Family, Children, Marriage, Divorce
Dan Quayle Was Right
The social-science evidence is in: though it may benefit the adults involved, the dissolution of intact two-parent families is harmful to large numbers of children. Moreover, the author argues, family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not strengthen the social fabric but, rather, dramatically weakens and undermines society
by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth are transforming the lives of American children. In the postwar generation more than 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents who were married to each other. By 1980 only 50 percent could expect to spend their entire childhood in an intact family. If current trends continue, less than half of all children born today will live continuously with their own mother and father throughout child hood. Most American children will spend several years in a single-mother family. Some will eventually live in stepparent families, but because stepfamilies are more likely to break up than intact (by which I mean two-biological-parent) families, an increasing number of children will experience family breakup two or even three times during childhood.
According to a growing body of social-scientific evidence, children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock birth do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being. Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor. They are also likely to stay poor longer. Twenty-two percent of children in one-parent families will experience poverty during childhood for seven years or more, as compared with only two percent of children in two parent families. A 1988 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that children in single-parent families are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems. They are also more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and to be in trouble with the law. Compared with children in intact families, children from disrupted families are at a much higher risk for physical or sexual abuse.
Contrary to popular belief, many children do not "bounce back" after divorce or remarriage. Difficulties that are associated with family breakup often persist into adulthood. Children who grow up in single-parent or stepparent families are less successful as adults, particularly in the two domains of life--love and work--that are most essential to happiness. Needless to say, not all children experience such negative effects. However, research shows that many children from disrupted families have a harder time achieving intimacy in a relationship, forming a stable marriage, or even holding a steady job.
Despite this growing body of evidence, it is nearly impossible to discuss changes in family structure without provoking angry protest. Many people see the discussion as no more than an attack on struggling single mothers and their children: Why blame single mothers when they are doing the very best they can? After all, the decision to end a marriage or a relationship is wrenching, and few parents are indifferent to the painful burden this decision imposes on their children. Many take the perilous step toward single parenthood as a last resort, after their best efforts to hold a marriage together have failed. Consequently, it can seem particularly cruel and unfeeling to remind parents of the hardships their children might suffer as a result of family breakup. Other people believe that the dramatic changes in family structure, though regrettable, are impossible to reverse. Family breakup is an inevitable feature of American life, and anyone who thinks otherwise is indulging in nostalgia or trying to turn back the clock. Since these new family forms are here to stay, the reasoning goes, we must accord respect to single parents, not criticize them. Typical is the view expressed by a Brooklyn woman in a recent letter to The New York Times: "Let's stop moralizing or blaming single parents and unwed mothers, and give them the respect they have earned and the support they deserve."
Such views are not to be dismissed. Indeed, they help to explain why family structure is such an explosive issue for Americans. The debate about it is not simply about the social-scientific evidence, although that is surely an important part of the discussion. It is also a debate over deeply held and often conflicting values. How do we begin to reconcile our long-standing belief in equality and diversity with an impressive body of evidence that suggests that not all family structures produce equal outcomes for children? How can we square traditional notions of public support for dependent women and children with a belief in women's right to pursue autonomy and independence in childbearing and child-rearing? How do we uphold the freedom of adults to pursue individual happiness in their private relationships and at the same time respond to the needs of children for stability, security, and permanence in their family lives? What do we do when the interests of adults and children conflict? These are the difficult issues at stake in the debate over family structure.
In the past these issues have turned out to be too difficult and too politically risky for debate. In the mid-1960s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, was denounced as a racist for calling attention to the relationship between the prevalence of black single-mother families and the lower socioeconomic standing of black children. For nearly twenty years the policy and research communities backed away from the entire issue. In 1980 the Carter Administration convened a historic White House Conference on Families, designed to address the growing problems of children and families in America. The result was a prolonged, publicly subsidized quarrel over the definition of family. No President since has tried to hold a national family conference. Last year, at a time when the rate of out-of-wedlock births had reached a historic high, Vice President Dan Quayle was ridiculed for criticizing Murphy Brown. In short, every time the issue of family structure has been raised, the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence.
Yet it is also risky to ignore the issue of changing family structure. In recent years the problems associated with family disruption have grown. Overall child well-being has declined, despite a decrease in the number of children per family, an increase in the educational level of parents, and historically high levels of public spending. After dropping in the 1960s and 1970s, the proportion of children in poverty has increased dramatically, from 15 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 1990, while the percentage of adult Americans in poverty has remained roughly constant. The teen suicide rate has more than tripled. Juvenile crime has increased and become more violent. School performance has continued to decline. There are no signs that these trends are about to reverse themselves.
we fail to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and
declining child well-being, then it will be increasingly difficult to improve
children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal
government funds. Nor will we be able to make progress in bettering school
performance or reducing crime or improving the quality of the nation's future
work force--all domestic problems closely connected to family breakup. Worse, we
may contribute to the problem by pursuing policies that actually increase family
instability and breakup.
From Death to Divorce
Across time and across cultures, family disruption has been regarded as an event that threatens a child's well-being and even survival. This view is rooted in a fundamental biological fact: unlike the young of almost any other species, the human child is born in an abjectly helpless and immature state. Years of nurture and protection are needed before the child can achieve physical independence. Similarly, it takes years of interaction with at least one but ideally two or more adults for a child to develop into a socially competent adult. Children raised in virtual isolation from human beings, though physically intact, display few recognizably human behaviors. The social arrangement that has proved most successful in ensuring the physical survival and promoting the social development of the child is the family unit of the biological mother and father. Consequently, any event that permanently denies a child the presence and protection of a parent jeopardizes the life of the child.
The classic form of family disruption is the death of a parent. Throughout history this has been one of the risks of childhood. Mothers frequently died in childbirth, and it was not unusual for both parents to die before the child was grown. As recently as the early decades of this century children commonly suffered the death of at least one parent. Almost a quarter of the children born in this country in 1900 lost one parent by the time they were fifteen years old. Many of these children lived with their widowed parent, often in a household with other close relatives. Others grew up in orphanages and foster homes.
