Out of Focus Families

Posted: May 17, 2001 12:00 AM
A U.S. Airways contest invites children to write an essay about their father or "father figure" for Father's Day. The divorced Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, tells a young girl in a TV commercial about "Prince Charming" and the ideal marriage. "Of course, if it doesn't work out," she says, the child will have to become familiar with stocks and bonds to secure her own future. This image of marriage, parenthood, conditional love and the modern family reflects reality. According to new Census Bureau figures, the American nuclear family has exploded and the traditional families of the past are becoming more difficult to locate in the debris. While slightly more than 51 percent of us live in married couple households (down from 55 percent a decade ago), the number of single parent households has jumped 25 percent to 7.5 million. There was a 72 percent increase in the number of cohabiting couples - from 3.1 million in 1990, to 5.4 million in 2000. Most troubling of all, the statistics show that nearly 30 percent of children do not live with any two parents, including stepparents. Some analysts have concluded from these findings that tax policies should be adjusted to make it easier for one parent to stay at home with children. Others say the changing face of the American family calls for the elimination of special considerations for married couples and the extension of government benefits to homosexual and heterosexual people who do not conform to the nuclear family model. Beyond the policy considerations of these figures are the social implications. In her book, "The Divorce Culture" (Alfred Knopf, 1997), Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes that divorce has been both evolutionary and revolutionary. The revolutionary part consists of a barrage of ideas unleashed against the notion of family as we have known it. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing today, the social stigma that argued against divorce has been removed, replaced with the nonjudgmental attitude that no human relationship is to be preferred over any other. In the past, the expectation that people should do what is "right" served as a powerful impetus for people to do right things. It also discouraged them from doing wrong things, while reinforcing moral and ethical norms. Societal disapproval of certain behavior thought to be bad for individuals and culture and its promotion of other behavior deemed to be good for both was thought to be central to the promotion of the general welfare. The new Census Bureau statistics reveal what two generations of "doing your own thing" and immediate gratification, rather than self-control and putting others first has produced. Social scientists who have studied the move away from the nuclear family model during the last four decades conclude what common sense tells us: Children need both parents. Lately, though, the idea of a two-parent household has been seen as one of many options, and not a particularly good one at that. Children take time. They infringe on the monetary goals of a two-income household. There is the cost of day care and the orthodontist and clothes and college. It's "self" again, precisely the attitude that has lead to family breakup or families that never start in the traditional sense. Perhaps the traditionalists have spent too much time criticizing the unraveling nuclear family and not enough time promoting its benefits. A generation lost to such notions as objective truth must be sold on an idea the way television appeals to them to buy products. Authors Maggie Gallagher and Linda J. Waite do that in their book, "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially" (Doubleday, 2000). To the self-centered, the writers make their case based on self: Married people live longer, are better off financially and are generally less likely to be depressed or lonely, or to abuse drugs or alcohol. What the Census figures reveal is beyond the power of legislators or a president to fix. Politicians can tinker at the edges with tax policies, but it will take something, or someone, more powerful if the notions of family which have served us well since our founding are to be restored.