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July 01, 2009

The American Family: A Work in Progress

Richard J. Podell

There is no single definition of “family” in any dictionary or encyclopedia. Further, the understanding of the history of the family is distorted by myths, misconceptions, and generalizations. For example, many people believe that a century ago times were simpler and the family unit was more stable and secure. The reality was quite different. The American family has been evolving since colonial times.

Colonial families were productive units that performed a wide range of functions, from teaching basic literacy, religion, and occupational skills to caring for their elderly and sick. Colonial families experienced high mortality rates. Many women and children died. Men remarried. Thus, families consisted of step-relatives, many children (to counteract high morality rates), and the elderly.

In the early nineteenth century, a new pattern of marriage arose based on companionship and affection. Previously, marriage had been primarily an economic affair. The husband/father was the breadwinner. The role of the wife was to care full time for the children and to maintain the home. Children were viewed as needing attention, love, and time to mature.

During the Great Depression, families coped by returning to a cooperative family economy. Many children worked. Many wives supplemented the family income by taking in sewing, or laundry, or even lodgers. Many husbands deserted their families.

World War II similarly created a severe strain on the family. Husbands and wives were separated for prolonged periods. Many women were forced to become breadwinners in addition to caring for the home and children. These stresses contributed to an increase in the divorce rates.

After the war, the GI Bill enabled many young men to purchase single-family tract homes in suburban developments. The average age of marriage dropped and the birthrate doubled. Youthful marriage and early childbearing meant that many women were free of the early child-rearing responsibilities by their early to middle thirties. This, combined with the rising cost of maintaining middle class standards, lead many women to enter the workforce.

Between 1960 and 1980, the birthrate fell by half, the number of working mothers doubled, half of all marriages ended in divorce, and the number of couples cohabitating outside of marriage quadrupled. By the end of the century, two-thirds of all married women with children worked outside the home, and three in ten children were born out of wedlock. Over a quarter of all children lived with only one parent, and fewer than half lived with both their biological parents.

All these changes have produced “family values” crusaders who bemoan the decay of the family structure in America. An historical perspective shows that, rather than decaying, the family is evolving and adapting to fit current social and economic conditions. In many respects, the family is stronger than before. With technological advances, infant and child mortality has declined, many parents who could not conceive can now have children through in vitro fertilization or through surrogacy. Mothers rarely die in childbirth. Children are more likely to have living grandparents. Fathers have become more actively involved in child rearing.

The American family is facing unique stresses.Working parents find it difficult to balance the demands of work and family. Many people care for their aging parents as well as their children.

We also have seen a shift in public opinion regarding same-sex marriages. We already have a number of states that permit these marriages. I hope the American population and the courts will be tolerant and respectful of the wishes of some who seek this form of relationship. The rights and protections of our Constitution must apply to everyone. We must ensure that laws such as the Defense of Marriage Act are repealed. As Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “An unjust law is no law at all.”