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(An excerpt from Why Do I Love These People?
for everyone who thinks family is in rapid decline)


            So much of our disappointment and frustration with family is a function of our expectation. We have a tendency to idealize certain notions of family. This by itself isn’t bad, because it’s good to aspire. But when we come to expect the ideal, and we assume the ideal is prevalent, we’re quickly let down by our reality. We feel cheated and resentful – and often give up – when our experience is actually fairly representative.

            In the same way, we generate excessive tension by worrying whether our experience is abnormal. We beat ourselves up because we worry we’re falling short of the ideal, or we fear we’ve lost something essential that prior generations had. I’m not talking about the public debate angle, here – how one television pundit beats up some other pundit’s vision of family. I’m talking about how we do it to ourselves – how we load ourselves up with guilt and consternation to the point of being frazzled, so much so that we are unable to enjoy our experience.

            Let’s consider some of the fears that come from comparing ourselves to presumed sociological norms:

  • That stepfamilies and “alternative” families are a new phenomenon to deal with

  • That we have lost the traditional nuclear family

  • That we have lost stability in general

  • That divorces are so common

  • That the elderly are neglected

  • That we don’t spend as much time with our kids

  • That children are exposed to too much these days

These are real issues in some families, but as a society we are doing much better on these counts than we give ourselves credit for.

            For instance, a much higher percentage of children lived in stepfamilies during the Colonial period of the United States than do today. Parents died young and remarried continuously. In late 17th century Virginia, fully half of all children would lose at least one parent by the time they were thirteen. Almost half of those would lose the other parent as well and be orphaned. Households have always been mixed and complicated affairs. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to take in orphans as wards and to share the house with boarders. Sharing a house with another family was common a hundred years ago. Living with mom and grandma was routine in the late 1800s for African-Americans and Mexican-Americans because adult male mortality was so high. Today, we’re prone to thinking adoptions are the new way to build a family. Actually, the number of adoptions is not rising – it has only held steady, during some decades when the overall family population has surged. The result: the percentage of U.S. families who adopt has dropped almost by half since 1973. In the U.K., adoptions were four times more popular just thirty years ago. Alternative family arrangements are indeed common today – but they’re not new. They have always been prevalent.*

            In fact, the so-called “traditional” family may never have been a majority, even in the 1950s and 1960s, the supposed golden age for family. If you define a traditional family as male-breadwinner/mother-homemaker, then even in the peak year of 1960, over 40% of all U.S. children were being raised in “non-traditional” families. If you add to that definition the standard that the children were from both parents’ first (and only) marriage, then never have a majority of children lived in a traditional family. In fact, when young families starting moving to the suburbs in the 1950s, it was controversial. Many sociologists decried that it was breaking the extended family apart as the older generations were left behind in the cities. It was considered unwise to be having so many babies, reversing a 300-year-long trend to bear fewer children. In other words, the golden age for family was not considered so golden at the time.

            Now, for the commonality of divorce. Never has a single statistic been so overly relied upon to indicate what is going on. Marital disintegration is traumatic to children and families, but divorce is only one measure of disintegration. So are death and desertion. Desertion was a huge problem a hundred years ago. Men simply left their families. They didn’t bother to get a divorce, or they couldn’t. Separation also didn’t show up in the divorce statistics. In the late 1940s, for instance, the divorce rate spiked. There was one divorce for every four marriages – unheard of. But for every divorced family there were 1.5 separated families. So actual marital disintegration was much higher than the divorce rate captured. Marriages were never as stable as we imagine they used to be. Just because divorce was uncommon doesn’t mean kids didn’t have to endure instability. A hundred years ago, a third of all U.S. children lived in a single-parent family by their mid-teens, whether the missing parents had died, or deserted them, or separated.

The laws on divorce have changed so significantly that any measure of the historical divorce rate is just not apples to apples. Divorces were uncommon because they were hard to get. The sudden rise in divorce in the 1970s stemmed from a change in its legal availability, not a sudden and drastic change in the level of marital unhappiness.

Then, divorce is often criticized for being the easy way out. For many women, that’s a blatantly unfair smear. Consider that in the U.K., it is estimated that one in every three divorces involve domestic violence. In Canada, half of divorced women have been victims of abuse. Is that just poor people? Even in middle-class marriages in the U.S., violence is cited in over twenty percent of divorces. If you were to add to that all the divorces due to chronic infidelity and alcohol abuse, you’ve got a huge chunk of divorces that should be cheered, not criticized. For many, divorce is not the problem, it’s the solution that brings a better day. Thankfully people have the right today to leave terrible marriages. Shaming them is misguided.

            Do we want stability? Of course. Do we want long, happy marriages? Absolutely. But good marriages are not measured by the divorce statistics. Just because people stayed married didn’t mean the marriage was any good, or that it was a healthy environment for children.

            Kids are not being shortchanged today to the extent we fear. Yes, far more children are in child care as both parents work – and the work hours are longer. But sociologists conduct time-use studies in which parents keep diaries recording how they spent their day. They’ve been doing these studies since 1915. It turns out that while moms used to supervise their children all day, they weren’t necessarily interacting with their children. They were doing chores or cooking while little Timmy ran around with his siblings or played next door. Here’s the kicker: parents spend slightly more hours directly interacting with their children today than any other decade that’s been studied. This is true in the U.S. and the U.K. and just about everywhere. You might wonder how this is possible. Well, we sleep less, and we do less housework. And, I suppose, we don’t just let kids run around. We engage them.