The meaning of parental death, as it has been transmitted over time and faithfully recorded in world literature and lore, is unambiguous and essentially unchanging. It is universally regarded as an untimely and tragic event. Death permanently severs the parent-child bond, disrupting forever one of the child's earliest and deepest human attachments. It also deprives a child of the presence and protection of an adult who has a biological stake in, as well as an emotional commitment to, the child's survival and well-being. In short, the death of a parent is the most extreme and severe loss a child can suffer.
Because a child is so vulnerable in a parent's absence, there has been a common cultural response to the death of a parent: an outpouring of support from family, friends, and strangers alike. The surviving parent and child are united in their grief as well as their loss. Relatives and friends share in the loss and provide valuable emotional and financial assistance to the bereaved family. Other members of the community show sympathy for the child, and public assistance is available for those who need it. This cultural understanding of parental death has formed the basis for a tradition of public support to widows and their children. Indeed, as recently as the beginning of this century widows were the only mothers eligible for pensions in many states, and today widows with children receive more-generous welfare benefits from Survivors Insurance than do other single mothers with children who depend on Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
It has taken thousands upon thousands of years to reduce the threat of parental death. Not until the middle of the twentieth century did parental death cease to be a commonplace event for children in the United States. By then advances in medicine had dramatically reduced mortality rates for men and women.
At the same time, other forms of family disruption--separation, divorce, out-of wedlock birth--were held in check by powerful religious, social, and legal sanctions. Divorce was widely regarded both as a deviant behavior, especially threatening to mothers and children, and as a personal lapse: "Divorce is the public acknowledgment of failure," a 1940s sociology textbook noted. Out-of-wedlock birth was stigmatized, and stigmatization is a powerful means of regulating behavior, as any smoker or overeater will testify. Sanctions against nonmarital childbirth discouraged behavior that hurt children and exacted compensatory behavior that helped them. Shotgun marriages and adoption, two common responses to nonmarital birth, carried a strong message about the risks of premarital sex and created an intact family for the child.
Consequently, children did not have to worry much about losing a parent through divorce or never having had one because of nonmarital birth. After a surge in divorces following the Second World War, the rate leveled off. Only 11 percent of children born in the 1950s would by the time they turned eighteen see their parents separate or divorce. Out-of-wedlock childbirth barely figured as a cause of family disruption. In the 1950s and early 1960s, five percent of the nation's births were out of wedlock. Blacks were more likely than whites to bear children outside marriage, but the majority of black children born in the twenty years after the Second World War were born to married couples. The rate of family disruption reached a historic low point during those years.
A new standard of family security and stability was established in postwar America. For the first time in history the vast majority of the nation's children could expect to live with married biological parents throughout childhood. Children might still suffer other forms of adversity --poverty, racial discrimination, lack of educational opportunity--but only a few would be deprived of the nurture and protection of a mother and a father. No longer did children have to be haunted by the classic fears vividly dramatized in folklore and fable--that their parents would die, that they would have to live with a stepparent and stepsiblings, or that they would be abandoned. These were the years when the nation confidently boarded up orphanages and closed foundling hospitals, certain that such institutions would never again be needed. In movie theaters across the country parents and children could watch the drama of parental separation and death in the great Disney classics, secure in the knowledge that such nightmare visions as the death of Bambi's mother and the wrenching separation of Dumbo from his mother were only make believe.
In the 1960s the rate of family disruption suddenly began to rise. After inching up over the course of a century, the divorce rate soared. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the divorce rate held steady at fewer than ten divorces a year per 1,000 married couples. Then, beginning in about 1965, the rate increased sharply, peaking at twenty-three divorces per 1,000 marriages by 1979. (In 1974 divorce passed death as the leading cause of family breakup.) The rate has leveled off at about twenty-one divorces per 1,000 marriages--the figure for 1991. The out-of-wedlock birth rate also jumped. It went from five percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1990. In 1990 close to 57 percent of births among black mothers were nonmarital, and about 17 percent among white mothers. Altogether, about one out of every four women who had a child in 1990 was not married. With rates of divorce and nonmarital birth so high, family disruption is at its peak. Never before have so many children experienced family breakup caused by events other than death. Each year a million children go through divorce or separation and almost as many more are born out of wedlock.
Half of all marriages now end in divorce. Following divorce, many people enter new relationships. Some begin living together. Nearly half of all cohabiting couples have children in the household. Fifteen percent have new children together. Many cohabiting couples eventually get married. However, both cohabiting and remarried couples are more likely to break up than couples in first marriages. Even social scientists find it hard to keep pace with the complexity and velocity of such patterns. In the revised edition (1992) of his book Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, the sociologist Andrew Cherlin ruefully comments: "If there were a truth-in-labeling law for books, the title of this edition should be something long and unwieldy like Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, More Cohabitation, and Probably Remarriage."
Under such conditions growing up can be a turbulent experience. In many single-parent families children must come to terms with the parent's love life and romantic partners. Some children live with cohabiting couples, either their own unmarried parents or a biological parent and a live-in partner. Some children born to cohabiting parents see their parents break up. Others see their parents marry, but 56 percent of them (as compared with 31 percent of the children born to married parents) later see their parents' marriages fall apart. All told, about three quarters of children born to cohabiting couples will live in a single-parent home at least briefly. One of every four children growing up in the 1990s will eventually enter a stepfamily. According to one survey, nearly half of all children in stepparent families will see their parents divorce again by the time they reach their late teens. Since 80 percent of divorced fathers remarry, things get even more complicated when the romantic or marital history of the noncustodial parent, usually the father, is taken into account. Consequently, as it affects a significant number of children, family disruption is best understood not as a single event but as a string of disruptive events: separation, divorce, life in a single-parent family, life with a parent and live-in lover, the remarriage of one or both parents, life in one stepparent family combined with visits to another stepparent family; the breakup of one or both stepparent families. And so on. This is one reason why public schools have a hard time knowing whom to call in an emergency.
