Family Fever

(Page 2 of 3)

The conclusion seems inescapable: People used to have children because they had to. They used to get married and stay married because they had to. And once they had become old and feeble they used to live with their children and rely upon them for their support because they had to. Once they no longer had to do these things, they stopped doing them.

This is, says Andrew Cherlin, "the way in which the United States-and, indeed, every advanced industrial society- has developed. As we moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one, the economic value of children declined and people had fewer of them. As the production of goods and services shifted from the home to the factory or the office, women were drawn into the labor market, thereby becoming more independent of men. And as the school, the hospital and the old-age home took over many of the functions family members used to perform for each other, men and women found it progressively easier to live nontraditional family lives."

Should it surprise anyone that people took advantage of their newfound opportunity? Does it really come as a surprise even to the prating Bible thumpers of the Moral Majority to learn that the "traditional" nuclear family is not the best of all possible worlds for everyone?

"When I can no longer bear to think of the victims of broken homes," says humorist Peter De Vries, "I begin to think of the victims of intact ones." And the latter are legion. "A high incidence of violence within the family has come to light in recent years," write Levitan and Belous. "Almost 1 million children may be neglected or abused each year, and as many as 2 million women may experience violence in the home.... The Office of Domestic Violence in the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that about one of four couples will undergo serious family violence during the course of a marriage or relationship. Roughly 25 percent of all homicides involve spouses, and 20 percent of all police deaths and 40 percent of police injuries occur when an officer responds to a 'family violence' call." Moreover, they report, "automobile accident cases still make up the majority of suits in court, but family-related cases are currently running a close second."

Karen Lindsey, the avowedly leftist and feminist author of the 1981 book Friends as Family, paints an even grimmer picture. "As many as 60 percent of all married women are beaten at least once by their husbands," she writes. "And between 500,000 and one million elderly parents are abused each year by the adult offspring they live with." The National Campaign for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect estimates that "in up to 20 percent of American families, children are subjected to physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect." And then there's the runaway problem. "An estimated 2 million youngsters run away from home every year," the Los Angeles Times reported in late November 1981, "and that rate is steadily increasing. While 15-and 16-year-olds account for nearly half the runaways, they range in age from 10 and 11 on up, and the national Runaway Switchboard reports serving children as young as 8 and 9."

If these kids run away, if their mothers seek divorces, if their grandparents choose to live by themselves, can anybody realistically contend that they have made these choices because an unholy alliance of secular humanists and godless communists has conspired against the traditional family? These people leave the family because in their homes familiarity has bred contempt-and worse than contempt. "The family is the American fascism," said Paul Goodman. And for many in our society, that is precisely what it is.

Of course, for many others, myself included, the family is something else entirely. It is a way of life, and one which we feel we have freely chosen because of the various satisfactions it offers us. Why do we do it? Why do people form families? What are families for, anyway?

There are those-fundamentalist Christians, for example-who argue that such questions are pointless. We live in families because that's the way God set things up in the beginning, with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. That's all we know and all we need to know. Trying to figure out why God set it up that way is as foolish as trying to figure out the significance of the fact that the very first nuclear family in all of human history exploded into an act of violence that left one of its members dead at the hand of another of its members, even though violence on TV, rock music, secular humanism, and the federal government of the United States were not problems in the Garden of Eden.

But set these true believers aside for the moment; we'll be coming back to them soon enough. The conventional wisdom among most other students of the family as a social institution is that its purpose is economic and broadly cultural. On the one hand, it offers its members the easiest or most efficient way of getting a decent living. On the other, it provides its members, especially its child members, with practical training in the skills one needs to deal with other people in the outside world.

When life was mainly agricultural and the home was the workplace, families were large and typically included several generations. This assured an adequate number of able bodies to do the work, and it assured that those who had become too old and feeble to do any hard work would be available to look after those children who were still too small to do any hard work. And everyone benefited from the arrangement. The children and the old folks were obviously able to get a better living for themselves by living in a family than they could have got by themselves. And the able-bodied adults in their prime who might have done all right on their own also gained certain economic advantages by living in the family. Perhaps most important among these was the knowledge that in time of illness or temporary disability, there would be people to care for them and absorb the cost of their daily lives until they could work again. In this sense, the family was a source of security, an insurance policy.

But as the Industrial Revolution simultaneously raised per capita income and moved the population into cities, this kind of security became increasingly irrelevant. The home was no longer the workplace, so it was not advantageous to add members to the household, whether in the form of new children or aged relatives. Now that the work of the family was done outside the home, new additions were no longer added hands; they were added costs-parasites, if you will. On top of that, while space for additional people was cheap in the country, it was very expensive in the city. So people began living in smaller families, and the norm became parents and their children, but neither the parents' parents nor the children's children. The extended family had given way to the nuclear family.

Since that time, per capita income has continued to climb, and various institutions, some of them voluntary, some of them governmental (which is to say compulsory), have begun taking over many of the old functions of the family. You don't have to live in a family any longer to assure yourself of income during time of illness or temporary disability-all you have to do is buy an insurance policy. You no longer need your aged parent at home to watch the kids while you work- you can send the kids to a day-care center or a public school, and you can send the aged parent to an old-folks' home. If your income is high enough, you can pay strangers to do all the things for you that you used to get from family members. And if your income isn't high enough, you can probably get some extra money from the government to make it high enough.

For people who don't like the members of their biological families (and such people have been quite common ever since the days of Cain and Abel), the temptation to hire strangers and live alone is apparently great. Others who don't like the members of their biological families seem to feel a different temptation, however. They leave their biological families, but they don't hire strangers. Instead, they move in with other individuals and form surrogate families of various kinds.

These surrogate families have become quite controversial of late, particularly among those who feel that since God has decreed what sorts of groups we are to live in, that settles the matter and anyone who chooses to live in a group of any other sort is tantamount to a sinner. "The public continues to receive a steady parade of examples 'proving' that divorced, never-married, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, communal, and living-together units form the bulk of today's 'families,' " writes Jeane Westin, author of The Coming Parent Revolution (1981). "The most noted 'family experts' huddled together for a four-day conference in the late 1970s to answer the question, Who can define 'family' in a way everyone would accept? No one pointed out that 'family' has always been defined as parents plus children and that family experimenters can jolly well come up with their own concepts rather than asking the traditional family to move over." Westin asserts, "The continual extension of the concept of family to include every social fad and sexual fancy has resulted in the trivialization of the family."

"If you recall," Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) told his fellow members of the upper house of Congress in June 1981 when he introduced the then-current version of the Family Protection Act, "after the 1970 White House Conference on Children and Youth, the Forum 14 report redefined the family as a group of individuals in interaction.

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