I

It is hardly news that families are not what they used to be. In fact, as Christopher Lasch put it, “the family has been slowly coming apart for more than a hundred years.”1 If that is so, its fragmentation is nothing sudden or new. Scholars can always find some century-old statement deploring the demise of hearth and home. At the same time others argue, as Mary Jo Bane did through her title, that the family is “Here to Stay.”2 For one thing, no one has come up with a serious substitute, whether Scandinavian communes or Chinese shared kitchens. It is also asserted that the forms families take have gone through many changes, so we should not be surprised—or upset—by current adaptations. Bane pointed out, for example, that in the past, death caused as many single-parent households as divorce does today.

Still, all is not well with the family. Far fewer people are willing to accept the constraints and obligations required for family ties. Such as the duty to stay together, even when a marriage proves less than ideal. Or that a couple should have children, at least two or preferably three, if the nation is to avert a declining population. What was once a third obligation has lost much of its force: maintaining relations and responsibilities toward a household’s aging members. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, families have served a useful purpose as agencies of control. Upon becoming husbands, wives, and parents, people could be counted on to be at certain places at specific times doing certain things. What has occurred is that now more people want more freedom than family life has allowed.

Several recent studies prepared in association with the 1980 census highlight what has been happening with households over the past decade. The census simply prints statistics, so changes can be noted with a measure of precision. Far from being chilly columns of figures, they tell a very human story. Moreover, they provide a factual backdrop against which the various books under review can be put in perspective.

According to the census, 97.5 percent of all Americans live in “households.” (This leaves 5,742,000 persons in “group quarters,” ranging from dormitories and barracks to hospitals and prisons.) Since the household is the basic element in census statistics, it is best to be clear on how the term is used. On the whole, households divide into two general categories:

“Family households” consist of two or more persons living together who also are related by birth or marriage. The most common family household is still a married couple, with or without children at home. A single parent with one or more children also comes under the heading of a family household. (There can be other family variations, such as two sisters sharing a residence.)

“Nonfamily households” include two or more unrelated persons, of the same or different sexes, sharing living quarters. However, the census also defines people who live by themselves as “single-person households” of the non-family kind. This means that young people with apartments of their own are no longer counted as part of their parents’ households.

—From 1970 to 1980, the total number of households rose from 63,401,000 to 79,108,000. This amounted to an increase of 24.8 percent, more than double the general population rise of 11.5 percent. During the decade the number of persons in the average household declined from 3.14 to 2.75. This drop was caused by there being fewer children in each family, more single-parent households, and—most important—more people living alone.

—During the decade, family households fell from 81.2 percent of the total to 73.9 percent. By the same token, nonfamily households rose from 18.8 percent of the total to 26.1 percent.

—The actual number of married couples increased by only 7.7 percent, one-third less than the general population rise. On the other hand, families with unmarried heads grew by 52.3 percent.

—By 1980, altogether 23.4 percent of all children aged seventeen or under were not living with both parents. They were instead living with one parent, another relative, or a nonrelative. This was the situation for 17.3 percent of white children and 57.8 percent of black children.

—In 1970, among couples with a husband under twenty-five, only 44.6 percent did not yet have any children. By 1980, the childless group had grown to 52.0 percent. And where the husband was between thirty and thirty-four, the proportion without children rose from 10.2 percent to 17.6 percent.

—“Nonfamily households,” taken together, increased from 11,919,000 to 20,682,000 between 1970 and 1980, a growth of 73.5 percent, which was more than six times that for the overall population.

—Altogether, 6,965,000 more people were living by themselves in 1980 compared with 1970. This increase came from several sources, all of them associated with the trend away from family living. First, young people are not only marrying later, but they are living on their own while single. Among those the census calls the “never married,” the number of men with residences of their own grew by 118.3 percent, while the comparable figure for women went up 89.3 percent.

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—Equally striking is the increase in people who are separated or divorced and no longer live with their former mates. The number of men in this category rose by 121.8 percent, with the parallel figure for women 79.4 percent. The sexual discrepancy derives from the fact that when divorced and separated women have children they generally get custody. Given that arrangement, these women fall in the category of “single heads of families” whereas their former husbands are classed as “living alone.” (Some ex-husbands have new roommates, of which more later.)

—For some time now, more widowed men and women have been living by themselves rather than with their adult children. The number of widows living alone rose by 31.9 percent during the decade, with the figure for widowers up 16.4 percent. But these growth rates were not as sharp as those for the other groups.

—A total of 2,866,000 nonfamily households consisted of unrelated persons sharing quarters. This group broke down as follows: 25.1 percent were two men living together; 19.2 percent were two women; and 55.8 percent were mixed-sex arrangements. In this third group, 31.5 percent had children on the premises, in most cases from the woman’s previous marriage. Indeed, in only 37.2 percent of the mixed-sex households had both partners never been married. (These figures do not include people who spend a lot of time together but keep their own apartments.)