Given its dramatic impact on children's lives, one might reasonably expect that
this historic level of family disruption would be viewed with alarm, even
regarded as a national crisis. Yet this has not been the case. In recent years
some people have argued that these trends pose a serious threat to children and
to the nation as a whole, but they are dismissed as declinists, pessimists, or
nostalgists, unwilling or unable to accept the new facts of life. The dominant
view is that the changes in family structure are, on balance, positive.
Shift in the Social Metric
There are several reasons why this is so, but the fundamental reason is that at some point in the 1970s Americans changed their minds about the meaning of these disruptive behaviors. What had once been regarded as hostile to children's best interests was now considered essential to adults' happiness. In the 1950s most Americans believed that parents should stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the children. The assumption was that a divorce would damage the children, and the prospect of such damage gave divorce its meaning. By the mid-1970s a majority of Americans rejected that view. Popular advice literature reflected the shift. A book on divorce published in the mid-1940s tersely asserted: "Children are entitled to the affection and association of two parents, not one." Thirty years later another popular divorce book proclaimed just the opposite: "A two-parent home is not the only emotional structure within which a child can be happy and healthy. . . . The parents who take care of themselves will be best able to take care of their children." At about the same time, the long-standing taboo against out-of-wedlock childbirth also collapsed. By the mid-1970s three fourths of Americans said that it was not morally wrong for a woman to have a child outside marriage.
Once the social metric shifts from child well-being to adult well-being, it is hard to see divorce and nonmarital birth in anything but a positive light. However distressing and difficult they may be, both of these behaviors can hold out the promise of greater adult choice, freedom, and happiness. For unhappy spouses, divorce offers a way to escape a troubled or even abusive relationship and make a fresh start. For single parents, remarriage is a second try at marital happiness as well as a chance for relief from the stress, loneliness, and economic hardship of raising a child alone. For some unmarried women, nonmarital birth is a way to beat the biological clock, avoid marrying the wrong man, and experience the pleasures of motherhood. Moreover, divorce and out-of-wedlock birth involve a measure of agency and choice; they are man- and woman-made events. To be sure, not everyone exercises choice in divorce or nonmarital birth. Men leave wives for younger women, teenage girls get pregnant accidentally--yet even these unhappy events reflect the expansion of the boundaries of freedom and choice.
cultural shift helps explain what otherwise would be inexplicable: the failure
to see the rise in family disruption as a severe and troubling national problem.
It explains why there is virtually no widespread public sentiment for
restigmatizing either of these classically disruptive behaviors and no sense--no
public consensus- that they can or should be avoided in the future. On the
contrary, the prevailing opinion is that we should accept the changes in family
structure as inevitable and devise new forms of public and private support for
The View From Hollywood
With its affirmation of the liberating effects of divorce and nonmarital childbirth, this opinion is a fixture of American popular culture today. Madison Avenue and Hollywood did not invent these behaviors, as their highly paid publicists are quick to point out, but they have played an influential role in defending and even celebrating divorce and unwed motherhood. More precisely, they have taken the raw material of demography and fashioned it into a powerful fantasy of individual renewal and rebirth. Consider, for example, the teaser for People magazine's cover story on Joan Lunden's divorce: "After the painful end of her 13-year marriage, the Good Morning America cohost is discovering a new life as a single mother--and as her own woman." People does not dwell on the anguish Lunden and her children might have experienced over the breakup of their family, or the difficulties of single motherhood, even for celebrity mothers. Instead, it celebrates Joan Lunden's steps toward independence and a better life. People, characteristically, focuses on her shopping: in the first weeks after her breakup Lunden leased "a brand-new six bedroom, 8,000 square foot" house and then went to Bloomingdale's, where she scooped up sheets, pillows, a toaster, dishes, seven televisions, and roomfuls of fun furniture that was "totally unlike the serious traditional pieces she was giving up."
This is not just the view taken in supermarket magazines. Even the conservative bastion of the greeting-card industry, Hallmark, offers a line of cards commemorating divorce as liberation. "Think of your former marriage as a record album," says one Contemporary card. "It was full of music--both happy and sad. But what's important now is . . . YOU! the recently released HOT, NEW, SINGLE! You're going to be at the TOP OF THE CHARTS!" Another card reads: "Getting divorced can be very healthy! Watch how it improves your circulation! Best of luck! . . . " Hallmark's hip Shoebox Greetings division depicts two female praying mantises. Mantis One: "It's tough being a single parent." Mantis Two: "Yeah . . . Maybe we shouldn't have eaten our husbands."
Divorce is a tired convention in Hollywood, but unwed parenthood is very much in fashion: in the past year or so babies were born to Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Jack Nicholson and Rebecca Broussard, and Eddie Murphy and Nicole Mitchell. Vanity Fair celebrated Jack Nicholson's fatherhood with a cover story (April, 1992) called "Happy Jack." What made Jack happy, it turned out, was no-fault fatherhood. He and Broussard, the twenty-nine-year-old mother of his children, lived in separate houses. Nicholson said, "It's an unusual arrangement, but the last twenty-five years or so have shown me that I'm not good at cohabitation. . . . I see Rebecca as much as any other person who is cohabiting. And she prefers it. I think most people would in a more honest and truthful world." As for more-permanent commitments, the man who is not good at cohabitation said: "I don't discuss marriage much with Rebecca. Those discussions are the very thing I'm trying to avoid. I'm after this immediate real thing. That's all I believe in." (Perhaps Nicholson should have had the discussion. Not long after the story appeared, Broussard broke off the relationship.)
As this story shows, unwed parenthood is thought of not only as a way to find happiness but also as a way to exhibit such virtues as honesty and courage. A similar argument was offered in defense of Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood. Many of Murphy's fans were quick to point out that Murphy suffered over her decision to bear a child out of wedlock. Faced with an accidental pregnancy and a faithless lover, she agonized over her plight and, after much mental anguish, bravely decided to go ahead. In short, having a baby without a husband represented a higher level of maternal devotion and sacrifice than having a baby with a husband. Murphy was not just exercising her rights as a woman; she was exhibiting true moral heroism.
the night Murphy Brown became an unwed mother, 34 million Americans tuned in,
and CBS posted a 35 percent share of the audience. The show did not stir
significant protest at the grass roots and lost none of its advertisers. The
actress Candice Bergen subsequently appeared on
the cover of nearly every women's and news magazine in the country and received an honorary degree at the University of Pennsylvania as well as an Emmy award. The show's creator, Diane English, popped up in Hanes stocking ads. Judged by conventional measures of approval, Murphy Brown's motherhood was a hit at the box office.
