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The Divorce Culture.

The irony of reading Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's The Divorce Culture as a young, unwed woman is not lost on me: The book is a warning label on a medicine bottle, a neon "Mr. Yuck" sucker for those of us who cannot yet read the cultural signs, and I'm the captive and as-of-yet untarnished audience Whitehead must only dream of. But for married women, or women who are divorced, reading the book must be less like a warning slap on the wrist and more like a slug m the nose.

The Divorce Culture starts out reasonably enough, lulling the reader into complacency, if not acquiescence, with its drone of no-nonsense studies, statistics, and aptly-stated admonitions. Whitehead's basic argument is both unsurprising and, in light of the increasing frequency of divorce, distressing. As she describes it,

[T]he evidence suggests overall

that the structural organization of

the family around a married couple

and their biological or adopted

children is more successful at

forging strong parent-child bonds

and promoting high levels of

affectionate child nurture than the

fast-growing alternatives single-parent,

cohabiting-parent, or stepparent families.

The reason for this, according to Whitehead, is that families with two parents enjoy an economic advantage, and can pull from the resources and wisdom of two adults rather than one. (The assumption being, one supposes, that a boyfriend or girlfriend, live-in partner, or step-parent would only grudgingly provide support and advice.) Married parents, she contends, are also better able to nurture children, establish parent-child bonds, and "recruit other sources of social and emotional capital" By this I think she means that they can draw upon resources like friends and neighbors in the community, although in Whitehead's antiseptic social historian-speak, that sounds almost commercial.

Still The Divorce Culture does offer a few nuggets. Whitehead lays out an interesting account of the evolution of divorce from cultural taboo to an ethos of creative individualism. And she makes an apt observation that, as American society increasingly models family relationships after marketplace facets of free choice and "limited warranties," family bonds are being undermined.

Through most of the book the only thing that's jarring is Whitehead's cool and clinical tone. For instance, this is how Whitehead describes the impact of divorce on children: "...divorce carries multiple risks and losses for children, including loss of income, loss of ties with father, loss of residential stability, and loss of other social resources" But in spite of the detached language in which she states it, Whitehead's basic thesis is hard to dispute. Even without detailing any of the conceivable benefits children might reap from the dissolution of an unhappy home situation, Whitehead is right to say that children experience serious negative side effects.

Then, about 70 meticulous and repetitive pages later, Whitehead suddenly veers into bizarre territory. She warns that "a growing number of single and cohabiting mothers and fathers bring lovers into the children's households. Because these relationships are new, single and cohabiting parents are likely to be caught up in the passionate contagions and noisy eruptions of the early stages of sexual intimacy. Compared with the affectional environment in households with married parents, who have usually settled into a more sedate sex life, the climate in these post-nuclear family households may be over-heated and eroticized" Never mind that Whitehead's view of married life as unmarred by incident and as bland as over-chewed gum says a lot about the puritanical premise upon which she writes The Divorce Culture. It's the assumption that single parents are hormone-driven and irresponsible that irks me. Besides, who's to say sex has to be either "sedate" or "overheated?"

But Whitehead waits until the second-to-last chapter of the book, ominously entitled "Coming Apart," to spring her most outrageous claim. At this point Whitehead throws the well-paced logic she had established to the wind. Here's Whitehead on fathering outside of marriage: "The boundaries between physical caretaking and sexual abuse, innocent tussling and exploitative fondling, have become blurry and ill defined. How does a father handle the intimate tasks of bathing, diapering, and toileting small children in a setting unsupervised and unregulated by the mother...? How should a mother interpret a toddler's reports of what Daddy did to her private parts?" Certainly mothers need to keep an eye on anyone who's playing father to their children--particularly when it's a man they've just met. But the level of paranoia Whitehead espouses is over the top. To harbor suspicions so perverse, to remove the father so completely from his natural role and assume that without motherly supervision he will become a predator, speaks volumes about Whitehead's adherence to degrading and stereo-typical gender roles.

I suppose all this can be expected from a writer whose 1993 Atlantic Monthly article on divorce, the spawning-ground of The Divorce Culture, was called "Dan Quayle Was Right" Whitehead adheres to a traditional reverence for the nuclear family. She is inflexible in her criticism of the post-nuclear arrangement, a.k.a., the "Love Family." With the same inflection a parent might employ when musing over "these kids today," Whitehead invokes a conservative nostalgia as she contrasts the good old days with the current ones. "While nuclear family ideology affirmed love as the foundation of intimate partnership, it anchored that commitment within the institution of marriage. By contrast, the Love Family ideology liberates sexual, compasionate, and parental love from its institutional and cultural moorings in marriage. Love alone dictates the arrangements and content of family life" Hey, call me a flower child, but that doesn't sound so bad to me.

CORINNA VALLIANATOS is a staff writer for Greenwire, an environmental news daily.
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Author:Vallianatos, Corinna
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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