic maturity has probably never been later. In between we tell parents to keep them in this holding pen where they have no constructive role to play and then we wonder why they’re resentful and why there are all these problems between teens and their parents.

SW: And there’s another Catch 22 to it: We blame working mothers for not being at home looking after them.

SC: Absolutely, when in fact historically this is not the issue. We have time studies that show parents spend as much time with their teens as they ever did. What teens have lost—and this is one of the few places I will get nostalgic for the past—is access to adults beyond their parents. This is a particular problem for boys, but it’s hard on all kids.

At this stage parents are not the best people to teach and socialize with kids. Teenagers need to be working alongside other adults, who don’t have a parental emotional tie with them. Teenagers have lost access to people like that, and they’re hungry for it.

When you add all those problems and dilemmas plus the increasing sexualization of our society, which has proceeded without wiping out the old double standard, just making the double standard harder to negotiate for young girls; put that together with blighted communities and a poor educational system, and you’ve got a recipe for what we do have: the highest teenage abortion and birth rate in the industrial world.

Of course this is concentrated among young teens, impoverished teens, those with poor educational prospects and those who also face abuse at home—an astonishing proportion of these teenage girls have experienced some form of abuse.

So there’s a situation where liberals and conservatives battle over whether we should pass out condoms or preach abstinence, but the best deterrent to teenage childbearing is to have access to good educational and job prospects. People don’t plan well for the future when they don’t think they have one.

Instead states are implementing punitive stuff, saying “You can’t have any more money if you have another child out of wedlock” or you have to get married—which is really bad advice, because young teenage marriages are much more apt to have high conflict in them.

A recent study showed that the reading scores for children whose mother had a baby out of wedlock and then married the father are lower than the reading scores of children whose teenage mothers didn’t marry the father. When people are pressured into marriage, they are more likely to set up a high conflict home situation.

SW: What kinds of policy changes could really help?

SC: We’ve talked about some of them: The need to fight for paid parental leave and, simultaneously, high quality child care, to get programs at work that allow for flex time. We need national health insurance, that shouldn’t be dependent on whether you have a job, or if you are married to someone who has a job.

I’m always stunned by the debate over gay marriages in this particular way: Why should who I sleep with determine whether I get health insurance?

We also have to fight for equal pay for equal work, because despite a lot of propaganda to the contrary, women are still paid less. It’s not just a “glass ceiling question.” For most women it’s a question of getting off the ground floor. Unequal pay is a problem for women at all income and education levels, especially if they are parents, but it’s the biggest problem for those who are concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale.

We also have to get out the research that shows almost any family can be made to work, but you have to adjust the way you work to the actual situation of the family. A step family works differently than a first-marriage family. A single-parent family has certain strengths they can build on, and certain vulnerabilities they have to avoid.

I’d like to put in a plug for the Council on Contemporary Families, a new group that is trying to get this kind of research out. The impetus for the organization came from the growing belief of many scholars that several influential family think tanks have politicized and oversimplified the national discussion about families. For example, the recent introduction of “covenant marriage” in Louisiana was based on incomplete and flawed understanding of the research on divorce. (CCF has a web site at:

ATC 73, March-April 1998