Increasingly, the media depicts the married two-parent family as a source of pathology. According to a spate of celebrity memoirs and interviews, the married parent family harbors terrible secrets of abuse, violence, and incest. A bumper sticker I saw in Amherst, Massachusetts, read unspoken traditional Family Values: Abuse, Alcoholism, Incest. The pop therapist John Bradshaw explains away this generation's problems with the dictum that 96 percent of families are dysfunctional, made that way by the addicted society we live in. David Lynch creates a new aesthetic of creepiness by juxtaposing scenes of traditional family life with images of seduction and perversion. A Boston-area museum puts on an exhibit called "Goodbye to Apple Pie," featuring several artists' visions of child abuse, including one mixed-media piece with knives poking through a little girl's skirt. The piece is titled Father Knows Best.
No one would claim that two-parent families are free from conflict, violence, or abuse. However, the attempt to discredit the two-parent family can be understood as part of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan has described as a larger effort to accommodate higher levels of social deviance. "The amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can 'afford to recognize,'" Moynihan argues. One response has been to normalize what was once considered deviant behavior, such as out-of-wedlock birth. An accompanying response has been to detect deviance in what once stood as a social norm, such as the married-couple family. Together these responses reduce the acknowledged levels of deviance by eroding earlier distinctions between the normal and the deviant.
Several recent studies describe family life in its postwar heyday as the seedbed of alcoholism and abuse. According to Stephanie Coontz, the author of the book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, family life for married mothers in the 1950s consisted of "booze, bowling, bridge, and boredom." Coontz writes: "Few would have guessed that radiant Marilyn Van Derbur, crowned Miss America in 1958, had been sexually violated by her wealthy, respectable father from the time she was five until she was eighteen, when she moved away to college." Even the budget-stretching casserole comes under attack as a sign of culinary dysfunction. According to one food writer, this homely staple of postwar family life brings back images of "the good mother of the 50's . . . locked in Ozzie and Harriet land, unable to move past the canvas of a Corning Ware dish, the palette of a can of Campbell's soup, the mushy dominion of which she was queen."
Nevertheless, the popular portrait of family life does not simply reflect the
views of a cultural elite, as some have argued. There is strong support at the
grass roots for much of this view of family change. Survey after survey shows
that Americans are less inclined than they were a generation ago to value sexual
fidelity, lifelong marriage, and parenthood as worthwhile personal goals.
Motherhood no longer defines adult womanhood, as everyone knows; equally
important is the fact that fatherhood has declined as a norm for men. In 1976
less than half as many fathers as in 1957 said that providing for children was a
life goal. The proportion of working men who found marriage and children
burdensome and restrictive more than doubled in the same period. Fewer than half
of all adult Americans today regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a
positive moral virtue.
It is true that many adults benefit from divorce or remarriage. According to one study, nearly 80 percent of divorced women and 50 percent of divorced men say they are better off out of the marriage. Half of divorced adults in the same study report greater happiness. A competent self-help book called Divorce and New Beginnings notes the advantages of single parenthood: single parents can "develop their own interests, fulfill their own needs, choose their own friends and engage in social activities of their choice. Money, even if limited, can be spent as they see fit." Apparently, some women appreciate the opportunity to have children out of wedlock. "The real world, however, does not always allow women who are dedicated to their careers to devote the time and energy it takes to find--or be found by--the perfect husband and father wanna-be," one woman said in a letter to The Washington Post. A mother and chiropractor from Avon, Connecticut, explained her unwed maternity to an interviewer this way: "It is selfish, but this was something I needed to do for me."
There is very little in contemporary popular culture to contradict this optimistic view. But in a few small places another perspective may be found. Several racks down from its divorce cards, Hallmark offers a line of cards for children--To Kids With Love. These cards come six to a pack. Each card in the pack has a slightly different message. According to the package, the "thinking of you" messages will let a special kid "know how much you care." Though Hallmark doesn't quite say so, it's clear these cards are aimed at divorced parents. "I'm sorry I'm not always there when you need me but I hope you know I'm always just a phone call away." Another card reads: "Even though your dad and I don't live together anymore, I know he's still a very special part of your life. And as much as I miss you when you're not with me, I'm still happy that you two can spend time together."
Hallmark's messages are grounded in a substantial body of well-funded market research. Therefore it is worth reflecting on the divergence in sentiment between the divorce cards for adults and the divorce cards for kids. For grown-ups, divorce heralds new beginnings (A HOT NEW SINGLE). For children, divorce brings separation and loss ("I'm sorry I'm not always there when you need me").
An even more telling glimpse into the meaning of family disruption can be found in the growing children's literature on family dissolution. Take, for example, the popular children's book Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families (1986), by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. This is a picture book, written for very young children. The book begins with a short glossary of "divorce words" and encourages children to "see if you can find them" in the story. The words include "family counselor," "separation agreement," "alimony," and "child custody." The book is illustrated with cartoonish drawings of green dinosaur parents who fight, drink too much, and break up. One panel shows the father dinosaur, suitcase in hand, getting into a yellow car.
The dinosaur children are offered simple, straightforward advice on what to do about the divorce. On custody decisions: "When parents can't agree, lawyers and judges decide. Try to be honest if they ask you questions; it will help them make better decisions." On selling the house: "If you move, you may have to say good-bye to friends and familiar places. But soon your new home will feel like the place you really belong." On the economic impact of divorce: "Living with one parent almost always means there will be less money. Be prepared to give up some things." On holidays: "Divorce may mean twice as much celebrating at holiday times, but you may feel pulled apart." On parents' new lovers: "You may sometimes feel jealous and want your parent to yourself. Be polite to your parents' new friends, even if you don't like them at first." On parents' remarriage: "Not everyone loves his or her stepparents, but showing them respect is important."