—In all, 1970 to 1980 saw the creation of 15,707,000 new households. Of these, 55.6 percent were of the nonfamily variety. And among the 44.4 percent which were counted as family households, there were 3,518,000 new ones with single heads as opposed to 3,452,000 containing married couples. This means that only 22.0 percent of total household growth came from couples who were married. Moreover, whereas in 1970 couples with two or more children accounted for 28.1 percent of all households, by 1980 they were down to 19.0 percent.

So much for the facts of family life—or flight from it—as the census charts them. We can now turn to some recent books that seek to interpret and explain what such statistics mean.

The best by far is Andrew Cherlin’s Marriage Divorce Remarriage, the first of a Harvard-sponsored series intended “to present to the general public recent scholarship on topics of broad interest and concern.” Cherlin’s review of research on the family is both clear and concise, especially where he outlines the issues in scholarly controversies. Thus he deals cogently with the debate arising from Richard Easterlin’s writings on why children raised during the Depression went on to have so many off-spring.3 In a similar vein, he explains the grounds for Charles Westoff’s conclusion that the three- and four-child family cannot possibly return, namely that the declining birthrate is a “longterm reality,” while the postwar baby boom was a “perplexing exception.”

Cherlin raises a great many questions. For example, he suggests that “the reasons why people marry at an older age now may well differ from the reasons why they did so in the early 1900s.” In the past young men were more apt to live at home and did not marry until they had saved enough for a down payment on a house. Now they wait until their middle twenties because staying single is more enjoyable. And once they do decide on marriage, whether they will stick it out depends much on how they compare its constrictions with the freedom of their bachelor days. Similarly, Cherlin points to studies showing that people who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not. Their having chosen to live together is evidence of their view “that a relationship should be ended if either partner is dissatisfied.”

Sar Levitan and Richard Belous would have written a better book had they pondered much of the research on which Cherlin’s study is based. But then I doubt whether it would have made much difference. What’s Happening to the American Family is sedulously upbeat, aimed at countering “fashionable gloom and doom scenarios” which predict “the imminent demise of the family.” Levitan and Belous offer buoyancy and cheer. They argue that “American families are changing, but they are not eroding…. The net result of recent events has been to make American family structure highly pluralistic.”

Truth to tell, I find this a curious term of description. Instead of the conventional family type, composed of husband, wife, and children, we now have “pluralism.” Well, perhaps. But for these writers, the pluralistic family could include a mother struggling to raise her kids without the father or his income. The family extends across town where dad has moved in with his new girlfriend, and to another state where grandmother, now widowed, has discovered that Social Security doesn’t cover all her bills. The book is decorated with cute cartoons, implying that the worst things such people face are amusing annoyances.

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Pluralism in the domestic sphere also means we can look at divorce in a new light. Rather than a force for erosion, Levitan and Belous believe:

For both men and women, divorce seems to reflect the rejection more of a specific partner than of the institution of marriage…. Most divorced persons seek a new stable relationship…. Living as part of a family seems to be the preference of most adult Americans.

It is true that few people wish to live alone, or at least not for extended periods. But contrary to Levitan and Belous, our tendency to “reject specific partners” undercuts both marriage and the family as durable institutions. As Andrew Cherlin puts it, “husbands and wives are more likely today than in the past to evaluate their marriage primarily according to how well it satisfied their individual emotional needs.” Simply stated, his conclusion is that fewer people seem willing to make changes in their characters after they get married. They may want such benefits as they believe marriage will bring; but they also want to remain the same people they were before the wedding. Levitan and Belous may believe that “most divorced persons seek a new stable relationship,” but it often appears that they are seeking an arrangement neatly tailored to their “individual emotional needs.”

On the whole, it is risky to generalize about divorce,4 but the census makes it clear that most divorces are relatively youthful occurrences not that much different from the breakup of a long and steady affair. In all, 52.5 percent of all divorces occur by the sixth year of the marriage, which means the wife and often the husband are still usually in their twenties. And fully 67.0 percent have taken place before the marriage is ten years old. In 44.6 percent of all divorces there are no children involved, and in another 25.5 percent there is only one child. Among women who get divorced in their twenties, over three-quarters remarry. While no comparable figures are available for men, all indications are that even more of them remarry and are likely to do so sooner.

Where divorce becomes a more acute problem is usually when it happens later. And it is here that the double standard inexorably sets in. Thus in the thirty-five to forty-four year range, a divorced woman’s odds of remarrying are 75.1 percent of those for a divorced man. Between forty-five and fifty-four, she has a likelihood of remarrying that is 62.0 percent of his. Indeed, after age forty-four, only fifty-six divorced women remarry for every 100 men who do.

