The Divorce Culture: How Divorce Became an Entitlement and How It Is Blighting the Lives of Our Children, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $24.00
The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family, by Dana Mack, New York: Simon & Schuster, 363 pages, $25.00
She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off, by Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers, New York: HarperCollins, 260 pages, $24.00
Anyone who even occasionally tunes into television and radio talk shows, skims a newspaper editorial page or an opinion magazine, or browses the nonfiction aisles at a bookstore is familiar with some variation on the following theme: "The family, in its old sense...is disappearing from our land, and not only our free institutions are threatened but the very existence of our society is endangered." This formulation of the problems facing "the family" is interesting for at least three reasons. First, as is often the case in such discussions, it invokes the family as a wholly self-evident, unitary phenomenon with no possible variation. Second, it captures the lure of traditional social arrangements and articulates the centrality of the family to society at large. Third, the statement is well over a century old, having originally appeared in an 1859 issue of the Boston Quarterly Review. That it sounds so current is worth pausing over.
Americans have long worried that "the family" is an endangered species. (The subject was even a regular topic of Puritan-era jeremiads.) Of course, that we have always fretted over the family doesn't mean that contemporary musings on the subject are necessarily naive or that they should be dismissed as so much perennial hand wringing. If anything, arguments like the one in the Boston Quarterly Review convey an important--if partial--truth: The family in its "old sense" is always breaking down and being reformulated, as are other institutions in a society still at least loosely based on classical liberal notions of choice and competition. Indeed, such a process is central to any social order in which people, to quote F.A. Hayek, gain "the opportunity of knowing and choosing different forms of life."
Recognizing change as continuous helps place the anxiety it creates in better perspective. And given the anxiety over "the family," the more perspective, the better. Discussions of family life are almost always conducted in highly apocalyptic terms; they also often suffer from a tendentious use of social scientific research (itself often tendentious). A person taking virtually any position can buttress it with a raft of seemingly reliable studies that perfectly illustrate a given point (or demolish someone else's). In such a debate, "revealed preference"--what people actually do, versus what they or someone else says they really want to do--becomes all the more important.
This much, at least, seems clear: Families at the end of the 20th century are significantly different from what they were at its start, with higher marriage, divorce, and female work force-participation rates, higher age at first marriage, and lower numbers of children. Notwithstanding the anomalous baby boom period--when divorce rates and the age of marriage dropped, and the number of children per family increased--these are long-term trends widely associated with the shift to an industrial economy.
As is clear from her title, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead focuses on divorce, especially its effects on children (about 60 percent of all divorces in the United States involve minor children). The Divorce Culture seeks to explain how divorce went from a rare event to a common one: In 1920, there were about 8 divorces per 1,000 married females; in 1985 the number reached 21.7. Despite some peaks and valleys--rates were sharply elevated from 1941 to 1948, because of hasty wartime marriages; rates declined slight-ly from 1950 through 1958, for reasons that remain unclear--the divorce rate increased relatively steadily until the late '80s. Since 1987, it has held constant at 20 to 21 per 1,000.
On the most basic level, Whitehead's plea that any discussion of divorce acknowledge the effect on children is unobjectionable and commonsensical, as is the implication that, in general, an intact, relatively happy family is preferable to a broken, relatively unhappy one. However, she overstates the consequences of divorce for children and the linkage between divorce and developmental problems. And while she correctly points to the "logic of capitalism" as the lurking culprit behind the increase in divorce rates, she does so for the wrong reasons.
Beginning in the late 1950s and coincidental with the psychologization of American society, we entered an era of what Whitehead calls "expressive divorce," in which a person's self-defined happiness and satisfaction reign supreme. Casting divorce as an "inner journey of the self" reduced "the number of legitimate stakeholders in divorce to one, the individual adult." The right to divorce effectively became, says Whitehead, first a psychological entitlement and eventually a legal one, as no-fault divorce laws became ubiquitous during the 1970s.
While divorce is tough on the spouse who is left behind, Whitehead stresses even more the problems it creates for children. (She estimates about 45 percent of children will see their parents divorce before reaching 18.) In the book's most interesting--and contentious--section, Whitehead traces academic and popular treatments of how divorce affects children. Where earlier research celebrated the emotional resilience of children, work done since the mid-'80s focuses on disruptions in children's normal developmental patterns.
The results from the newer research, she reports, are bleak.
Divorce "increased the risk of poverty and welfare dependency in
families with children that were not poor or welfare-dependent
before divorce"; children living with a divorced mother had a
poverty rate of 38 percent in 1993 (compared with 11 percent for
children in a two-parent family). Remarriage
--about two-thirds of women and three-quarters of men remarry after divorce--solves some problems but not others: Though the income of a stepfamily is usually equivalent to that of a first marriage, children are "two to three times more likely to suffer emotional and behavior problems and nearly twice as likely to have developmental or learning problems as children in intact families"; stepchildren are also more likely to drop out of school, become unwed teen mothers, and have difficulty holding steady jobs as young adults.
While she grants that it is better that some marriages dissolve and that some children benefit from divorce, Whitehead almost exclusively stresses its negatives, relying heavily on the controversial work of Judith Wallerstein. Beginning in the 1970s, Wallerstein conducted a longitudinal study of 60 pairs of divorcing parents and their 131 children from a San Francisco Bay-area divorce clinic. Wallerstein's research, says Whitehead, demonstrates that "the experience of parental divorce damaged many young adults' ability to forge strong attachments of their own, in both their work and their family lives."
Wallerstein's work, however, is far from definitive. Beyond the lack of a control group of similar, nondivorced families, she has been criticized for including parents with histories of psychiatric problems. Indeed, Wallerstein herself classified half the men and almost half the women as "moderately disturbed or frequently incapacitated by disabling neuroses and addictions." Additionally, 15 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women were "severely disturbed," with long histories of mental problems; only a third, according to Wallerstein, had "adequate psychological functioning" before the divorce.
While few--if any--contemporary researchers are Pollyannaish about the effects of divorce on children, there is a wider range of credible research than Whitehead seems willing to admit, most of which suggests only a minority of children exhibit long-term serious problems. As researchers Paul R. Amato and Bruce Keith concluded in a 1991 survey of 92 divorce studies: "Parental divorce (or the factors associated with it) lowers the well-being of children. However, the estimated effects are generally weak." And results from the National Survey of Children, which conducted interviews with the same parents and children in 1976 and again in 1981, suggest that children from high-stress, intact families are more likely to be depressed, impulsive, hyperactive, and misbehaved than children from divorced families.