family life values

On Nostalgia, Myth and The Way We Never Were

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

–L.P. Hartley

The Changing Face of Family Life Values

Older people can often be heard lamenting the demise of “the good old days” when children respected their elders, adults behaved civilly towards one another, and good manners were a sign of superior child rearing. However, many believe that the good old days were largely a myth, and were only “good” for a small percentage of the population that consisted primarily of white males.

In her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Author Stephanie Coontz attempts to separate the myths surrounding reminiscence of the good old days from the often harsh realities that women and children faced in the past. She points out how phrases such as “a man’s house is his castle” illustrated and perpetuated some of those realities.

In an interview on the topic of marriage and gender equality, Ms. Coontz was asked to elaborate on her statement that while marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the past 3,000, some aspects are now less stable. In her opinion, part of the reason that marriage was such a powerful institution was due to its rigidity. The lack of economic alternatives for women coupled with social stigma and discrimination against unmarried women are examples of that rigidity. A strict division of gender roles encouraged mutual dependence based on economic necessity.

Something Old, Something New

Today, economic changes have reduced that necessity, and with it, the stability of family life and values associated with the institution of marriage. Women have higher expectations of equality and are more willing to leave marriages in which they feel mistreated. She also makes the point that despite progress towards equality, in choosing a mate, many women’s attractions are still based on the social conditioning of the past. That conditioning included choosing a mate using criteria such as economic and emotional stability, rather than sexual attraction.

Sexual attraction was often reserved for “bad boys” with an air of mystery, unpredictability, or even danger, qualities that are unlikely to be useful in sustaining family life and values, or even a long-term relationship. Ms. Coontz believes that one of the challenges of reducing the instability of marriage in an age in which women often marry based on attraction is that of making equality sexy.

While marriage is becoming more equal, one of the reasons that it has become more difficult to sustain family life and values is that both men and women still have difficulty giving themselves permission to let go of old social conditioning. Women have been given the message that although they can now have careers, they must also still maintain their attractive femininity and do the majority of household work. Men have been given the message that they are expected to give up economic control and participate more in household chores, but are also still expected to play the role of protector and provider.

The result is an increase in unreasonable expectations surrounding family life and values and more pressure on both genders in relationships. One reviewer of Ms. Coontz’s timely book points out that continuing to believe in a mythical past reality can make us less able to deal with present reality. Nostalgia about mythical good old days can also keep us from both enjoying the very real progress towards equality that has been made, and furthering it.

Furthering Positive Change

In another interview in the Atlantic she cautions against alienating potential allies in the struggle for equality in family life and values by using terms such as “sexist” and “patriarchal” to describe those who knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate inequality. While she acknowledges progress towards equality in terms of men taking on a bigger role in child care and household duties, she believes that structural changes are needed for lasting positive change. Social policies that support family life and values, such as subsidized child care and parental leave, must begin to reflect the reality that most people now want equality in relationships between genders.

Although women in the U.S. have many more career opportunities than women in many other countries, the gap between wage earners is much wider. Due to the lack of a sufficient child care infrastructure, including family leave policies that reflect family life and values, many mothers are forced to leave the work force for several years. The result is that their wages upon returning to the workforce are significantly lower than those of women without children. For a future in which marriage is more mutually satisfying and children are free of the pressure caused by gender stereotypes of the past, the long slow struggle towards equality is well worth our collective continued effort.

family life values
Nostalgia, 1941

October 21,2016  |

social change for fathers

How Social Change For Fathers Has An Unshakable Impact On Family Life

A Time of Social Change for Fathers

A stay-at-home father is defined as a father who is the primary caregiver of his children under the age of 18. According to statistics, the number of stay-at-home fathers has risen significantly in the last decade. According to the U.S. Census, 32% of married fathers provide regular care for their children, compared to 26% in 2002. Regular care is defined as a consistent arrangement of at least one day per week. A 2014 Pew Research study estimates the number of stay-at-home fathers in the U.S. at 2 million, double the number reported in 1989. The criteria was based on men aged 18-69 who living with their children who were not employed for pay in the prior year.

According to research, stay-at-home fathers are less likely to have a high school diploma than working fathers. Equally disturbing, 47% of them live at the poverty level, compared to only 8% for working fathers. The number of stay-at-home mothers living at the poverty level is 34%, since many have working spouses. Stay-at-home fathers are also more likely to be disabled than stay-at-home mothers, with statistics at 50% for women and 68% for men.

And so, accurate statistics regarding fathers who choose to stay at home are difficult to obtain because many include unemployed or disabled fathers for whom providing childcare may be a temporary economic necessity rather than a choice. Conversely, the statistics may not count men who were employed full-time outside the home for a portion of the previous year. They also don’t account for fathers who work part time as well as being their children’s primary caregivers.

The Effects of Social Change for Fathers

In one article in which several families with stay-at-home dads were interviewed, some men reported feelings of inferiority, loss of self-esteem, self-respect. This demonstrates the necessity for increasing social awareness of the extreme importance of the task of child-rearing. Stephanie Coontz, a member of the Council on Contemporary Families, believes the number of stay-at-home fathers is much higher than official statistics indicate.

She believes that this growing trend of social change for fathers is due in part to the fact that more women are earning college degrees, and as a result, 28% of women earn more than their husbands. She also believes that men feel

“not just pressure, but the desire to be more involved in family life and child care and housework and cooking. And at the same time, all of the polls are showing that women are now just as likely as men to say that they want to have challenging careers.”

She adds that one of the ways men are being affected is that they are now experiencing

“higher levels of work-family conflict than women are.”

The Slow Rate of Social Change for Fathers

The concept of stay-at-home fathers is still a controversial one. Society has been slow to change the long-held view that women are more suited for caring for children. For example, in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 51% of people surveyed believed that children benefit from their mothers remaining at home. However, only 8% believed children would benefit from their fathers remaining at home to care for them.

One example of society’s resistance to social change for fathers is a 2007 article that reported the results of a study of 6000 families with stay-at-home fathers. The Bristol project, funded by the Government’s Economic and Social Research Council, concluded that boys cared for by their fathers were less prepared for education when they started school. However, at the time of the study, potentially costly policies allowing fathers 26 weeks of paid paternity leave were expected to be approved and implemented.

Expert Opinions on Social Change for Fathers

Other experts, citing other studies, suggest the opposite. Psychologist Ross Parke has conducted many studies on fatherhood, including a study of 390 families in which parents described how they played with their children. He concluded that father’s play was

“characterized by arousal, excitement, and unpredictability”,

whereas mother’s was

“more modulated and less arousing”.

In his opinion, fathers teach their children how to use their bodies and regulate their emotions. Psychologist Daniel Paquette asserts that fathers’ distinct contributions to parenting include helping children be open to the world, take risks, and stand up for themselves.

Statistics also show that boys with quality relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, while girls are more likely to avoid teen-aged pregnancy. A lower incidence of depression is reported by all teens that have a consistent relationship with their fathers, regardless of gender. Rather than research discouraging fathers from staying home with their children, it should be used to demonstrate the necessity for more parenting education—and experience.

Continued social change for fathers will ultimately result in greater mutual understanding and respect between the sexes. It may just result in a greater variety of more flexible and fulfilling roles for everyone, too.

social change for fathers

December 21,2015  |