If there are just about the same number of divorced men and women, how is it that so many more men remarry? The answer is simple: most divorced men prefer younger—and often single—women as their second wives. In the typical first wedding, the groom is about 2.4 years older than the bride. As the marriage wears on many husbands tire of having wives so close to their own age. If the divorce comes when both are in their forties, the husband will generally choose a companion nine to ten years his junior. So far as the ex-wife is concerned, the future holds considerably less choice. That is why the census’s 1980 study counted 8,870,000 divorced or separated women as against 5,915,000 men with that status, a ratio of 150 women for every 100 men. (If one adds those who are widowed, the ratio rises to 245 women for every 100 men, largely because men begin dying sooner. Even so, among those widowed persons aged sixty-five or over who do remarry, men outnumber women by 53.8 percent.)

The double standard is detailed by Richard Schickel in Singled Out, although that is not his intention. He chronicles his five years on his own, following a divorce at the age of forty-two. At the outset, a friend told him that because he was “single, solvent, and straight,” he wouldn’t have any problems, and this proved to be the case. While Schickel does not add up his conquests, he lets the reader know he did very well; indeed, to the point where he feels qualified to evaluate women according to their age.

Thus he writes off women in their twenties (“actually I think of them as girls”) as a trifle too lightweight. They may be interesting in bed but cannot understand his jokes about Clark Gable. On women in their forties he is somewhat less than gentle. As a group, he generalizes, they have been “betrayed by feminist ideology” and “ill-used by recent history.” Apparently women his own age gave Schickel a hard time, so he turned to a cohort that showed more appreciation. Women in their thirties, he says, are enjoying a “golden age.” They have become “beneficiaries of two revolutions,” the feminist and the sexual, so they are advancing in their jobs (“without undue guilt”) and have no hangups on the physical side (“plenty of oral sex”). After much sampling, Schickel moved in with a woman about a decade his junior.

What is missing from Singled Out is any sign of concern for the women described by his title. Schickel knows better than to suggest that the opportunities he found are also available to women in their forties. Yet at no point does he remark on the unfairness whereby one gender can act as if at a cafeteria while the other is allowed only to curl up with TV Guide. So he can mention matter-of-factly that “one of the advantages that a male generally has over a female is that for the most part his kids do not live with him.” Indeed. All that romping with golden women might have lost a bit of its glow if Schickel had to be home by eleven to relieve the babysitter.

We may conclude that while marriage as an institution does not face imminent demise, people are participating in it for shorter periods of their lives. In theory there should be more marriages taking place because more people are doing it more than once. In 1979 (our most recent year for statistics) while 2,398,000 persons were being married for the first time, another 1,195,000 were giving it another try.5 Even so, the overall marriage rate, which includes remarriages, fell by 20.5 percent between 1969 and 1979. (The rate is measured by the number of marriages in a year for every 1,000 nonmarried women in the population age fifteen or older.) While there are several demographic reasons for the falling rate, among the most important is that younger people are staying single longer. Whether these are simply postponements or portend permanent bachelorhood is not yet known. One factor, thus far not apparent in the figures, is that more men seem to be choosing a homosexual way of life.

This is not to argue that all divorced persons want to marry again. For some, once was quite enough. Still, most people desire love and companionship, as well as sex on more than a fleeting basis. If they find a suitable partner, they seem ready to consider remarriage or some similar arrangement. Not much work has been done, however, on what sociologists are beginning to call “reconstituted” families. Even the census does not tell us how many of our 48,180,000 married couples are on a second or later marriage.

One recent study focuses on the fact that many men who remarry “have the experience of rearing children who do not reside with them, or of residing with children who are not their offspring.”6 Thus they find themselves living day by day with someone else’s children, while seeing their own much less frequently. Andrew Cherlin points out that girls who live with stepfathers are far more likely to have “higher incidences of sexual activity, drug involvement, and school-related problems…than children living with two natural parents or with just their mothers alone.” He goes on to suggest that these and other difficulties derive from our having no social ground rules for reconstituted families. Each must cope with its own set of personal conditions, without prior experience or established precedents.

II

Levitan and Belous reject the notion that the risk of divorce rises when husband and wife both work. “If she can find fulfillment through work outside the home, work and marriage can go together to create a stronger and more stable marriage.” Here again they would have done well to consult Andrew Cherlin, who presents a rather different picture. “The greater the wife’s annual earnings,” he reports, citing several studies, “…the greater was the probability that the family would separate.” Indeed, to the degree that she finds “fulfillment” at her job, her not totally liberated husband may feel neglected. And she may find herself appreciated as she never was at home. Wives who work are not the cause of divorce so much as their husbands who still expect to hold the center stage. Despite much brave talk, we have no convincing evidence that this attitude is changing.