These cards and books point to an uncomfortable and generally unacknowledged fact: what contributes to a parent's happiness may detract from a child's happiness. All too often the adult quest for freedom, independence, and choice in family relationships conflicts with a child's developmental needs for stability, constancy, harmony, and permanence in family life. In short, family disruption creates a deep division between parents' interests and the interests of children.
One of the worst consequences of these divided interests is a withdrawal of parental investment in children's well-being. As the Stanford economist Victor Fuchs has pointed out, the main source of social investment in children is private. The investment comes from the children's parents. But parents in disrupted families have less time, attention, and money to devote to their children. The single most important source of disinvestment has been the widespread withdrawal of financial support and involvement by fathers. Maternal investment, too, has declined, as women try to raise families on their own and work outside the home. Moreover, both mothers and fathers commonly respond to family breakup by investing more heavily in themselves and in their own personal and romantic lives.
Sometimes the tables are completely turned. Children are called upon to invest
in the emotional well-being of their parents. Indeed, this seems to be the
larger message of many of the children's books on divorce and remarriage.
Dinosaurs Divorce asks children to be sympathetic, understanding, respectful,
and polite to confused, unhappy parents. The sacrifice comes from the children:
"Be prepared to give up some things." In the world of divorcing dinosaurs, the
children rather than the grown-ups are the exemplars of patience, restraint, and
Three Seventies Assumptions
As it first took shape in the 1970s, the optimistic view of family change rested on three bold new assumptions. At that time, because the emergence of the changes in family life was so recent, there was little hard evidence to confirm or dispute these assumptions. But this was an expansive moment in American life.
The first assumption was an economic one: that a woman could now afford to be a mother without also being a wife. There were ample grounds for believing this. Women's work-force participation had been gradually increasing in the postwar period, and by the beginning of the 1970s women were a strong presence in the workplace. What's more, even though there was still a substantial wage gap between men and women, women had made considerable progress in a relatively short time toward better-paying jobs and greater employment opportunities. More women than ever before could aspire to serious careers as business executives, doctors, lawyers, airline pilots, and politicians. This circumstance, combined with the increased availability of child care, meant that women could take on the responsibilities of a breadwinner, perhaps even a sole breadwinner. This was particularly true for middle-class women. According to a highly regarded 1977 study by the Carnegie Council on Children, "The greater availability of jobs for women means that more middle-class children today survive their parents' divorce without a catastrophic plunge into poverty."
Feminists, who had long argued that the path to greater equality for women lay in the world of work outside the home, endorsed this assumption. In fact, for many, economic independence was a stepping-stone toward freedom from both men and marriage. As women began to earn their own money, they were less dependent on men or marriage, and marriage diminished in importance. In Gloria Steinem's memorable words, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."
This assumption also gained momentum as the meaning of work changed for women. Increasingly, work had an expressive as well as an economic dimension: being a working mother not only gave you an income but also made you more interesting and fulfilled than a stay-at-home mother. Consequently, the optimistic economic scenario was driven by a cultural imperative. Women would achieve financial independence because, culturally as well as economically, it was the right thing to do.
The second assumption was that family disruption would not cause lasting harm to children and could actually enrich their lives. Creative Divorce: A New Opportunity for Personal Growth, a popular book of the seventies, spoke confidently to this point: "Children can survive any family crisis without permanent damage--and grow as human beings in the process. . . ." Moreover, single-parent and stepparent families created a more extensive kinship network than the nuclear family. This network would envelop children in a web of warm and supportive relationships. "Belonging to a stepfamily means there are more people in your life," a children's book published in 1982 notes. "More sisters and brothers, including the step ones. More people you think of as grandparents and aunts and uncles. More cousins. More neighbors and friends. . . . Getting to know and like so many people (and having them like you) is one of the best parts of what being in a stepfamily . . . is all about."
The third assumption was that the new diversity in family structure would make America a better place. Just as the nation has been strengthened by the diversity of its ethnic and racial groups, so it would be strengthened by diverse family forms. The emergence of these brave new families was but the latest chapter in the saga of American pluralism.
Another version of the diversity argument stated that the real problem was not family disruption itself but the stigma still attached to these emergent family forms. This lingering stigma placed children at psychological risk, making them feel ashamed or different; as the ranks of single-parent and stepparent families grew, children would feel normal and good about themselves.
These assumptions continue to be appealing, because they accord with strongly held American beliefs in social progress. Americans see progress in the expansion of individual opportunities for choice, freedom, and self-expression. Moreover, Americans identify progress with growing tolerance of diversity. Over the past half century, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich writes, the United States has steadily grown more open-minded and accepting of groups that were previously perceived as alien, untrustworthy, or unsuitable for public leadership or social esteem. One such group is the burgeoning number of single-parent and stepparent families.
The Education of Sara McLanahan
In 1981 Sara McLanahan, now a sociologist at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, read a three-part series by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker. Later published as a book titled The Underclass, the series presented a vivid portrait of the drug addicts, welfare mothers, and school dropouts who took part in an education and-training program in New York City. Many were the children of single mothers, and it was Auletta's clear implication that single-mother families were contributing to the growth of an underclass. McLanahan was taken aback by this notion. "It struck me as strange that he would be viewing single mothers at that level of pathology."
"I'd gone to graduate school in the days when the politically correct argument was that single-parent families were just another alternative family form, and it was fine," McLanahan explains, as she recalls the state of social-scientific thinking in the 1970s. Several empirical studies that were then current supported an optimistic view of family change. (They used tiny samples, however, and did not track the well-being of children over time.) One, All Our Kin, by Carol Stack, was required reading for thousands of university students. It said that single mothers had strengths that had gone undetected and unappreciated by earlier researchers. The single-mother family, it suggested, is an economically resourceful and socially embedded institution. In the late 1970s McLanahan wrote a similar study that looked at a small sample of white single mothers and how they coped. "So I was very much of that tradition."
