Family Ways


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 slightly 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.

While it is true that children of divorce often run higher risks for problems, that doesn't mean that problems are in any way a foregone conclusion. Hence, one national study found that 25 percent of marriages of women who had lived with only one parent at age 14 had been disrupted. The figure for those living with both parents at age 14 was 14 percent. Similarly, white children living with single parents may have a high-school dropout rate as high as 22 percent, compared to 11 percent for those from two-parent households. The single-parent figures are sharply higher, but they also suggest a wide range of response to parental breakup. While there is no question that divorce causes pain, suffering, and difficult adjustments for children (and parents), it's far from clear that it constitutes a "blight."

Whitehead's analysis of the roots of contemporary divorce rates is similarly overstated. "The deeper logic of expressive divorce was the logic of capitalism," she writes. "Just as…the market called upon the owner of capital to maximize resources, so the expressive ideology of divorce urged the proprietor of psychological capital to do the same." This line of thought degenerates at various points into a clichéd and unsupported broad-side against contemporary society: "The entire ethos of the American workplace has shifted toward a short-term, performance-based, limited-benefits, ten-career-changes-in-a-lifetime model," she writes. "Increasingly…the workplace rewards individuals who are mobile, unattached, unrestricted by family commitments."

Beyond wildly exaggerating the "ethos" of the contemporary workplace–and ignoring the fact that the workplace has always rewarded people who put their jobs first–such an interpretation fails to engage a much more complicated relationship between marriage and large social and economic shifts over the past century. As Ludwig von Mises wrote 75 years ago, the modern marriage that "takes place at the desire of the husband and wife" and in which "the rights of the husband and wife are essentially the same" is the result of granting both men and women the right to contract, itself based on notions of self-ownership embedded in "the logic of capitalism." Marriage as a mutual agreement heightens the possibility of divorce.

So does the shift toward an industrial (and service) economy in which women's work opportunities outside the home tend to increase dramatically. Most economists and sociologists agree that increased female participation in the paid work force is one of the–if not the–major factor in the rise in divorce rates. In 1940, about one in seven married women were working or looking for work. Fifty years later, the figure was closer to 70 percent. Perhaps the most dramatic increase occurred among women with children under 6: While less than 10 percent of such women worked in 1940, about 60 percent were on the job in 1990. As Richard Posner suggests in Sex and Reason (1992), a wife's "improved job opportunities" and "increased economic independence" help to make divorce a possibility, even as they mitigate the impact of divorce, abandonment, or widowhood.

Our society's relative wealth and its emphasis on mutually fulfilling marriages make it likely that divorce will remain a prevalent phenomenon. The "logic of capitalism" turns out to be a tough little conundrum: It gives us the opportunity to get what we want and the opportunity to walk away from it, too.

That puzzle may explain why Whitehead's policy proposals are so modest. Refreshingly, rather than some large-scale governmental intervention, she calls for changing "the way we think about…divorce, especially divorces involving children." Whitehead espouses "divorce prevention" plans enacted by therapists, lawyers, scholars, and clergy that would highlight the costs–especially to children–of divorce. Her book, of course, can be seen as one voice in this conversation, which it seems to me is already well under way. Indeed, her claim that "we are still reluctant to speak about the moral obligations involved in divorces with children" is belied by widespread discussion of "deadbeat dads" and irresponsible parenting. Such cultural debate is particularly meaningful when it comes to marriage, where folkways generally precede laws. For instance, contrary to the blame heaped on no-fault divorce laws, the surge in divorce began before no-fault statutes were on the books. Whatever The Divorce Culture's failings, it doesn't compound them by unveiling a federally mandated 12-step plan to succor a particular version of the family.

The same cannot be said for Dana Mack's The Assault on Parenthood. If Whitehead proposes solutions largely rooted in civil society, Mack wants to bring in the Marines to enforce her version of marital law. Mack, who is affiliated with the Institute for American Values, is no fan of "rampant divorce," but she issues a broader indictment than Whitehead. Citing juvenile crime rates, declining SAT scores, and feelings of parental impotence, Mack stresses "the sudden and rapid decay of those stable social values that once fostered a protective culture of childhood." That most indicators of children's well-being suggest things are getting better for most kids does not trouble her analysis. (See "Child-Proofing the World," June.)

For Mack, the family is being undermined simultaneously by marketplace values and government intervention. Indeed, government at all levels is the main villain in Mack's analysis, a Kafkaesque overlord who has made it virtually impossible to raise kids who don't bring guns to schools, engage in early sex, or talk back to their elders. For Mack, the failure of government is twofold: When it is not actively infringing on "parental rights" by forcing condoms on students or prosecuting parents who dare to spank their wards, the government is turning a blind eye to the "gratuitous vulgarity" of pop culture or allowing "childless working people" to pay less than what she says is their fair share of taxes.

On one level, Mack's book is a compilation of scare stories illustrating how government policies are bad to begin with or have horrific unintended consequences. Few of these stories are original with Mack: She repeats, for instance, part of Hannah Lapp's February 1994 REASON story, "Child Abuse," which details how child-protective services can run amok. That Mack adds little to these tales does not mitigate their seriousness or outrageousness, but on those counts, her book offers little new to readers.