Certainly more married women are working. Back in 1950, only 21.6 percent of them were in the labor force. By 1970 the proportion was up to 40.8 percent; and as of March of 1980 the ratio had risen to 50.3 percent.7 Interestingly, the rates are even higher for married women who have children. In 1979 (the most recent figures) no fewer than 59.1 percent with children six to seventeen were in the labor force, as were 43.2 percent who had at least one child under six. As it happens, most older wives, whose children are all grown, prefer to stay at home.

In America Now, the anthropologist Marvin Harris has a theory of his own for why so many wives have gone to work. Harris tends to explain changes in culture by changes in production and consumption. Until twenty years ago, he writes, domestic discipline prevailed over pocketbook considerations. Husbands said they wanted their wives at home, and that largely settled the matter. What caused the change, Harris says, was that by the early 1960s families “were finding it increasingly difficult to achieve or hold onto middle class standards of consumption for themselves and their children.” Not least, child rearing in the modern style was becoming increasingly expensive, costing more than could be met by only the husband’s wages.

However for all those wives to go to work, there had to be jobs available. But, Harris says, “it is a great deception to believe that women went out and found jobs.” On the contrary, “the national economy created vast numbers of jobs that went looking for married women.” Moreover, wives were aptly suited for these new positions.

The great bulk of new jobs were of two types: low-level information-processing jobs such as file-clerks, secretaries, typists, and receptionists; and low-level people-processing jobs such as nurses, primary school teachers, retail sales help, medical and dental assistants, guidance counselors, and social workers.

Her qualifications were superb. She was available in vast numbers. She had been trained for her entire life to be unaggressive and take orders from men. Her husband earned more than she did so she would take a job that was neither permanent nor secure.

It remains to ask, as Harris does not, whence came the wherewithal to create all that employment. The most important reason was that during the 1960s productivity was advancing, mainly because machines were replacing people in blue-collar occupations. Companies used the cash saved from those wages to devise new positions on their office floors. Tax revenues also expanded, allowing more white-collar hiring in the public sector. Many if not most of these positions, private as well as public, were largely ornamental. Still, so long as the new technologies raised productivity, these payrolls were a luxury the economy could afford. By the 1970s, however, productivity had reached a plateau and begun to dip. To the extent that they were decorative, such occupations contributed to inflation by not pulling their own weight. This is not to blame working women, but merely to note that they filled most of the newly created jobs.

Another point Harris ignores is that fewer men are working than has been the case in the past. There is, first of all, the group of unfortunate men who never get a toehold in the labor market. But there is also the fact that men who were steadily employed have been dropping out at an earlier age. Among men aged fifty-five through fifty-nine, only 68.0 percent have year-round full-time jobs. And by sixty to sixty-four, the proportion is down to 48.9 percent. Moreover, more than half—56.2 percent—of the men who go on Social Security pensions now do so before they are sixty-five.8

A parallel case may be cited concerning the current generation. For a time, the rising percentage of women in professional schools was accommodated by expanding enrollments. That is, no men were turned away to let more women in. However, that has changed within the last five years. Between 1976 and 1981, the number of men in the nation’s law schools fell from 90,259 to 83,351, while total enrollments rose by only 7.2 percent.9 This means that more than seven thousand men were rejected and those seats filled by women. The same is happening in business, medicine, and other professional fields. An augury of things to come may be contained in the title of a Savvy article, “Where are the Men for Women at the Top?”

Still, it would be a mistake to overstate the extent—and thus the impact—of married women’s employment. Belonging to the “labor force” means less than meets the eye. You are counted in that group if you “did any work at all”—one hour’s worth will do—during any given week. You are also included if you are unemployed and looking for a new job, or have been laid off and are waiting to be recalled. Finally, you are counted if you have not been working at all but say you are looking for even a part-time job. So it was under this generous definition that 50.3 percent of all wives were said to be in the labor force as of March of 1980. In fact many of them are not employed or worked for only part of the year, often at part-time jobs. The most recent figures on working wives are for 1979, and they are rather revealing.

Among married couples where the husband was employed (thus excluding unemployed men and men who are retired), 35.9 percent of the wives did not work at all; another 27.9 percent had year-round full-time employment; and the remaining 36.2 percent had part-time jobs or worked for only part of the year. Thus while one can say that 64.1 percent of these wives put in some work, only 43.6 percent of them did so on a steady basis.10 And many of those were wives in marriages that did not yet include children.

