The Family in the Postmodern World

By Elkind, David | National Forum, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Family in the Postmodern World

Elkind, David, National Forum

Without fully realizing it perhaps, we have moved into a postmodern world. The conceptual givens of modernity - the belief in unfettered social progress, in universal principles, and in the lawfulness of nature - have all been challenged. After two World Wars, the Atomic Bomb, the Holocaust, the depletion of natural resources, and the pollution of air and water, the belief in unbroken social progress had to be abandoned. Likewise, while there are many universals, there are also many particulars - say of race, gender, or ethnicity - that have to be valued and appreciated. Finally, we have come to recognize and to accept that some phenomena, such as the weather, are inherently irregular and have no underlying lawfulness. They are by nature chaotic.

Although we have not given up our beliefs in progress, universality, and lawfulness, we have adjusted and modified them in keeping with postmodern experience and discoveries. The tectonic shift in our basic ideas about ourselves and our world has affected all facets of our society, from science to the arts, from philosophy to architecture.

A common motif is that of pastiche, a mixture of seemingly disparate elements. In architecture, for example, postmodern buildings are a creative mixture of different architectural styles. Postmodern buildings often combine architectural styles of antiquity such as open courtyards, atria, and Greek columns with modern glass and steel. Such buildings celebrate difference rather than progress, particulars rather than universals, and irregularity rather than lawfulness.

The Modern Nuclear Family

The social, historical, and cultural events that have transformed the other institutions of American society have had an equal effect upon the basic sentiments, values, and perceptions of the American family. The nuclear family - two parents, one working, the other staying home to rear the children - clearly embodied the ideas of modernity. This family was regarded as the end result of an evolutionary process of variation and of natural selection. The nuclear family survived because it was the fittest for rearing children and thus for perpetuating the species. It also was regarded as the universal form that eventually would be found in all societies and cultures. Finally, the nuclear family was thought to be the most lawful kinship system; any family kinship system that was not nuclear was regarded as irregular, unlawful, and by extension, immoral.

Sentiments of the Nuclear Family

Accompanying this modern view of the nuclear family were the sentiments that enlivened it. The first of these was the sentiment, as described by Edward Shorter in The Making of the Modern Family, of romantic love. Beginning with nineteenth-century individualism, the belief arose that for each of us there is one other individual who was created as our perfect mate. Once we encountered that person, we would know it instantly and proceed to spend the rest of our lives forever "happily-ever-aftering." An essential condition of this romantic ideal was that a young woman would "save" herself for her fated partner. In this romantic context, virginity was a valuable commodity that could be exchanged for a lifelong commitment to the relationship. Romantic love worked to keep couples together even when they were unhappy. While this ideal was unfortunate for parents in unrewarding relationships, it often benefited children because parents stayed together and usually did not blame the children for the failure of the marriage.

A second sentiment of the nuclear family, according to Shorter, was that of maternal love. This sentiment grew out of a belief in a maternal "instinct" such that women had a biological urge to stay home and take care of their children. Women were thought to be totally fulfilled if they were able to follow the dictates of this biological imperative. Although the evidence for instincts in humans was, and is, hard to find, the lack of evidence did not prevent the belief in the maternal instinct from gaining wide popular acceptance.

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