The Assault on Parenthood is more interesting–though less convincing–when Mack shifts to public policy proposals. After discussing at length just how incompetent–if not downright evil–government is when it comes to domestic matters, she hauls out a savior to rescue the dying family: the government. In her final chapter, she lays out "exactly what government can and should do for families." As with most such interventions, Mack's plans are designed to foster not competition but a particular outcome–in this case, a two-parent household in which the wife stays home with the kids (children in particular do not seem to be optional).

First on Mack's wish list is tax relief. "Family-friendly" tax reform would include higher per-child deductions and "significant reductions" in payroll taxes for parents. Mack's brave new IRS would countenance little opposition from "free-riders" such as retirees and childless workers. "If childless working people resent a larger tax burden, they should consider who will be working to pay their Social Security…and medical bills in the coming decades," she writes. Curious logic in a book that touts personal responsibility as a virtue: Why exactly should someone who chooses not to have children be forced to pay for someone else's family? (And, while we're at it, why should the government, rather than families, take care of people in their old age?) Mack ignores the school taxes childless couples and retirees pay and has no comment on the marriage penalty on two-income households.

"Work relief" also looms large in Mack's proposals, and represents another way of pushing the cost of children onto others. She favors affirmative action for parents and a law that would give mothers three months' paid leave and hold their jobs for up to a year. "Why should parents be required to do it all at once–that is, work and rear children at the same time–while most senior citizens have neither work nor child-rearing responsibilities?" she asks rhetorically at one point. Why indeed? For starters, parents are not required to do anything–especially become parents in the first place. And most senior citizens (many of whom undoubtedly spend time with grandchildren) have already been there and done that.

Her policy prescriptions–such as allowing the government to "penalize" broadcasters if more than half of their output fails to meet her idea of "PG standards of quality and decency"–are predicated upon vague yet doctrinaire notions of consensus and the common good ("Children are our most important investment in the future"). They culminate in a call for a "Parental Rights Amendment," preferably one that reads, "The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed." Certainly not by childless couples or retirees who will finally be paying their fair share of taxes. Or, one assumes, by children themselves, whose position under such a regime is left unclear. Mack grants in passing theoretical limits to parental rights, but those limits are of the utmost importance: Would, say, exposure to competing ideas about child rearing be considered an infringement on parental rights? Given Mack's obvious preference for one type of family, it's clear that any such law would be a blunt instrument used to club dissenters into line.

Like The Divorce Culture and The Assault on Parenthood, She Works/He Works, by Rosalind C. Barnett, a psychotherapist affiliated with Radcliffe College, and Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University, stumps for a particular vision of "the family." Hence the subtitle: How Two-Income Families Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off. Better off than whom? Single-income families, especially those with a stay-at-home mother. The authors are convinced that their family model is self-evidently superior to any other, and they marshal an array of data to support their titular claims. (Just as conservatives cannot bring themselves to believe some women enjoy working, liberals seem incapable of believing some women want to stay at home.)

Unlike either Whitehead or Mack, though, Barnett and Rivers have revealed preference on their side: By 1990, the authors note, 40 percent of families had full-time working husbands and wives (up from 32 percent in 1980); about 60 percent of all married couples have two-earner incomes. "Traditional" families with a "breadwinner" father and a stay-at-home mother comprise less than 3 percent of American families.

She Works/He Works is interesting for two basic reasons. First, it explores some of the adaptive functions of changing family structures. Drawing on a National Institutes of Mental Health-sponsored study conducted by Barnett, the authors suggest that "the dual-earner family offers economic stability, protection against financial disaster, and often offers both adults and children a close-knit cooperative family style in which all members take an active part in keeping the household running."

They argue that the "collaborative" style–in which spouses share household tasks and responsibilities–common in two-earner households might lead to increased interdependence, not fragmentation. (One sign of this is the steady increase in traditionally female household duties performed by men.) While such claims have a ring of truth, they remain highly arguable, especially when it comes to divorce.

Barnett and Rivers present a convincing rebuttal to Mack's claim that women don't really want to work and that parents "say that…pressures on women to work are killing family life." For instance, research from a variety of sources, including a national longitudinal study, shows mothers who work outside the home report better physical and emotional health than their nonemployed counterparts. Apparently, such gains do not come at the expense of children. A meta-analysis of 14 studies of maternal bonding in children attending day care (the normal situation, one assumes, for kids with working mothers) and children reared at home found no difference between the two groups. As interesting, studies consistently show that working mothers spend as much time as their nonworking counterparts in direct interaction with their kids.

The second notable aspect of She Works/He Works is its refusal to indulge in even implicit utopianism about the family. Barnett and Rivers constantly chart the success of their "new family" in relative, realistic measures. "No family style plays out on one vast plain of joy and light," they write. "No lifestyle offers nirvana." Such realism is particularly welcome, and it extends to their discussion of larger social and economic forces affecting the family. Although the authors are clearly conventional liberals, they seem very much at home in a world characterized by creative destruction: "Change is the way of the world; it is in the nature of things for the old ways to die and the new to be born." Even as they call on "the corporate culture" to accommodate two-income families, they acknowledge change is already under way.

Where The Divorce Culture and The Assault on Parenthood see in social change only the end of something, She Works/He Works charts a more interesting and ultimately more relevant path: how social institutions change, evolve, and grow over time to meet the needs of the individuals who make them up. As any number of technologies–including those affecting work, home, fertility, and health–proliferate and give people more and more choices in how to structure their family lives, recognizing and understanding that process will become all the more important.