For all working wives, median earnings amounted to $6,336 in 1979, and their contribution to total family income came to 26.9 percent. In those cases where a wife and her husband were both year-round full-time workers, her median earnings were $10,199, which contributed 34.7 percent of the family’s earnings. Among couples with one or more children under eighteen, 60.0 percent of the wives put in some work during the year, but it could not have been very extensive since their median income came to only $5,368. Finally, among all working wives, with or without children, only 9.1 percent made more than $15,000 in 1979. These figures raise some questions about the degree to which working on the part of wives contributes to discord, let alone divorce. While more married women are certainly working, it does not appear that the jobs they tend to hold are a large part of their lives.

III

The future of the family will depend heavily on what happens concerning children. While they are not yet out of style, there are considerably fewer of them than there used to be. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of youngsters aged fourteen or under declined by 6,563,000. During the decade there was a net natural growth (births in excess of deaths) of only 14,003,000. It took the arrival of 9,209,000 immigrants to bring the population increase to 23,293,000, its 11.5 percent rise.

Nor should too much be read into the fact that more women in their thirties are starting to have children. While their doing so has helped to nudge up the birthrate, many of them will probably stop at one. However, it will require a lot more babies than that to keep a balanced population, for the survival rate of the aged is growing even faster. Equally interesting are expectations involving future births. A census study conducted in June of 1980 found that for each 1,000 women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, a total of 1,127 babies had already been born and the women said they expected to have 932 more.11 This adds up to approximately 2.06 children per potential mother, somewhat less than the no-growth replacement rate of 2.2 per mother. However, among younger women who still were single, the overall expectation was only 1.8 per person. Even more striking, as many as 21.4 percent of these single women said they expected to have no offspring at all. Their predictions could reflect fantasy as well as considered judgments. Still, that percentage, even if only an “expectation,” deserves serious attention.

Economic and career reasons are obviously at work here. Women on the rise feel they may forfeit promotions if they take time off for having children; there is never a “right time” for an extended leave of absence. Families that once had three children are shifting down to two, or from two to one, for reasons of economy. And the availability of abortions and sterilizations makes it possible to stop when you want to. But the financial aspect is only one factor. Children are still touchstones by which their parents are judged. This attitude comes across in the volume The Inner American, in which Joseph Veroff and his colleagues analyze changes in values over a recent twenty-year period. What did not alter was the desire to be known as a successful parent:

When men and women are asked to think about how they want to be regarded in their social world, most of them clearly chose a reputation for excellence in their family roles over high regard as a worker.

Indeed, about the worst thing that can be said of most people who have done well professionally is that they have failed as parents. Fear of such accusations may have caused many younger people to be wary of starting families. In the past, couples who chose to remain childless were criticized as “selfish.” This happened not because they were refusing to bring joy to some never-to-be-born offspring. They were censured, rather, for preferring to enjoy themselves instead of helping to augment the next generation. The “selfish” argument is seldom heard today. Such pressure as childless couples feel comes chiefly from their own parents, who would like to have some grandchildren.

Raising children is obviously not as easy as it used to be. Veroff and his colleagues state in a formal way what every modern parent knows:

The positions of father or mother…have lost the element of power ascription. Children have come to expect rationalized authority and the possibility of participating in decisions…. Mothers have learned to listen harder for their child’s idiosyncratic feelings and goals in their desire to raise ideal children.

Parents, to put it simply, are uncertain about what they must do to have their children turn out well, let alone “ideal.” The children soon realize this lack of confidence and chip in their own ideas on proper parenthood. Christopher Lasch said it even better: “The child knows more about this ambiguous and constantly shifting practice [of how children grow up] than his parents do, and he skillfully exploits their uneasiness.”12 This seems closer to the mark than “power ascription” and “rationalized authority.”

Lasch and others have made much of two influences that work to undermine parenthood. First, there are the professionals who are assumed to know more about child rearing than parents ever can. They now include pediatricians and guidance counselors, nutritionists and athletic coaches, nursery school teachers and sex education experts. The second influence is of course the so-called “peer group,” to which the children belong and which exerts a stronger force than ever in the past. In books about the family these make a plausible pair of forces, with the professionals covering one flank while peer groups run the other. But anyone who has dealt with young people knows that more is going on.

All those pediatricians and others may cow parents with their warnings and advice. But the more important question concerns who influences the children. Even teachers have very little impact on the attitudes of their pupils. If they were “role models” in the past, they are much less so today. Students may or may not do their lessons; however, what happens in their classrooms has virtually no impact on the way they look at life. They may “like” certain teachers—or counselors or coaches—but that is about as far as it goes. What I am saying is that for the most part adults no longer have any significant sway over children. Even so, pointing to “peer groups” is not a sufficient explanation of the behavior of young people. While such groups may act as intermediaries, the sources of that behavior are more pervasive.

