Doubtless even cavemen used “work” as a subterfuge to reduce their domestic duties. Men today still manage to get by with doing little work at home. Nor do they have difficulty claiming that extra hours away from home are required, either by their superiors’ demands or to bring in enough money to pay mounting household bills. Of course, some men truly like, even love, their jobs, not least because their work tends to have a coherent structure, especially when compared with the demands of growing children.
Now Arlie Russell Hochschild claims women are also using work as an escape. “In this new model of family and work life,” she writes, “a tired parent flees a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the reliable orderliness, harmony, and managed cheer of work.” The Time Bind is based on three summers of interviewing some 130 factory and clerical workers at a company she called “Amerco.” Whether by accident or design, she scatters sufficient clues to identify it as the Corning Glass Company’s central plant in upstate New York.
The company gave Hochschild an office, and her findings are based largely on interviews she conducted there or in employees’ homes. The women, most of whom had young children, portrayed their jobs as “fun,” even “carefree,” as well as “a respite from the emotional tangles at home” and “more interesting than life at home.” This being so, Hochschild tells us, many not only willingly put in ten-and eleven-hour days, but most don’t even take their full vacation allotments. This dedication, she adds, is as evident for production and clerical workers as for executives.
Is this rendering plausible? It is one thing to say that work settings can be companionable, as they very often are. Even blue-collar jobs afford respites for socializing, and workmates often become good friends. But it is another thing to argue that people put in evening and weekend hours because it’s more enjoyable than going home. For one thing, we have to ask how likely it is that women will acknowledge dissatisfaction with company policy to a researcher established in a company office. We know, moreover, that blue-collar workers usually agree to overtime because they want or need the extra money. This could be so in the Corning area, where the median family income is $39,277, visibly below the national figure of $43,082. (The Time Bind does not provide details about the earnings of the people Hochschild talked to and how urgently they may be needed, which seems an unfortunate omission in a study of this kind.) Moreover, quite a few of Hochschild’s women are single mothers, trying to make ends meet on a lone paycheck. Whether many of her respondents were making the best out of a situation in which they badly needed overtime payments is a question Hochschild does not adequately consider.
Of course, professionals are expected to put in extra time at the office or home. If you want to go up the executive ladder, work assignments often must come before virtually everything else in your life. Yet planning company budgets and making presentations of corporate products isn’t always carefree fun. Hochschild devotes much of a chapter to a two-career couple, both of whom felt they couldn’t get out of scheduled meetings on the morning when their son was being rushed to a hospital with a severe neurological condition.
Still, Hochschild addresses some serious changes in our times. Fewer women than in the past have the desire or disposition to be wives and mothers who stay at home. Certainly, the statistics support her case. To start, not nearly as many women today are choosing marriage and motherhood. As recently as 1970, among women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four, fully 94 percent had been married and 92 percent had had a child. By 1995, among the same age-group, only 80 percent had been married and 74 percent were mothers. Moreover, it seems likely that many of the unmarried and childless women will never take those steps.1
At times, a reader of Hochschild’s book may wonder why the women she interviewed at Corning have children at all. She introduces us to four-year-old Cassie, an only child in a two-career family, who gets some “quality time” at nine PM, during which her mother flips through telephone messages. Or we meet Janey, also four, who goes on “a kind of sit-down strike” to play on her parents’ guilt over their domestic neglect. The Time Bind ends by calling on employers to require their workers to leave earlier, if only for the children’s sake. The parents she talked to predictably complain that they are always short of time; but much of her book makes it clear that mothers no less than fathers invoke the excuse that they must stay at work.
While each year sees more mothers joining the work force, the question of who will care for their children receives scant analysis. Hochschild opens her book with Corning professionals as they leave their preschoolers at a center set up in a church basement. She describes it as a cheery place, with an attentive staff, that will keep the youngsters for as long as ten hours. We are not told what these parents pay, but rates for this kind of middle-class service now commonly run to $200 a week, or $10,000 a year per child. Families who hire nannies usually pay more than that, with still more going to overhead if they live in. Only if the mother adds, say, $35,000 to the household do outlays like these begin to make economic sense. However, only 15.4 percent of working women earn that much, leaving others to look for cheaper options, some of them hardly satisfactory so far as the welfare of children is concerned. Most rely on a relative, generally a grandmother, or pay something to a neighbor. If more formal arrangements are sought, given what most working parents can afford, almost all would need heavy subsidies. A few employers do this, but only if they decide such a benefit will be a paying investment. For lower-wage workers, this is seldom the case.
