Stephanie Coontz (1992) has changed the way we view the traditional American family in her book, The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap, and she has broken the myths that have kept us under the Illusion of the American family life with which we tend to measure the current state and trends in the American families.
If we were to list out what exactly to us is the Traditional American family we would move on to describe mostly two kinds of family structures-One that was dominated by the grandparents as the head of the families and all members living under the same roof with harmony, where children were well taken care of and grew up secure under the love and guidance of their grandparents and parents. This was more of an authoritarian disciplined family structure where going against the rules of the family would be seen as sacrilege of the family norms and values. Due to a shared sense of responsibility the children grew up understanding their responsibilities as individuals in a close knit family structure. The whole family structure was looked upon as a system where each part was working together to keep the structure running.
The other family structure would be of a nuclear family which is more similar to the modern family where the parents are intimately connected with each other and the mother is self sacrificing who is pre-occupied with giving the right kind of values to her children like sheltering “children from premature exposure to sex”and other financial worries. She is the perfect homemaker who takes immense pleasure in staying at home and taking care of her children and is also a devoted and doting wife. The husband/ father in this case is the “breadwinner” and head of the family who advices his children “not to sacrifice their education by going to work too early”. The parent child relations in such cases are more friendly and where parents and children both evolve and grow simultaneously through trial and errors.
However, according to Coontz (1992) these are just myths that have prevailed in the society and are harbored by more and more Americans “given the fragility of many modern commitments”. Coontz believes that the societies that existed back then were not as perfect as they are presumed to be. Most of the images formed in people’s minds are the ideal situations much publicized and exaggerated and they resemble “reruns of old television series”.
Coontz in her book talks about two kinds of family structures that emerged in the 1920s which are very similar to a typical white, middle class family structure. There were families where the mothers were completely devoted to their children and were available to them at all times while they had a very “stilted and formal” relationship with their husbands. The second type of structure focused more on the husband and wife relationship where the wife was completely devoted to her husband catering to his sexual needs and demands while any emotional “overinvestment” in the children was looked down upon as an emotional weakness. While another idea that struck in the 1950s was that the woman should be able to balance both the aspects-mother-child relationship and husband-wife relationship, skilfully and willfully such that it drove a lot of woman to take to medications because of the immense pressure of perfecting their lives as per the prevailing idea.
This resemblance is striking as it bears similarities with the relationships that our family had in those days and time. Just as Coontz describes ours is a typical white middle class American family where our bread and butter came from the family enterprise where all the sons were actively involved in the family business. As such my grandparents and we lived together and during the initial years my uncles stayed with their families in the same house. But as the families grew bigger they built their own houses just close by but were still involved in the family business. My father being the eldest stayed at grandfather’s house. Grandfather being the head of the family most family decisions were taken after they were discussed with him. All the ladies in the house were busy with the household chores and the bustle of so many kids that needed to be taken care of. Everything in the house was shared even toys and nothing really belonged to an individual family in the household. Although my father took good care of my mother private moments between them were few and far between. My father was a typical son who would do his work and come back home with grandfather, sit with the whole family for dinner and retire to bed early since he would be very tired at the end of the day. I had never seen my grandfather and father discuss anything but the family business with each other. Father would always respect my grandfather and not question his decision openly. They shared I suppose a respectful father son relationship which was more formal than personal. On Sundays, there would be revelry at home as all the family members-my uncles who had moved out by then and their families-would come over for the whole day. That was the day grandfather would spend time with us.
The family business dwindled and my uncles moved out of the business to start something on their own and eventually we had to close the family business. Thereafter my father had to take the lead in running the family and my mother took to baking and supplying bakery products to give us a comfortable lifestyle and also take care of my grandparents. My father would often consult my mother on work related issues and would advice her in running her own business. We would also be involved in helping our mother out in her home production of baked products. As such our rapport with our parents was more personal than our grandparents’ with their children. This arrangement also brought in some changes over the years in the interpersonal relationships with each other. My grandfather was no longer the head of the family and the decision making was not just one person’s right. We all made our own decisions in our own way. When I was 11years of age I no longer worked with my mum in the kitchen instead spent time with my friends. However, my sister who was 13 years still took a lot of interest in mum’s baking business. Although my dad would get upset if I was out very late still he never brought this up with me directly instead conveyed it through my mother. As I grew up and readied myself for college I remember having long discussions with my father for the first time and that brought us closer. My father recalled not having such conversations with my grandfather all his life. Since, we all had our own work priorities and our own schedules we did not have dinners together at night. My father still had the habit of eating early just like my grandparents did and sleep early while my sister and I would come back home in our own time and ate in our rooms. I moved out when I was 18 years of age. So, yes there has been a change through the generations as our economic lifestyle underwent a change from a family business to my father being employed later in his life. With the shift in the head of the family the decision making and the culture of the house underwent a change. My mother was earning and independent and had regular discussions with my father which never happened before.
Similarly, there is no way of saying which family structure was better and beneficial for us-the way my father lead most part of his life or the way we lead our lives. As Coontz (1992) puts it that a “traditional two-parent families had never guaranteed women and children protection from economic deprivation or physical abuse”. In fact most of the families where the males dominate, the males spend “money on beer or recreation while women and children went without needed food and medical care”. In fact the traditional so to speak “colonial” families which are considered to be disciplined and well bred were ‘patriarchal’ and authoritative. They could not stand disobedience from their children or their women. This family was only reared or taken care of by a single parent as the mortality rate was very high in those days such that by the time the children turned 21 one of their parents had already died. So, it would be unfair to say that the traditional families’ children were more secure than the present day modern families. There were other middle class families where the women were involved in some kind of home production and the children were handed over to the day care centers or the nannies that would look after them. This is the story of the middle class family while the families on the lower strata did not even have this luxury as the children were also involved in working even at an early age.
Our family is just one example of white middle class American family that saw three generations in the same house with different value systems and living in different cultural set ups. As the family grew the family business became insufficient to catch up with the fast changing world, higher standards of living and increased family members hence we separated, uncles went their own ways and so did my father. My mother took up baking as she had much time in her hands as the families started living independently and she wanted to contribute to our growing needs. But soon it became her interest.
This brought in changes in our relationships as family members. Although my relationship with my father was never very close as he belonged to a different generation altogether but it was also not cordial as my grandfather-father’s relationship. I was much closer to my father in terms of discussing work or career related issues. Since, I had always seen my mother around and she was always very involved in our lives I was close to her as always. My sister was closer to my mother and they discussed everything from my sister’s boyfriends to her clothes. We, of course did not see each other at the dinner table everyday but that did not mean that we were not close as a family. I did move out at the age of 18 like all my other friends of my age and started earning my own living and funded my own education but I would often call up home to take important decisions or just to know how they were doing.
There have always been debates as to which way is the ideal family structure that produces remarkable members of the society. Lot of people lament the fact that the traditional family system was destroyed by industrialization and that has degenerated the current generation. The families where children were reared at home and were taken off work were also accused of over protecting their children. But the fact is, as Coontz (1992) puts it that the “Families have always been in flux, and often in crisis” (p. x). All these are just myths that broken families or one parent family usually turn out to be delinquents. There is no fixed rule or idea as to which family structure is the best or was the best. Families and the relationships that each member has with the other will keep changing with the changing age and culture.