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The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families.

Who makes up "the family" is a political question. If you ask the Christian right, the Victorian heterosexual marriage with its separate spheres for men and women -- or maybe Ozzie and Harriet of the 1950s TV series -- constitutes the "traditional family." No one else need apply. No dual-earner couples. No single fathers. No unwed moms. No gay parents. No stepmothers.

Enter Stephanie Coontz, family historian and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, which caused an uproar when it came out in 1992, the year "family values" was born. Whereas her 1992 volume argues that the "traditional family" is a historical construct, a brief aberration in the varied life of the American family, her new book offers a realistic antidote to the destructive myths surrounding the family. In nine chapters with titles such as "Getting Past the Sound Bites: How History and Sociology Can Help Today's Families," "Putting Divorce in Perspective," and "Working with What We've Got: The Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Today's Families," Coontz takes a close look at the complicated state of modern American families and shows why one-size-fits-all solutions often do more harm than good.

"The new consensus blamed all of America's social and economic ills on people who failed to maintain this `unified model,'" writes Coontz. But "there is an on-the-ground consensus that is quite different from the one up in the rarefied atmosphere occupied by politicians and the think tanks. It's about getting down to cases. What is really going on, and what does it mean for my family? How does it apply to my divorced sister who doesn't have health insurance and needs food stamps? ... How do the issues facing families in our community differ from those in other cities, suburbs, or farms?"

Coontz talks about "the incredible revolution that's been going on in family life." Take working women. Three-quarters of all married women with children and an even larger proportion of single mothers work outside the home. Women with kids are the fastest-growing component of the female labor force.

In reaction, family-values proponents have begun a new offensive on such mothers who "selfishly" choose to work. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for Family Values believes that men are unlikely to commit to marriage in the first place unless a woman validates the man's identity as primary breadwinner. David Popenoe of the Council on Families in America suggests that the number of single-mother households could be drastically reduced (and men's wages raised) if wives could be persuaded to stop working during their child-raising years.

Coontz makes concrete suggestions for accommodating the needs of all families. She calls upon employers to organize their work policies on the assumption that all workers have caretaking responsibilities. She reminds us that few companies provide any leave for child care, let alone elder care, even though one in four households -- triple the number of a decade ago -- bears significant responsibility for an aging parent.

Coontz also suggests that government create a level playing field by requiring all companies to adopt such policies as a condition of receiving the legal rights and tax privileges provided under the protection of a corporate charter. Other industrialized nations, such as Sweden, have adopted reforms that allow parents to cut their work and pay to three-quarters time without losing medical insurance or seniority. Finding enough time for family obligations is the new occupational health and safety issue for the end of this century, contends Coontz.

Determined to show that reforms are not impossible under corporate and free-market rule, Coontz points out that at the end of the last century, workers and reformers worked tirelessly against unsafe conditions in American factories. Their solution was not to tell employees to quit or cut back to part-time, Instead, after years of sharp political struggle, they were successful in passing laws that required companies to adopt new safety regulations, change their hours and work policies, and invest in new equipment.

Coontz also discusses the historical processes that have undermined the ability of families to raise the next generation without outside assistance. Governments and corporations have transferred more and more of the costs of raising and educating children back onto parents.

"It is time to abandon denial, self-righteousness, and scapegoating and to deal directly with the moral issues raised with [these] economic changes and by the last few decades of disinvestment in the younger generation," Coontz writes. "The question that gets lost is whether we as a nation are willing to foster long-term commitments in economic and social life, whether we as a people have the character to defer immediate gratification in order to invest in the future of our communities. At heart, this is not a family crisis but a social crisis."

It is refreshing to find a book that leaps beyond the radical right's slurs against single parents, "careerist" mothers, and nontraditional families and goes straight to the massive changes needed in the country's attitudes and institutions. Now all we need to know is how to bring those changes about. Considering Coontz's recent books, she's probably not short on ideas.
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Author:Baskin, Martha
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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