Hochschild cites another reason why work has become a haven: domestic ties are increasingly tenuous. In addition to the single mothers she interviewed, she found women whose second marriages were showing signs of fraying. Even in bucolic Corning, divorce has become so commonplace that many view it as inevitable. Hence one woman’s comment on daughters, “I want them to grow up to be good single moms.”
Two methods are used to measure divorce. The first computes the annual number of divorces per 1,000 married couples. By this count, the rate has more than doubled, from 9.2 in 1960 to 20.5 in 1994, the latter the most recent count. A divorce rate of 20.5 per 1,000 may not seem like much, amounting to about 1.1 million per year among 55 million couples. A more graphic measure is the annual ratio of marriages to divorces. Thus in 1960, some 258 divorces were granted as against 1,000 recorded marriages, or about one failure for every four tries. By 1994 the ratio had almost doubled, to 504 per 1,000, the latter the basis for the often-heard assertion that half of all marriages will not last. True, the divorces granted in any single year include couples who married at varying times in the past. However, current figures show partners parting at every age. In the current total, over a third of the husbands and a quarter of the wives are in their forties or older. So forecasts that one in two of current marriages will fail are likely to become true.
Most people still want to get—and stay—married, but not necessarily for reasons that prevailed in the past. Fewer regard marriage as a sacrament, and fewer feel it need accompany the birth of children. Inherent in earlier unions was the subordinate status of the wife. And, for those who had it, wealth was usually transmitted through marital ties. Still, the ideal of a stable, lifetime marriage which produces one or two children is still pervasive among much of the population. Nor is this ideal respected only where religion has a strong hold; there remain millions of secular couples who will make it all the way through.
Two sets of forces are both raising and lowering the incidence of divorce. Contributing to the rise is the fact that in 44.3 percent of all current weddings, one or both of the spouses has already had an unsuccessful marriage. (In 1970, the proportion was 27.2 percent.) This means the overall pool of couples on which the divorce rate is based is in greater peril, since people who try again are half again as likely to break up compared with first-timers.
Yet despite the increase in second and subsequent splits, the official figures show that recent years have actually seen fewer divorces. The highest annual rate was in 1979 with 22.8 per 1,000 married couples getting divorced; while by 1994, as noted, the number had declined to 20.5 per 1,000. But during these years, something else was happening: young people were postponing marriage. In 1979, the median age for first marriages was 21.6 for women and 23.4 for men. By 1994, the respective medians had risen to 24.0 and 25.9. It has always been the case that the younger the partners are when they marry, the greater will be the likelihood of divorce. So the rising ages of marriage means there will be fewer of those youthful partings. Indeed, in 1970, couples in their twenties accounted for 42.9 percent of the divorce total. By 1990, their share was down to 30.7 percent, since they made up a smaller share of the marriage pool. At the same time, young people are spending much of their premarital period living together. And, as hardly needs saying, many of these arrangements do not last. Yet these unofficial breakups, which must number in the millions, are not recorded in the divorce figures. If they were, the current rates would certainly surpass even the 1979 peak.2
The “divorce culture,” as described in Barbara Whitehead’s book, has reduced marriage to an evanescent attachment, almost as easily ended as resigning from a job. The cause, as she sees it, is the rise of “extreme individualism,” construed as achieving personal happiness without incurring obligations to others. Hence the ubiquity of “expressive divorce,” which justifies pulling out of a marriage if it becomes stultifying or simply boring. Of course, many Americans have romantic feelings and longings, but they add a codicil when they commit themselves to marriage. As Whitehead puts it, many insist on “someone who will both meet your emotional needs and refrain from infringing on your individual rights.” So more and more marriages become, in Whitehead’s view, “a treaty negotiated by two sovereigns who must share space in one castle.” While only more well-to-do couples draw up prenuptial contracts, most who now embark on marriage have provisos in their minds, adding a tentative tone to the ceremonial “I do.”
