Family myths, family realities

A string of lurid cases this year drew attention away from the real challenges that confront American families.

By Stephanie Coontz

Published December 23, 1997 7:36PM (EST)

Over the last year a series of sensational stories about individual mothers and their problems has kindled passionate emotions among the general public. In my aerobics class, which serves as my personal focus group on these issues, hardly a week went by when our warm-up stretches and post-exercise showers weren't enlivened by intense discussions or animated debates about something a mother did or failed to do, according to some press report.

The recent birth of septuplets, for example, divided my workout companions right down the middle: Half thought it was tremendously moving, a miracle; half found it an irresponsible contribution to overpopulation or a waste of medical resources and energy that could be better devoted to the thousands of kids stuck in the limbo of foster care.

The death of
Princess Diana,
on the other hand, united the entire class in mourning, from star-struck youngsters who had copied her hairstyles to earnest students who appreciated her work with AIDS victims to older married women who identified with Diana's very public mistakes and victories as she struggled to find happiness outside a loveless marriage.

The killing of Matty Eappen and the ensuing "nanny trial" were equally engrossing, as our changing room echoed with debates over how much responsibility for the tragedy should be borne by Matty's physician mom. Some of the women thought Deborah Eappen was selfish for working three days a week when she could "afford to stay home" (a standard they never applied to Diana's prolonged vacations from her children). Most just blamed Eappen for bad judgment in letting a "mere teenager" care for a baby and a toddler. The nanny teenager, though, got a lot more sympathy than the teen accused of killing her newborn at her prom dance several months earlier. That teen was widely condemned as a monster.

Even the women who most disapproved of Deborah Eappen's decision to continue working while her kids were young had been outraged by a May cover story in U.S. News & World Report that accused middle-class working parents of "lying" about their need to work. To a woman, my classmates felt that this was aimed exclusively at mothers, and a few had statistics in hand to refute the charge of "selfishness," pointing out that college tuitions have risen by 90 percent over the past 20 years, while family incomes have only risen by 9 percent. But the decision of the vice president at Pepsico to quit her high-powered job in order to spend more time with her family drew almost universal approval, though a number of us wondered whether she might have just cut back if her husband paid equal attention to his own priorities.

The discussions in my aerobics class, like the media coverage from which they originate, are skewed in many ways. Often, for example, the intensity of anxiety stands in inverse proportion to the prevalence of the problem. The prom newborn death was featured in a People cover story asking whether America is seeing a scary new generation of kids "without a conscience," a question that most of my classmates answered in the affirmative. In fact, however, the killing of newborns by their moms is at its lowest level ever in American history. We find the case so shocking not because it is typical but because it is so rare. Far less attention and energy was devoted -- in either our changing room or the nation's newsrooms -- to the much more common tragedy of impoverished teenagers struggling to raise babies by themselves, without adequate finances, support services or even educational information.

Similarly, most comments about whether middle-class mothers should "trust their children to a stranger" missed a much more serious question. No one brought up the looming child-care crisis in America posed by the new welfare law. The "success stories" of welfare reform typically involve single mothers who land minimum-wage jobs requiring up to a two-hour commute each way by public transportation. While the largest national study to date, released this year, found that good child care plus good parenting confer a double advantage on children, former welfare recipients must often leave their children in substandard care for 10 to 12 hours a day. The number of kids needing subsidized child care is expected to triple as a result of welfare reform, and already many states are dropping the children of the working poor from subsidized child-care slots in order to make room for the children of former welfare recipients. Yet this unfair and self-defeating practice generated no debates comparable to those over whether Deborah Eappen should have been away from her children for the three days a week that she worked out of the home.

These strange silences in otherwise loud debates are partly connected to racial stereotypes that lead many people to wrongly assume that most poor people are on welfare and most welfare recipients are black, and that there is no "story" in the problems they face. Thus the Boston nanny trial made Louise Woodward's face and name instantly recognizable around the nation, stimulating impassioned arguments over how heavy or light her sentence should be, especially in view of her youth. Not one of the women in my class -- all of whom had strong opinions on Woodward's sentence -- had ever heard of Lacresha Williams, an 11-year-old African-American girl found guilty of causing the death of an African-American infant in another unregulated home child-care setting and now serving the first year of a 25-year sentence in Texas.

But racial bias is not the only reason for the way these discussions are skewed. It's popular to blame distorted ideas about such issues on the gullibility and ignorance of the American public, but where does such ignorance come from? It's not my classmates' fault that Lacresha Williams never made the national news, except for a lone commentary on National Public Radio. Few of the women who rush off from our aerobics class to work or to other family responsibilities have the time and resources to look behind the newspaper cover stories or the evening news. There they are bombarded with the sensational, the surprising, the photogenic and therefore almost by definition the exceptional cases where our emotional response cannot easily be connected to political or social analysis.