By the early 1980s, however, nearly two decades had passed since the changes in family life had begun. During the intervening years a fuller body of empirical research had emerged: studies that used large samples, or followed families through time, or did both. Moreover, several of the studies offered a child's-eye view of family disruption. The National Survey on Children, conducted by the psychologist Nicholas Zill, had set out in 1976 to track a large sample of children aged seven to eleven. It also interviewed the children's parents and teachers. It surveyed its subjects again in 1981 and 1987. By the time of its third round of interviews the eleven-year-olds of 1976 were the twenty-two-year-olds of 1987. The California Children of Divorce Study, directed by Judith Wallerstein, a clinical psychologist, had also been going on for a decade. E. Mavis Hetherington, of the University of Virginia, was conducting a similar study of children from both intact and divorced families. For the first time it was possible to test the optimistic view against a large and longitudinal body of evidence.
It was to this body of evidence that Sara McLanahan turned. When she did, she found little to support the optimistic view of single motherhood. On the contrary. When she published her findings with Irwin Garfinkel in a 1986 book, Single Mothers and Their Children, her portrait of single motherhood proved to be as troubling in its own way as Auletta's.
One of the leading assumptions of the time was that single motherhood was economically viable. Even if single mothers did face economic trials, they wouldn't face them for long, it was argued, because they wouldn't remain single for long: single motherhood would be a brief phase of three to five years, followed by marriage. Single mothers would be economically resilient: if they experienced setbacks, they would recover quickly. It was also said that single mothers would be supported by informal networks of family, friends, neighbors, and other single mothers. As McLanahan shows in her study, the evidence demolishes all these claims.
For the vast majority of single mothers, the economic spectrum turns out to be narrow, running between precarious and desperate. Half the single mothers in the United States live below the poverty line. (Currently, one out of ten married couples with children is poor.) Many others live on the edge of poverty. Even single mothers who are far from poor are likely to experience persistent economic insecurity. Divorce almost always brings a decline in the standard of living for the mother and children.
Moreover, the poverty experienced by single mothers is no more brief than it is mild. A significant number of all single mothers never marry or remarry. Those who do, do so only after spending roughly six years, on average, as single parents. For black mothers the duration is much longer. Only 33 percent of African American mothers had remarried within ten years of separation. Consequently, single motherhood is hardly a fleeting event for the mother, and it is likely to occupy a third of the child's childhood. Even the notion that single mothers are knit together in economically supportive networks is not borne out by the evidence. On the contrary, single parenthood forces many women to be on the move, in search of cheaper housing and better jobs. This need-driven restless mobility makes it more difficult for them to sustain supportive ties to family and friends, let alone other single mothers.
Single-mother families are vulnerable not just to poverty but to a particularly debilitating form of poverty: welfare dependency. The dependency takes two forms: First, single mothers, particularly unwed mothers, stay on welfare longer than other welfare recipients. Of those never-married mothers who receive welfare benefits, al most 40 percent remain on the rolls for ten years or longer. Second, welfare dependency tends to be passed on from one generation to the next. McLanahan says, "Evidence on intergenerational poverty indicates that, indeed, offspring from [single-mother] families are far more likely to be poor and to form mother-only families than are offspring who live with two parents most of their pre-adult life." Nor is the intergenerational impact of single motherhood limited to African Americans, as many people seem to believe. Among white families, daughters of single parents are 53 percent more likely to marry as teenagers, 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a premarital birth, and 92 percent more likely to dissolve their own marriages. All these intergenerational consequences of single motherhood increase the likelihood of chronic welfare dependency.
McLanahan cites three reasons why single-mother families are so vulnerable economically. For one thing, their earnings are low. Second, unless the mothers are widowed, they don't receive public subsidies large enough to lift them out of poverty. And finally, they do not get much support from family members-- especially the fathers of their children. In 1982 single white mothers received an average of $1,246 in alimony and child support, black mothers an average of $322. Such payments accounted for about 10 percent of the income of single white mothers and for about 3.5 percent of the income of single black mothers. These amounts were dramatically smaller than the income of the father in a two-parent family and also smaller than the income from a second earner in a two-parent family. Roughly 60 percent of single white mothers and 80 percent of single black mothers received no support at all.
Until the mid-1980s, when stricter standards were put in place, child-support awards were only about half to two-thirds what the current guidelines require. Accordingly, there is often a big difference in the living standards of divorced fathers and of divorced mothers with children. After divorce the average annual income of mothers and children is $13,500 for whites and $9,000 for nonwhites, as compared with $25,000 for white nonresident fathers and $13,600 for nonwhite nonresident fathers. Moreover, since child-support awards account for a smaller portion of the income of a high-earning father, the drop in living standards can be especially sharp for mothers who were married to upper-level managers and professionals.
Unwed mothers are unlikely to be awarded any child support at all, partly because the paternity of their children may not have been established. According to one recent study, only 20 percent of unmarried mothers receive child support. Even if single mothers escape poverty, economic uncertainty remains a condition of life. Divorce brings a reduction in income and standard of living for the vast majority of single mothers. One study, for example, found that income for mothers and children declines on average about 30 percent, while fathers experience a 10 to 15 percent increase in income in the year following a separation. Things get even more difficult when fathers fail to meet their child-support obligations. As a result, many divorced mothers experience a wearing uncertainty about the family budget: whether the check will come in or not; whether new sneakers can be bought this month or not; whether the electric bill will be paid on time or not. Uncertainty about money triggers other kinds of uncertainty. Mothers and children often have to move to cheaper housing after a divorce. One study shows that about 38 percent of divorced mothers and their children move during the first year after a divorce. Even several years later the rate of moves for single mothers is about a third higher than the rate for two-parent families. It is also common for a mother to change her job or increase her working hours or both following a divorce. Even the composition of the household is likely to change, with other adults, such as boyfriends or babysitters, moving in and out.