Over the past twenty years a phenomenon called “youth” has supplanted the period once known as adolescence. The latter was an interlude within one’s teens, in which those called adolescents awaited adulthood. It was often a painful span of years, with anxieties over acne and “being popular.” It typically had some minor rebellions, largely involving being home by midnight. Indeed, adolescents usually couldn’t wait to become adults. “Youth” is a much longer period, starting earlier and extending well into the twenties. And it is skeptical, even cynical, about the lives adults lead. In fact, youth may best be seen as a separate country, in which young people take out citizenship. That nation has a culture of its own which now reaches every hamlet. (Of course adults create and distribute most of its artifacts. But they can only sell their goods insofar as they respond to sentiments already there.)

If a single medium reflects the youthful view of life, it is not television or the movies, but popular music. Whether rock or disco or their sundry variations, it is a mode of expression—by and large subversive—cast in a secret language most parents cannot understand. Nor am I talking simply about freer attitudes toward sex and drugs and dress. Young people have chosen to dissociate large parts of themselves from the traditional social structure, including their own homes. And this includes even those who pass all the tests and aspire to professions. A navy blue blazer may have a joint in its pocket. What remains of the family has been eroded even further when children past the age of twelve act as if they are living somewhere else.

But one kind of family is flourishing, at least in growth. These are households with only one parent in residence. Of the 8,450,000 families headed by women, 5,918,000 (or 69.3 percent) contain at least one child under the age of eighteen. This represents a 71.7 percent rise from 1970, when 3,447,000 homes with children had women as their heads. (As it turns out, the number of solo fathers actually declined from 716,000 in 1970 to 609,000 in 1980.)

In the past, a woman raising children on her own was usually assumed to be a widow. At worst, she had been deserted, which put her in the “separated” category. However between 1970 and 1980, the proportion of families headed by widows dropped by 49.6 percent. So did the share headed by women who were separated, which underwent an 18.7 percent decline. At the same time, the proportion of divorced women as family heads rose by 33.2 percent. And even more striking were single women (“never married” in census terminology) whose share increased by 90.6 percent. Not only are more single women having babies; more are taking them home and endeavoring to raise them.

We tend to assume it is better for the children if they live with both their parents. Andrew Cherlin is not so sure: “A large number of studies have made it unclear that the absence of the father was directly responsible for any of the supposed deficiencies of broken homes.” The trouble, he suggests, is “not the lack of a male presence, but the lack of a male income.” Again, our most recent figures are for 1979, and they show that mothers raising two children had a median income of $8,314. In contrast, the median for couples with two children came to exactly $23,000. Even if we allow for the expense of a second adult, children in two-parent homes can count on having twice as much or more spent on them.

It may be noted that the Aid to Dependent Children rolls contained 3,843,000 families at the end of 1980.13This would suggest that about two-thirds of families headed by women receive welfare assistance, while the remaining third make it on their own. And for those who are self-supporting, the phrase should be taken rather literally. Of all the women raising children, only 34.6 percent get any payments from the fathers; and of these, only 68.2 percent receive the agreed-upon amount, which tends to be quite modest.14

The precarious condition of so many households has led, as might be expected, to calls for interventions on the part of public agencies. Hence too the demand for something called a “family policy,” and Gilbert Steiner’s book on The Futility of Family Policy. According to his study, the phrase “family policy” expresses a “flexible and fuzzy concept,” having “imprecise goals” and “no consistent, accepted meaning.” (The same could be said of “foreign policy,” but we will let that pass.) While family assistance of various kinds has always been around, its promotion to “policy” can be said to have begun in 1964, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.

Black households, then as now, were more likely to have a woman head. This, Moynihan implied, was what turns black family life into a “tangle of pathology.” The time had come, his subtitle proposed, for federal intervention which would serve to strengthen families and reduce the anguish they caused themselves and society. In all, the report came close to admitting it was beyond the power of government to make fathers stay at home. After all, even middle-class fathers were taking off in record numbers. The alternative would be to provide “services” to shore up weakened families, regardless of race.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was based on such services. Head Start would combine academic preparation with superior daycare. Then came shelters for battered wives, seminars for pregnant teenagers, and drug counseling centers. Subsidized school lunches were served across the nation, with sex education supported where communities found it tolerable. Even the Nixon administration found itself committed to these programs. However with the arrival of Jimmy Carter, conservatives began to rally. As they saw it, Steiner says, what passed for family policy had turned into an “acceptance of indolence, promiscuity, easy abortion, casual attitudes towards marriage and divorce, and maternal indifference to child-rearing responsibilities.” But the big issue was sex, especially among those whom lawyers like to call “unemancipated minors.”