            Certainly, children are exposed to a lot of potentially bad influences. But if you are prone to panic over this, you have simply joined a club that has existed for hundreds of years. People have always panicked over this. I found an article in the 1875 New York Times decrying our inability to protect children from the perilous circumstances to which they were constantly surrounded. I have magazines cover stories from every decade in between, wailing over this same concern.

            The true history of childhood is brutal and unmerciful. Kiss the ground on which your children live today. In 1851, there were four million children in England under the age of twelve. According to the census, one in five lived on the streets as an urchin. Then a place was found for them: factories. In 1873, there were 120,000 children working in factories around New York. Twenty percent of a working-class family’s income was earned by children under the age of fifteen. At the turn of the century, the New York City branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took in 15,000 children – in one year alone. The further back in history you look, the worse it gets.

In 1920, only sixteen percent of children graduated high school. Today, 84 percent of children graduate high school. The legal notion that children have emotional and developmental needs is not that old. In the mid-1800s, legal briefs argued that children were not merely chattel. In 1925, the phrase “the best interests of the child” was coined by a judge in the New York courts. But the full notion of that idea was not accepted by the Supreme Court until 1968.

            There are two schools of thought over what role a family plays in preparing a child for the world. They are similar to the old arguments over the nature of man (before civilization) between the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that early man’s experience was idyllic before it became corrupted by modern stresses. Hobbes believed that early man’s experience was nasty, brutish, and short. Thus, a family adhering to the Rousseau philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by creating a safe haven from judgment and antagonism. A family adhering to the Hobbes philosophy prepares its children for the outside world by being a representative microcosm of what is to come. You can expose your children to too much, but you can also shield them too much.

            Ever since the Victorian era, families have wanted to create Rousseau-style childhoods. But they kept turning darkly Hobbesian.

            In fact, most of the statistics that make our society look so bad are actually indicators of emerging good things – that women and children have rights, that we value some privacy and independence, and that we hold the quality of marriages to a higher standard.

            We’ve got it pretty good. The golden era for family is not in our past, it’s in our future.

            We need to appreciate how the radically changing world has forced families to adapt. People used to respect their elders, but it wasn’t just for their sage philosophy about life. Elders used to have very valuable practical knowhow. They could tell you when to plant your crops and how to build a cabin and how to sew a sweater. You listened to them because you needed to. For the last 150 years, every generation has grown up in a newly minted world. My grandmother can’t fix the wireless card in my laptop. We’ve had to find new reasons to hang on to our relationships, and largely, we have. It’s a miracle how well we’ve held together, considering all the changes thrown at us.

            I’m generally not a believer in statistics because they can be so easily manipulated. For instance, we hear that children are terribly overscheduled, that they are rushed from their tutor to soccer practice to their violin lesson. But we also hear the children watch way too much television, slumped on the couch. So which is it? It can’t be both. We also hear that more and more African American babies are born out of wedlock. Well, the chance that an unmarried black woman under the age of 24 would have a baby is no higher today than in the late 1960s. What’s happened is that African-American married couples are having fewer children, so the out-of-wedlock babies are a higher proportion of the total – a problem, but not a bigger problem.

            Then there’s the dire news about marriage, the general conclusion being that today’s generation has delayed marriage so long that many will never marry. Is that true? Consider the group of women who will turn forty in 2006. About 71% of them had married by age 30. Somewhere around 83% of them had married by age 35. And two years ago, a census report projected that 92% would marry at some point in their lives. Even if the actual results fall short of that projection, that hardly sounds like doom and gloom for the family.

            Why am I bothering to clarify all these numbers? Well, because “the-Family-is-in-trouble” spin is destroying our confidence that we can have decent families. We are letting myths destroy hope. When I talk to young adults in their twenties, it’s amazing how many of them are scared of starting a family. It’s not just those who had a bad experience with the shellfish. A remarkable proportion of those who don’t want to have children are educated, soon-to-be-successful, and their own parents are still married. They hear the doomsday reportage, and they believe it. “Why bring another child into this world?” they ask.

            Instead, they declare that their friends are their family. By this they really mean that their friends are their extended family. As everyone knows, having family a mile away is a lot different than having them in the next room. In my research, I found that when people tried to take it to the next level of commitment – for instance buying a house with friends – the relationship changes under that constant pressure and close contact. Or maybe curdles is a better word for what happens. The great thing about friendship is its fluidity and non-exclusiveness. You can float among your friends as you see fit, and you can always be supportive. When you move in together there’s a tendency to be more demanding and to start controlling each other – hey, you gotta wash your dishes! You start acting like capital-F Family again, with the peculiar set of problems resident to interdependence and sharing a bathroom. It’s a bit like weeding dandelions. I thought I got rid of my family! Now my problems are back! Just because you are not biologically related doesn’t make family dynamics go away. In fact, the biological/non-biological distinction we draw is absurd. I’m not biologically related to my wife. She was a complete stranger the day I met her at a baseball game. Then she became a friend. Marrying her hasn’t made our problems go away.

            Should we all rush to create families? Please, no! But we shouldn’t be so terrified of making that leap. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wondering if we’re fully ready. Most changes in life happen without waiting for anyone to be ready. Life is asking us to rise to the occasion.

In other words, if you think of yourself as even “close to ready,” that’s more of a head start than most get.