All this uncertainty can be devastating to children. Anyone who knows children knows that they are deeply conservative creatures. They like things to stay the same. So pronounced is this tendency that certain children have been known to request the same peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch for years on end. Children are particularly set in their ways when it comes to family, friends, neighborhoods, and schools. Yet when a family breaks up, all these things may change. The novelist Pat Conroy has observed that "each divorce is the death of a small civilization." No one feels this more acutely than children.
McLanahan's investigation and others like it have helped to establish a broad
consensus on the economic impact of family disruption on children. Most social
scientists now agree that single motherhood is an important and growing cause of
poverty, and that children suffer as a result. (They continue to argue, however,
about the relationship between family structure and such economic factors as
income inequality, the loss of jobs in the inner city, and the growth of
low-wage jobs.) By the mid-1980s, however, it was clear that the problem of
family disruption was not confined to the urban underclass, nor was its sole
impact economic. Divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth were affecting middle-
and upper-class children, and these more privileged children were suffering
negative consequences as well. It appeared that the problems associated with
family breakup were far deeper and far more widespread than anyone had
The Missing Father
Judith Wallerstein is one of the pioneers in research on the long-term psychological impact of family disruption on children. The California Children of Divorce Study, which she directs, remains the most enduring study of the long-term effects of divorce on children and their parents. Moreover, it represents the best-known effort to look at the impact of divorce on middle-class children. The California children entered the study without pathological family histories. Before divorce they lived in stable, protected homes. And although some of the children did experience economic insecurity as the result of divorce, they were generally free from the most severe forms of poverty associated with family breakup. Thus the study and the resulting book (which Wallerstein wrote with Sandra Blakeslee), Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce (1989), provide new insight into the consequences of divorce which are not associated with extreme forms of economic or emotional deprivation.
When, in 1971, Wallerstein and her colleagues set out to conduct clinical interviews with 131 children from the San Francisco area, they thought they were embarking on a short-term study. Most experts believed that divorce was like a bad cold. There was a phase of acute discomfort, and then a short recovery phase. According to the conventional wisdom, kids would be back on their feet in no time at all. Yet when Wallerstein met these children for a second interview more than a year later, she was amazed to discover that there had been no miraculous recovery. In fact, the children seemed to be doing worse.
The news that children did not "get over" divorce was not particularly welcome at the time. Wallerstein recalls, "We got angry letters from therapists, parents, and lawyers saying we were undoubtedly wrong. They said children are really much better off being released from an unhappy marriage. Divorce, they said, is a liberating experience." One of the main results of the California study was to overturn this optimistic view. In Wallerstein's cautionary words, "Divorce is deceptive. Legally it is a single event, but psychologically it is a chain--sometimes a never-ending chain--of events, relocations, and radically shifting relationships strung through time, a process that forever changes the lives of the people involved."
Five years after divorce more than a third of the children experienced moderate or severe depression. At ten years a significant number of the now young men and women appeared to be troubled, drifting, and underachieving. At fifteen years many of the thirtyish adults were struggling to establish strong love relationships of their own. In short, far from recovering from their parents' divorce, a significant percentage of these grownups were still suffering from its effects. In fact, according to Wallerstein, the long-term effects of divorce emerge at a time when young adults are trying to make their own decisions about love, marriage, and family. Not all children in the study suffered negative consequences. But Wallerstein's research presents a sobering picture of divorce. "The child of divorce faces many additional psychological burdens in addition to the normative tasks of growing up," she says.
Divorce not only makes it more difficult for young adults to establish new relationships. It also weakens the oldest primary relationship: that between parent and child. According to Wallerstein, "Parent-child relationships are permanently altered by divorce in ways that our society has not anticipated." Not only do children experience a loss of parental attention at the onset of divorce, but they soon find that at every stage of their development their parents are not available in the same way they once were. "In a reasonably happy intact family," Wallerstein observes, "the child gravitates first to one parent and then to the other, using skills and attributes from each in climbing the developmental ladder." In a divorced family, children find it "harder to find the needed parent at needed times." This may help explain why very young children suffer the most as the result of family disruption. Their opportunities to engage in this kind of ongoing process are the most truncated and compromised.
The father-child bond is severely, often irreparably, damaged in disrupted families. In a situation without historical precedent, an astonishing and disheartening number of American fathers are failing to provide financial support to their children. Often, more than the father's support check is missing. Increasingly, children are bereft of any contact with their fathers. According to the National Survey of Children, in disrupted families only one child in six, on average, saw his or her father as often as once a week in the past year. Close to half did not see their father at all in the past year. As time goes on, contact becomes even more infrequent. Ten years after a marriage breaks up, more than two thirds of children report not having seen their father for a year. Not surprisingly, when asked to name the "adults you look up to and admire," only 20 percent of children in single-parent families named their father, as compared with 52 percent of children in two-parent families. A favorite complaint among Baby Boom Americans is that their fathers were emotionally remote guys who worked hard, came home at night to eat supper, and didn't have much to say to or do with the kids. But the current generation has a far worse father problem: many of their fathers are vanishing entirely.
Even for fathers who maintain regular contact, the pattern of father-child relationships changes. The sociologists Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg, who have studied broken families, write that the fathers behave more like other relatives than like parents. Rather than helping with homework or carrying out a project with their children, nonresidential fathers are likely to take the kids shopping, to the movies, or out to dinner. Instead of providing steady advice and guidance, divorced fathers become "treat" dads.