The rise in youthful pregnancies has caused concern among both liberal and conservative politicians. Both would prefer that they not occur. For liberals, the solution has been contraceptive education and, if that doesn’t work, abortion. Liberals generally take the view that teenage sex is here to stay. Policy should not try to stop it, but should ensure that babies do not ensue. Few advocates of birth control would strongly object to this scene at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Muncie, Indiana:

A rush of girls begins at 3:30 PM, all laughing and talking as they enter. Each holds a stack of books, obviously stopping in from the local high school. Each checks in with the nurse, who…tries to organize the situation, shouting, “Who’s here for pill pick-up? All pill pick-ups here!”15

However most teenagers do not use contraceptives in a regular or reliable manner. For them the major form of birth control has in fact been abortion.

The most recent figures we have for comparing births and abortions are for 1979.16 Births to teenage mothers averaged 560,000 in that year, in which 297,000 of the mothers were married and 263,000 were not. (Some would argue that even many of the married teenagers should not be having babies, especially as many only got married because they were pregnant.) There were also 434,000 abortions performed on teenagers, in which 109,000 of the patients were married and 325,000 were not. The apposition of 325,000 abortions to 263,000 births among unmarried teenagers results in a ratio of 124 abortions for every 100 births. That so many young women have been able to end their pregnancies suggests a fairly effective abortion system is in place. Thus far at least, tightened regulations and curtailed public funds have not yet decreased the incidence of abortions among unmarried women.

Liberals point out that if abortions were not available there would have been 325,000 more babies born to young unmarried women. Some also feel that many if not most of the 263,000 who did give birth might not have done so had clinics and counseling been put within their reach. And the corollary is often added that teenagers must be able to use these services, whether for contraception or abortion, without the knowledge of their parents. Needless to say, this proposal does not betoken confidence in parent-child trust. Even if we know that in many cases the parental reaction would be rage or worse, it is not easy to argue that concealing such information would “strengthen” a family. For conservatives, this concealment—and the concomitant freedom of young people from adult control—became the final straw. An increasing number of states now decree that teenagers applying for contraceptives or abortions can only do so with their parents’ knowledge and consent.

The conservative solution is to counsel abstinence and, if that doesn’t work, to urge adoption. Right now, however, as many as 85 percent of babies born to young unmarried women are kept by their mothers, while another 7 percent are given to other family members, leaving only 8 percent who are offered for adoption. In the past when young women got pregnant before marriage (as more than a few did) one of two things usually happened. For the most part they got married right away and soon announced the early arrival of a baby. The rest bore their children alone, and these were the ones largely taken for adoption. In many cases the baby was all but wrested from its youthful mother—often she never saw it—because keeping the infant was not regarded as her right. (In fact, having an out-of-wedlock child could be considered evidence of her unfitness for motherhood.) Adoption agencies went along with this system because it gave them a steady source of supply. Restoring this system seems virtually impossible.

If conservatives reject abortion, neither are they happy about so many unmarried teenagers setting up as mothers. To deal with this and other danger signs, two bills have been submitted to Congress proposing new approaches to family policy that are congenial to the conservatives who take a strong moral stand. One of them, HR 3955, in the House of Representatives, seeks “to strengthen the American family and promote the virtues of family life.” The other, S 1090, the work of Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, concerns itself chiefly with “the prevention of adolescent sexual activity.” Since they complement one another, the two bills may be treated as a single package.

HR 3955 begins with the “finding” that “certain governmental policies have undermined and diminished the viability of the American family.” One such policy is the one already mentioned, which has allowed unmarried teenagers to obtain contraceptives and abortions without their parents’ knowledge. The bill proposes to restore “family involvement” by ordering that

No program shall receive Federal funds unless such program, prior to providing any contraceptive device or abortion service (including abortion counseling) to an unmarried minor, notifies the parents or guardians of such minor that such contraceptive or abortion services are being provided.17

In addition, HR 3955 seeks to encourage “multi-generational households,” on the premise that families will be strengthened if grandparents are in residence. To this end, all families housing a relative over sixty-five will be eligible for a tax credit of $250 and an extra deduction of $1,000.

In its title, Senator Denton’s bill affirms that “the prevention of adolescent sexual activity…depends primarily upon developing strong family values and close family ties.” It, too, aims to increase the “involvement of parents with their adolescent children.” More precisely, it would aid parents in encouraging “self-discipline and chastity” through “family-centered approaches to the problems of adolescent promiscuity and adolescent pregnancy.” The bill defines an “adolescent” as “an individual under the age of nineteen”; and “promiscuity” as any act of “sexual intercourse out of wedlock.” Its goal, then, is to keep Americans chaste until their nineteenth birthday.