While Whitehead hopes her book will contribute to “recapturing a sense of the purposes of marriage that extend beyond the self,” her aim is more sweeping. She wants Americans to return to an ethic by which “wholeness of self is found in service and commitment to others.” Underlying Whitehead’s argument is not simply an indictment of “extreme individualism,” but of feelings of self-importance that have been growing for much of this century. The generations schooled in McGuffey’s Readers learned that duty was paramount, which is why young men did the right thing by marrying the girl, just as they stuck around to the end even if the union palled. This morality also instilled a readiness to die for one’s country, placing the commonweal before personal pleasures. In short, this view of marriage finds the fullest life built on subsuming much of the self. Nor is such a view wholly antediluvian: we have models in our time in religious communities like the Amish and the Mormons, the Hasidim and the Nation of Islam. But thus far no secular cultures have been equally successful in keeping marriages intact.
How might dissatisfied partners be persuaded to stay together, or to induce the one who feels stifled to stick it out? Whitehood has no convincing answers here. The threat of public shame doesn’t work, since being divorced no longer carries a stigma. Even those divorced parents who stop seeing their children rarely suffer socially, and most men provide no more than minimal financial support. (Moreover, such men have little difficulty finding a sympathetic second mate.) Nor can it be said with certainty what might happen were legislatures to make divorces more difficult to obtain. As matters now stand, more people than ever are living together and having children without benefit of marriage.
After Whitehead’s book went to press, Louisiana’s legislature added a second kind of marriage to the conventional kind, which requires no more than purchasing a license. Couples there may now choose a “covenant” contract, under which they agree to prior counseling in an effort to identify and resolve potential problems. (Even now, about a fifth of counseled couples decide not to go on with the marriage.) The covenant also specifies that if talk of a divorce does arise, there must be a two-year period, during which the partners pledge to do their best to reconcile.3 Even if this fails, a covenant divorce would only be allowed on grounds like adultery or abuse or abandonment. We will soon have statistics on how many Louisiana couples choose the covenant option. Some will not do so for religious reasons, but simply because they believe their love will last forever. But it will take a few years to find out how or whether these kinds of agreements will have affected the state’s divorce rates.
Whether or not people still believe in love, fewer people now choose to express it through marriage. In 1970, a substantial 70.7 percent of men and women aged eighteen and older were married. By 1995, that proportion had dropped to 57.3 percent. While divorce is obviously one cause, so has been the postponement of marriage and the decision not to marry at all.
From the early days of household history, marriages were meant to be permanent, lasting until the death of one of the partners. (Political pairings, like Henry VIII’s, were understood to have other purposes.) If brides and grooms pledged mutual love, it had to be of a kind that could endure for a lifetime. We need only recall our grandparents to observe how couples devised enduring relationships. Partners grew accustomed to each other; they worked out their own routines and patterns of accommodating each other’s differences. Romance and mutually satisfying sex were seldom expected or experienced. At the same time, more couples than not counted themselves happy, although they accepted an affection that seems subdued compared with what we hope for now. True, most women had to accept male power and control over money, and much else, and some marriages were miserable; indeed, newspapers and novels described cases of cruelty and desertion.4 Yet marriage itself was not seen to be a “problem.” Most couples remained together.
Whitehood generally blames liberal attitudes and policies for the rise of the “divorce culture.” She fails to ask how and why the same ethos has pervaded conservative circles as well. In recent years, the Republicans have had difficulty pressing for “family values,” in light of the marital record of their leaders. Newt Gingrich, Clarence Thomas, Phil Gramm, and Bob Dole all discarded their original wives for younger replacements. And while Jane Wyman initiated her divorce from Ronald Reagan, he then chose a well-connected starlet thirteen years his junior.