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The unique, atypical stories that generate intense audience response are those that tap into real anxieties about the dilemmas of contemporary parenting, especially the double binds and contradictory messages faced by modern mothers. This is what gives these stories their emotional power, as well as creating the "conflict quotient" so necessary for talk shows. But it is also what prevents people from seeing the patterns behind the individual stories. And no constructive solutions are possible until we understand the social conditions under which women have to make their personal choices regarding work, marriage and mothering. As long as the underlying issues are refracted and diffused through the lens of sensationalism, we will lurch from indignation to pity, praise to blame, with each new incident that pushes our buttons. Instead of debating what to do about child care, work policies and changing gender roles, we will keep on discussing killer nannies, wicked stepmothers and dead princesses.

In my view, this is a bigger tragedy than the death of Princess Diana, sorry as I felt for the whole dysfunctional family and the burdensome, all-too-public conditions under which Diana had to struggle to grow up. And it is an avoidable tragedy. Most of the women in my aerobics class, like the majority of the population, support investment in education, job creation, after-school programs and paid parental leaves. Like most other Americans, they worry about divorce, but don't want to go back to the days when people had to prove or invent fault in order to get out of a rotten marriage. In my own experience discussing family issues with the public, I have found it's easy to get even broader agreement on such issues once people begin to understand the revolutionary and irreversible changes in the nature of marriage, motherhood and family over the past half century.

Debates over whether it's better for a particular mother to quit work after childbirth, for instance, need to be put in historical perspective. The entry of mothers into the work force is occurring in every country of the world, regardless of its laws, traditions or family values. In America, the proportion of mothers who work has risen steadily ever since the abolition of child labor early this century. Today three-fourths of all married mothers with children, and an even larger proportion of single mothers, work outside the home. Women with kids under 6 are the fastest growing component of the female labor force. This year a milestone was reached: A solid majority of new mothers now return to work before their child reaches his or her first birthday.

We are not going to jaw-bone or guilt-bait most mothers out of the work force. Whether or not Deborah Eappen should have quit her job is irrelevant to the big picture. Married women earn, on average, 41 percent of their family's income. In 23 percent of working couples, the wife brings home more than the husband. Most of these women simply cannot afford to quit work. Yet America's haphazard, unregulated and underfunded child-care system means that most of us agonize over whether our children will be safe and nurtured. Some couples work opposing shifts to make sure they've got child-care coverage, but that puts terrible strains on even the most cooperative marriage, and of course this strategy is out of the question for single parents. Studies show that working mothers have only 26 minutes a day less direct interaction with their kids than at-home moms and that they usually make up for this on weekends. Meanwhile, though, they balance guilt about their parenting against pressures from employers to prove their loyalty with more "face time," while sacrificing sleep and personal recreation. They hardly need sideline commentators pointing out their every flaw.

Women who quit work after childbirth have a different set of problems. Many appreciate the extra time and put it to good use. But full-time homemakers are more likely than other women to experience depression, while a woman who quits work after childbirth often suffers a sharp drop in marital satisfaction and self-esteem. She resents her loss of access to the public sphere and worries that her children are missing out on the benefits of having a hands-on father who is fully involved in child care from Day 1. But her husband, often working extra work hours to compensate for the loss of a wife's income, can't understand why his wife isn't more grateful. Marital researchers find that such conflicts are a potent cause of marital distress and divorce. And the woman who stays home faces the frightening prospect that if she does get divorced, she and her children are far less likely to regain their former income than a mother who went back to work within the first year.

Like it or not, divorce is simply a fact of life that women must take into account. In some case, it's a needed option, in others an unwelcome surprise. But divorce has been rising in a steady line since the 1890s, well before the institution of no-fault divorce laws. If we disregard the short-lived dip in divorce rates during the 1950s, our present divorce rate is exactly where you would predict from its rate of increase in the first 50 years of the century. The increasing economic independence of women means that women do not have to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. But foregoing that independence to play the role of loyal helpmate, as the Lorna Wendt case recently showed, is no protection against divorce. And it's a rare homemaker who has the luxury, like Mrs. Wendt, of arguing over whether the settlement will be $20 or $100 million.

