Readings on the Changing Family

Readings on the Changing Family

Readings on the Changing Family

Readings on the Changing Family

Excerpt

The "American family," as most typically described, is a statistical abstraction. It confronts the reader through a series of numbers describing age at first marriage, average number of children, average length of marriage, number of divorces per 1,000 married women over the age of 15, and so forth, ad infinitum. The "American family" is also a widely held ideal concept of what the family ought to be. Even though such an ideal is more often honored in the breach than in the observance, it is embedded in our legal structure which dictates that marriage in America shall be monogamous and that children born to a married woman shall be the offspring of her husband--unless he contests.

The images of the American family as both statistical abstraction and widely-held ideal have a great effect in shaping family life. These norms are instrumental in shaping public policy designed to do everything from getting rid of poverty to providing for a higher standard of health services. As such, "the family" is not simply a mental construct without consequence in the real world. It has, implicitly, a more immediate effect insofar as both statistics and ideal affect the popular conception of how such variation is possible in family lifestyle or how much is desirable.

The examination of family life in America has been marked by a studied conservatism. It has relied upon statistical abstractions to characterize the standard family and has taken for granted the common ideal to the point where departures have often been considered pathological. The increasingly recognized unpleasantries associated with family life and the quest to find viable alternatives to the typical American family have given some support to intensive studies of alternative family styles; there is also a more open perspective on the changes occurring within the family. But such trends are recent indeed and not well-established. Women demanding equal rights and a redefinition of sex roles, youth ensconsced in communes, scholars examining the population explosion, and professional men aware of the extent to which they have become mere appendages of their job descriptions, confront us with demands for changing the family even more. All of these are changes that could not have been so freely discussed in public twenty years ago. The reaction to these demands varies from violent rejection to open acceptance. It is, therefore, necessary to know more about how family life is changing in America. It is also necessary to know more about those who are making the demands for even more radical change, and why they are making them. Finally, it is necessary to reexamine our concept of the ideal in terms of possible alternatives if we are to better understand the choices that we face. This essay is one interpretation of what is happening to "the American family."

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