Dana Mack also indicts the prevailing “culture”; but her chief concern is with laws and agencies that preempt decisions she feels properly belong to families. Thus she challenges not only sex education in the schools, but rulings mandating that children must receive medical treatment against their parents’ wishes. And she is so hostile to government intervention that she urges a strong presumption of innocence for any parent suspected of brutality or abuse. She opens her book with a chapter called “The Family-Hating Culture”—strong words. And it is certainly true that today fewer Americans live within families than at any other time in this century. As Table A shows, of our almost 100 million households, only slightly over half consist of married couples, down from close to three quarters a generation ago. A mere quarter consist of couples with children, a drop from somewhat under half in the past.
Regarding working mothers, while Mack admits that the great majority take jobs out of necessity, she argues that most of them would prefer not to. For support, she cites a Labor Department survey in which only 15 percent said they would continue with full-time work if their households didn’t need the money. (Might not many men say the same thing?) Such surveys of course are much too inclusive to distinguish between the jobs women may find challenging, satisfying, tolerable, boring, or repellent. But differences in the quality of work don’t interest Mack. She wants more wives to stay at home, and to enable them to do so she would amend the tax laws so that fathers could bring home more of their earnings. While criticizing mothers who allegedly put their careers ahead of their children, she doesn’t criticize employers who make a point of recruiting women. But it seems not to have occurred to her (or to many other writers on the subject of the family) that in a society in which alluring, increasingly expensive products are constantly advertised and promoted, and have become thought of as necessities, we should not be surprised that many women want to have more money.
When writers such as Mack and Whiteside advocate “family values,” a salient question is which families they have in mind. Readers of The Assault on Parenthood soon find that its solicitude is limited to women who have managed to get and keep a wage-earning husband. But in fact, as Table B shows, of American homes with children, 23.6 percent are currently headed by single mothers. And among children generally, 28.2 percent now live with only one parent. An early defense of public assistance was that it would enable women without resident husbands to stay home with their children, putting them on a par with their married counterparts. As hardly needs saying, this argument has ceased to persuade many people. About half of all single mothers support themselves by holding jobs. Those who have been receiving welfare are now expected to find employment, leaving the care of their children to others.
Dana Mack is less draconian than many, since she would allow women to receive welfare funding until their children “reach school age,” which usually means kindergarten. But she would assign such households a social worker, to ensure that there is “adequate mothering.” These officials could also take charge of a family’s shopping, if it is found that “money was being wasted.” If this seems like state-sponsored intrusion, with an expensive budget for social workers, Mack would remind us that these mothers are living on other people’s money, anyway. Once they have proved themselves by bringing in their own earnings, they may be presumed to be no longer in need of supervision.
In better times, we also hear, parents deferred to educators in the belief that professionals knew what they were doing. If a child complained about a teacher, most parents would reflexively support the adult. Mack contends that public schools no longer warrant this respect. For evidence, she describes what happens in classes in sex education. She cites one where fifth-graders watch filmstrips showing anal intercourse and another in which seventh-graders slip condoms over bananas. She is certainly on firm ground when she argues that many parents feel this is too much sex education and too soon. Not surprisingly, she sides with parents who feel that instruction about sex belongs at home. It would have been informative to discover how children learn about sexual matters there, a subject that has thus far evaded sociological surveys. How do most teenagers find out how to roll on condoms?
Many educators argue that, in these times, teenagers are going to have sexual relations anyway, so the schools should do what they can to prevent pregnancies and disease. As one might expect, Mack finds this position amoral and argues, without any convincing evidence, that teaching young people abstinence can work. Here too, she prefers to attack the schools rather than take account of the ubiquitous and highly profitable prime-time television shows and movies that rouse adolescent urges. Still, her sampling of sex syllabuses shows how close some often come to celebrating early sexual experience. Insofar as there are teachers who encourage their pupils to have “responsible” sex, this may not be an advance even progressive parents would welcome.