At the same time, Senator Denton’s bill is not really sure why teenagers have taken so to sex. Accordingly, it is prepared to finance “research into the causes of adolescent promiscuity.” However, even while this knowledge is being gathered, ways should be found for “reaching adolescents before they become sexually active,” the better to “prevent adolescent sexual relations.” On one point the bill is firm: no program may promote “contraceptive use,” because its very practice encourages promiscuity.

If self-discipline and chastity fail and a teenager does become pregnant, then the Denton bill would want the baby to be born and would provide funds to “promote adoption as an alternative for adolescent parents,” including “counseling and referral services which present adoption as an option.” The bill does not propose that babies be taken for adoption without the mothers’ consent.

Whether these bills will pass Congress remain to be seen. And if they do, it will be even more interesting to observe whether they can have much effect. What is intriguing at this point is how their language parallels that of liberal legislation. All those references to “services” and “research,” and “counseling” and “involvement,” recall the Great Society experts who also thought they had the key to strengthening the family.

What we call a “strong family” requires a degree of dedication that most of today’s adults and children can no longer give. In any given case we may make judgments about how people might be more considerate of one another, but if “the family” as an institution is eroding, it is no one’s and everyone’s fault. We are simply not the kinds of people our grandparents were, and we live in a world that is vastly different from theirs. One hope is to find other sources of satisfaction. This is what Karen Lindsey wants to tell us in Friends as Family.

It is easy to be put off by her book. For one thing, it is chiefly about her friends. We hear more than we want or need to know about Eva and Russ and Lydia and several dozen others. All are “loving,” “caring,” “committed” human beings adept in the art of friendship, but unfortunately not very interesting people. Lindsey also has several dragons to slay, in particular the myth of the “happy traditional family,” which various “intellectual pseudoleftists” have set up as a model. Far from being a haven, the family in Lindsey’s view was a pretty gruesome place. As Lindsey tells it, children were molested or neglected by cold and heartless parents; wives were regularly abused, sometimes with hobnailed boots. Households, which were sternly patriarchal, “lived together in hopeless toleration.”

Many will challenge this picture of the way they grew up. I am not prepared to say how much hatred and resentment seethed beneath the surface, or how great was the incidence of physical harm. Still, it is clear that for a woman, being a wife and mother often set severe limits on what she could do with her life, and, for better or worse, a formidable number of women are no longer ready to accept those limits. Lindsey is saying that women who want to explore a larger world would do well to avoid the family trap. The same undoubtedly holds for many men.

So Friends as Family is really a proposal for the single life, to be integrated with “fictive families” at work, in neighborhoods, and of our own creation. Lindsey assumes that relationships we choose will fare better than those constrained by birth and marriage vows and the demands of raising children. She tends to skirt the question of children, taking the position that only those who really want them and have the temperament should embark on parenthood. As things are going, we may discover that a diminishing fraction of us feel so qualified. If that is so and we want a population in which there is not a rising proportion of the old and a much smaller proportion of the young, we had better reconsider our immigration quotas.

This Issue

March 18, 1982

  1. 1

    Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (Basic Books, 1979), p. xx. 

  2. 2

    Here to Stay: American Families in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 1976). 

  3. 3

    Richard A. Easterlin, Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare (Basic Books, 1981), reviewed by Christopher Jencks, NYR, October 8, 1981. 

  4. 4

    For a more detailed discussion of divorce, see my “Goodbye to Marriage,” NYR, May 3, 1979. 

  5. 5

    Monthly Vital Statistics Report, US Public Health Service, July 31, 1981. 

  6. 6

    Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., “Remarriage and Intergenerational Relations,” in Robert W. Fogel, et al., eds., Aging: Stability and Change in the Family (Academic Press, 1981), p. 119. 

  7. 7

    Perspectives on Working Women, US Department of Labor, June 1980. 

  8. 8

    Social Security Bulletin, US Department of Health and Human Services, December 1981, p. 71. 

  9. 9

    Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 1981. 

  10. 10

    Money Income of Families and Persons, Bureau of the Census, P-60, No. 129, November 1981. 

  11. 11

    Fertility of American Women, Bureau of the Census, P-20, No. 364 August, 1981. 

  12. 12

    Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World, p. 173. 

  13. 13

    Social Security Bulletin, December 1981, p. 52. 

  14. 14

    Child Support and Alimony, Bureau of the Census, P-23, No. 112, September 1981. 

  15. 15

    Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick, Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (University of Minnesota Press, April 1982), p. 163. 

  16. 16

    Abortion Surveillance, US Centers for Disease Control, November 1980; Monthly Vital Statistics Report, US Public Health Service, September 29, 1981. 

  17. 17

    In fact, a “family planning law” passed last year required federally financed clinics to notify parents when contraceptive devices are given to girls aged seventeen or younger. Orders to implement this provision are scheduled to go out early in 1982. HR 3955 would raise the age to eighteen, and notify parents about abortion services as well.