Divorce, however, is only one of the reasons that marriage organizes a smaller and smaller proportion of people's lives and meets fewer people's needs. The age of marriage for women is now at a world historic high, while the age of marriage for men has tied its previous high of 1890. More youths are living outside the family than ever before, yet for 60 percent of them, incomes and medical benefits are still falling even after four years of economic recovery, making it ever harder for them to achieve self-sufficiency. At the other end of life, a person who reaches age 60 can expect, on average, to live another 27 years. Together, these trends mean that we can no longer assume that all the needs of children or the elderly -- or, for that matter, the physically or mentally ill -- can be taken care of within the nuclear family. Failures of such care are not entirely individual flaws; they are often built into the circumstances of modern life.

The crisis of caregiving in America cannot possibly be solved by telling working mothers to quit work if they can afford to. Even most stay-at-home mothers must resume work at some point in their child's school years; few can afford not to work during the teen years, given soaring college tuition costs. But children can get sick at any age, while the parents of teens today may actually need more job flexibility than parents of toddlers, to provide occasional after-school supervision or deal with the ups and downs of adolescence in a world where the age of sexual maturity has never been lower.
Even when the children finally leave home, family obligations don't necessarily end. Almost one in four households today, triple the number of a decade ago, has extensive caretaking responsibilities for aging relatives.

At a personal level, we can debate how well individuals are dealing with their new challenges. But before we pass out too much blame for their failures, we need to remember that our political and economic institutions have made almost no accommodations to these massive rearrangements of family life. Our work and family leave policies are 40 years out of date, constructed for a time when the majority of mothers did not work outside the home and the majority of fathers were happy to leave child raising entirely in the hands of their wives. Our school vacations are 100 years out of date, designed for a time when most families needed their children's labor on farms during the summer and only a minority of students finished high school anyway. Our school hours are out of sync both with new medical research and new economic realities: School begins way too early for teenagers' body clocks and gets out way too early for their parents' time clocks. Our medical insurance and organization of hospital care have not caught up with the needs of aging Americans and their families. No family, whatever its form, is getting the investment in after-school programs, education, child care or elder care that it needs.

Under these stressful conditions, we are all scrambling to do the right thing, making sacrifices to do so, resenting the lack of support for whatever choice we've made and regretting the trade-offs we have to endure. As usual, women bear the largest share of the costs, whatever choices they make, and are assigned the largest share of the blame for any failures.

In the absence of explicit political discussion of these dilemmas, it becomes easy to project our fears and resentments onto someone else. Any historian can tell you this is the classic recipe for scapegoating.

It's also a classic recipe for unrealistic fantasies. If bestowing sainthood on Princess Diana was one symptom of this over the past year, so has been the hope raised by the Promise Keepers, who were hailed by many in my aerobics class as God's gift to overstressed wives and mothers. Never mind that the Promise Keepers is financed by groups who oppose birth control, child care, abortion rights and even public education, advocating that every political policy and school lesson be sifted "through the grid of scripture." Never mind that its spokesmen have urged men to "take back" leadership in the house, telling them to "consult" with their wives but to remember that "every organization needs a Chief Executive Officer." At least, said my harried and worried fellow exercisers, the organization asks men to re-commit to marriage and get more involved in fatherhood. Perhaps that will take some of the pressures off women.

But the Promise Keepers movement offers no more of a solution to the dilemmas of modern motherhood than the short-lived success of Princess Diana in rising above her unhappy marriage. Most of the Promise Keepers recruits did not start out as newfangled "secular cynics" who suddenly saw the error of their ways. They were old-fashioned fundamentalists behaving badly. Belatedly, many have realized that traditional chauvinism undermined their Christian vows of fidelity and kindness. Now they are trying to catch up with the changes that have occurred since the 1950s, but there's no way they're going to be up to 1990s speed by the time we enter the next century. The benevolent paternalism they offer their wives may be a step up from their former self-centered autocracy, but it's no substitute for the mutual accountability and equal sharing of both work and family roles that is the most sound base for modern marriage and parenthood.

Women don't need men to go weep about their sins at football stadiums. Nor do we need to spend any of our already overloaded time second-guessing the choices that other women make. What we need is more help, at both the individual and the institutional level, in adjusting our work life and family life so that both men and women can share the rewards and responsibilities of each. To do that, we should relegate fairy tales about princesses and knights in shining armor, as well as scare stories about wicked witches, to a past that is largely mythical and at any rate completely unrecoverable. And instead of publicly measuring out the guilt or innocence of each woman who falls off the tightrope we're all asked to walk, let's figure out how to broaden the path to success for every family.

Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She is the author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" and "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families," and the editor, with Maya Parson and Gabrielle Raley, of "American Families: A Multicultural Reader."

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