For Mack, “parental rights” are paramount, and take precedence over outsiders’ efforts to protect children. Thus she sees the “assault” on the family led by overbearing professionals, increasingly armed with legal powers, who undermine the authority of parents. In this vein, she defends a Christian Science couple who refused to have their son’s bowel obstruction treated by a physician. When the boy died, a judge, as an arm of official power, sentenced the parents to ten years probation and ordered them to obtain annual medical checkups for their other children. As Mack sees it, this is yet another excess of a “family-hating” state. She argues that “children also die under the care of medical doctors,” which is, of course, true; but she gives no figures for fatalities in treatment vs. nontreatment of bowel obstructions. Her book provides an interesting example of a partisan use of sociological data in order to oppose trends whose deeper causes she chooses to overlook. Apart from some familiar critical remarks about soap operas and rap music recordings, she has little to say about the power of American commercial culture, which has an influence over children with which parents are hard pressed to compete.
A study sponsored by the Advertising Council and funded by the McDonald’s chain reveals a related source of family instability. The council’s survey asked 4,500 adults, of whom 2,500 were parents, for their assessments of the nation’s children. While the report’s title, Kids These Days, lacks an exclamation mark, the replies expressed exasperation. Most of those interviewed regard today’s youngsters as a vexing problem, too long out of control. The following statement from a New Jersey man is fairly representative:
By the time they are in high school, most of them are in trouble. They might not be in criminal trouble, but they are out there aggravating the neighbors and raising hell in the streets.
The subtitle, What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation, shows the respondents were invited to view youngsters as a social group separate from themselves. (As if one asked longtime citizens to dilate on recent immigrants.) Yet it should be obvious that the “kids” who comprise the “next generation” were conceived and raised and often still reside in homes headed by the very persons whose judgments the survey is soliciting. True, only about a third—33.9 percent—of Americans aged twenty-five or older now have children living with them. Yet, interestingly, the survey found that parents and nonparents gave similar responses.
High proportions of those questioned felt it to be “very” or “somewhat common” that today’s children are undisciplined (89 percent); spoiled (85 percent); lazy (74 percent); or annoying, if not a menace (71 percent). While “common” need not mean most, it certainly suggests a great many. This raises the question about which children—and whose—the respondents are talking about. While the report prints direct quotations from seventy-three of the people it polled, only two parents admitted to having problems with a child of their own. A Colorado mother confessed, “My daughter is wild. She is seven going on twenty-one,” while a Utah father told of turning a blind eye even as he knew his son was using drugs. Unfortunately, the survey’s sponsors did not ask the 2,500 parents in their sample to assess their own offspring on the scale they used to rate other people’s children. Nor did the sponsors try to find out how the same questions might have been answered twenty-five or fifty years ago.
Still, much more is at issue here than a generation gap, which has probably been around since Cain began muttering about Adam. Without directly saying so, the survey reveals an important truth: young people are increasingly citizens of an autonomous country. Even if living at home, by the age of eleven their spirits are dwelling elsewhere. While their values are obviously influenced by television, even more potent is the temper of popular music, in which, it should be added, rap has only a very small part. The advertising industry and fast-food chains—the latter competing with the family dinner table—have done much to create this nation which young people find so alluring.
Stephanie Coontz’s closing chapter in The Way We Really Are is entitled “Working With What We’ve Got.” And what we’ve got are millions of working mothers, out-of-wedlock births, marriages that won’t last, and children being raised by single mothers, often living with men who are not their fathers. While Coontz says she isn’t happy with some of these conditions, she sees them as integral to our times, so we shouldn’t expect substantial changes or reversion to earlier patterns. In fact, she cheers many of the trends that other commentators deplore. In explaining “why wives and mothers will continue to work outside the home,” she turns Dana Mack’s data on its head, contending that “most women would not give up the satisfactions of their jobs even if they could afford to quit.” Can Coontz seriously mean this? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs women typically hold are as hotel maids, sewing machine operators, and in food processing plants, where wages are low, the work is unpleasant, and the pressures often onerous. She is on firmer ground when she says one of the advantages to women of having their own paycheck is “the increased leverage it gives them in the family.”
On out-of-wedlock births, she reminds us that most unmarried girls and women do not intend to become pregnant, and that “there are hundreds of paths to becoming a single mother.” By definition, failure to use contraception can bring on a pregnancy, just as unavailability of abortion can result in a birth. We also know that many teenagers want to bear and keep their babies, either before they become pregnant or after finding that they are. Yet Coontz is reluctant to say that these decisions might be a mistake. Rather, she cites studies which report that “single parents spend more time talking with their children than married parents do,” and “are also more likely than two-parent families to praise good grades.” Such comments remind us that while sociologists can measure minutes, and possibly quantify praise, what counts, of course, is the quality of parental comments and the behavior that results from compliments; and we get no sense of these from the survey Coontz cites. Still, as she views the domestic scene, she finds that eschewing marriage could be a wise move:
Children of mothers who have made a conscious choice for singlehood and do not go through the intense bitterness of a failed relationship have a potential advantage here.
It must be said, however, that women who find themselves poor and on their own with a child have no advantages to speak of.
Only half of our children now live in conventional families, and each year that proportion declines. So Coontz believes she is describing our domestic future; and while she acknowledges it has a lot of rough spots, we must, she argues, try to make it work. She calls for a full range of generous social programs, from quality nurseries to an assault on poverty. In “adapting to diversity,” she concludes, the rest of us should not only accept single mothers and same-sex households, but also be willing to learn from them. Amazingly, in view of recent history, Coontz hardly considers the deep resistance American workers—including self-supporting women—have to special programs for single mothers.
The consequences of the changes in family life elude most of the would-be experts who have tried to analyze them. Few want to contemplate such questions or what we will tell our children about these trends. Should we inform them, for example, that the odds are at least fifty-fifty that whatever marriage they contract will end in divorce? Or that the chances are three in ten their children will be born out of wedlock? Or that there is a good possibility they may discover or decide they are not heterosexual? Perhaps it is parents who need education on sex and the sexes, at least as much as their children. But who would teach them?
In their analysis and assessments of domestic life, Barbara Whitehead and Dana Mack basically look to the past. Their models for marriage and the family derive from more strictly controlled times, when spouses acknowledged their duties and children did as they were told. Moreover, they believe these patterns can be restored. On their side, it should be said that their values still have a sizeable constituency. As has been noted, over half of adult Americans are married; and most who aren’t would probably like to be, or would be if they could find a congenial mate. Most Americans also want to have children, even if their place in family life will not mirror older traditions. For her part, Stephanie Coontz is trying to speak for a smaller but still forceful and growing constituency. Its members have a different vision of the future, in which they envisage more freedom for women and less control of children. As they view it, marriage more often than not spells subordination, while divorce, for all its difficulties, brings liberation. Thus Coontz is prepared to embrace some of the very changes that writers like Whitehead and Mack see as undermining marriage and ravaging the family. In such differences lie divisions in our culture whose future no one can predict but that seem likely to become deeper and more acute in the years just ahead.
December 4, 1997
Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Fertility of American Women (US Government Printing Office, 1995). In an earlier study, the Census asked childless women to speculate about their future childbearing. Among those in their late twenties one in seven said they believed they would never have children; and by their early thirties, four out of ten held that view. Fertility of American Women (US Government Printing Office, 1993). Of course, forecasts are not facts. Still, as Tables A and B show, fertility rates are definitely declining and the number of childless couples is rising. ↩
The most recent reports are: National Center for Health Statistics, Final Divorce Statistics (US Public Health Service, March 22, 1995); Final Marriage Statistics (US Public Health Service, July 14, 1995). ↩
“Louisiana Approves Measure to Tighten Marriage Bonds,” The New York Times, June 24, 1997, p. A1. Psychotherapy may be the nation’s fastest-growing profession, now having some 550,000 practitioners. The numbers of psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors have almost trebled since 1970, an increase four-and-a-half times that for the total labor force. It is instructive that even Louisiana is setting so much store on therapy, although its covenants also allow for religious counseling. ↩
See Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (BasicBooks, 1992), and the review by Nicholas Lemann in The New York Review, February 3, 1994. ↩