Apparently--and paradoxically--it is the visiting relationship itself, rather than the frequency of visits, that is the real source of the problem. According to Wallerstein, the few children in the California study who reported visiting with their fathers once or twice a week over a ten-year period still felt rejected. The need to schedule a special time to be with the child, the repeated leave-takings, and the lack of connection to the child's regular, daily schedule leaves many fathers adrift, frustrated, and confused. Wallerstein calls the visiting father a parent without portfolio.
deterioration in father-child bonds is most severe among children who experience
divorce at an early age, according to a recent study. Nearly three quarters of
the respondents, now young men and women, report having poor relationships with
their fathers. Close to half have received psychological help, nearly a third
have dropped out of high school, and about a quarter report having experienced
high levels of problem behavior or emotional distress by the time they became
Since most children live with their mothers after divorce, one might expect that the mother-child bond would remain unaltered and might even be strengthened. Yet research shows that the mother-child bond is also weakened as the result of divorce. Only half of the children who were close to their mothers before a divorce remained equally close after the divorce. Boys, particularly, had difficulties with their mothers. Moreover, mother-child relationships deteriorated over time. Whereas teenagers in disrupted families were no more likely than teenagers in intact families to report poor relationships with their mothers, 30 percent of young adults from disrupted families have poor relationships with their mothers, as compared with 16 percent of young adults from intact families. Mother-daughter relationships often deteriorate as the daughter reaches young adulthood. The only group in society that derives any benefit from these weakened parent-child ties is the therapeutic community. Young adults from disrupted families are nearly twice as likely as those from intact families to receive psychological help.
Some social scientists have criticized Judith Wallerstein's research because her study is based on a small clinical sample and does not include a control group of children from intact families. However, other studies generally support and strengthen her findings. Nicholas Zill has found similar long-term effects on children of divorce, reporting that "effects of marital discord and family disruption are visible twelve to twenty-two years later in poor relationships with parents, high levels of problem behavior, and an increased likelihood of dropping out of high school and receiving psychological help." Moreover, Zill's research also found signs of distress in young women who seemed relatively well adjusted in middle childhood and adolescence. Girls in single-parent families are also at much greater risk for precocious sexuality, teenage marriage, teenage pregnancy, nonmarital birth, and divorce than are girls in two-parent families.
Zill's research shows that family disruption strongly affects school achievement as well. Children in disrupted families are nearly twice as likely as those in intact families to drop out of high school; among children who do drop out, those from disrupted families are less likely eventually to earn a diploma or a GED. Boys are at greater risk for dropping out than girls, and are also more likely to exhibit aggressive, acting-out behaviors. Other research confirms these findings. According to a study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 33 percent of two-parent elementary school students are ranked as high achievers, as compared with 17 percent of single-parent students. The children in single-parent families are also more likely to be truant or late or to have disciplinary action taken against them. Even after controlling for race, income, and religion, scholars find significant differences in educational attainment between children who grow up in intact families and children who do not. In his 1992 study America's Smallest School: The Family, Paul Barton shows that the proportion of two-parent families varies widely from state to state and is related to variations in academic achievement. North Dakota, for example, scores highest on the math-proficiency test and second highest on the two-parent-family scale. The District of Columbia is second lowest on the math test and lowest in the nation on the two-parent-family scale.
Zill notes that "while coming from a disrupted family significantly increases a young adult's risks of experiencing social, emotional or academic difficulties, it does not foreordain such difficulties. The majority of young people from disrupted families have successfully completed high school, do not currently display high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior, and enjoy reasonable relationships with their mothers." Nevertheless, a majority of these young adults do show maladjustment in their relationships with their fathers.
These findings underscore the importance of both a mother and a father in fostering the emotional well-being of children. Obviously, not all children in two-parent families are free from emotional turmoil, but few are burdened with the troubles that accompany family breakup. Moreover, as the sociologist Amitai Etzioni explains in a new book, The Spirit of Community, two parents in an intact family make up what might be called a mutually supportive education coalition. When both parents are present, they can play different, even contradictory, roles. One parent may goad the child to achieve, while the other may encourage the child to take time out to daydream or toss a football around. One may emphasize taking intellectual risks, while the other may insist on following the teacher's guidelines. At the same time, the parents regularly exchange information about the child's school problems and achievements, and have a sense of the overall educational mission. However, Etzioni writes,
sequence of divorce followed by a succession of boy or girlfriends, a second
marriage, and frequently another divorce and another turnover of partners often
means a repeatedly disrupted educational coalition. Each change in participants
involves a change in the educational agenda for the child. Each new partner
cannot be expected to pick up the previous one's educational post and program. .
. . As a result, changes in parenting partners mean, at best, a deep disruption
in a child's education, though of course several disruptions cut deeper into the
effectiveness of the educational coalition than just one.
The Bad News About Stepparents
Perhaps the most striking, and potentially disturbing, new research has to do with children in stepparent families. Until quite recently the optimistic assumption was that children saw their lives improve when they became part of a stepfamily. When Nicholas Zill and his colleagues began to study the effects of remarriage on children, their working hypothesis was that stepparent families would make up for the shortcomings of the single-parent family. Clearly, most children are better off economically when they are able to share in the income of two adults. When a second adult joins the household, there may be a reduction in the time and work pressures on the single parent.
The research overturns this optimistic assumption, however. In general the evidence suggests that remarriage neither reproduces nor restores the intact family structure, even when it brings more income and a second adult into the household. Quite the contrary. Indeed, children living with stepparents appear to be even more disadvantaged than children living in a stable single-parent family. Other difficulties seem to offset the advantages of extra income and an extra pair of hands. However much our modern sympathies reject the fairy-tale portrait of stepparents, the latest research confirms that the old stories are anthropologically quite accurate. Stepfamilies disrupt established loyalties, create new uncertainties, provoke deep anxieties, and sometimes threaten a child's physical safety as well as emotional security.
Parents and children have dramatically different interests in and expectations for a new marriage. For a single parent, remarriage brings new commitments, the hope of enduring love and happiness, and relief from stress and loneliness. For a child, the same event often provokes confused feelings of sadness, anger, and rejection. Nearly half the children in Wallerstein's study said they felt left out in their stepfamilies. The National Commission on Children, a bipartisan group headed by Senator John D. Rockefeller, of West Virginia, reported that children from stepfamilies were more likely to say they often felt lonely or blue than children from either single-parent or intact families. Children in stepfamilies were the most likely to report that they wanted more time with their mothers. When mothers remarry, daughters tend to have a harder time adjusting than sons. Evidently, boys often respond positively to a male presence in the household, while girls who have established close ties to their mother in a single-parent family often see the stepfather as a rival and an intruder. According to one study, boys in remarried families are less likely to drop out of school than boys in single-parent families, while the opposite is true for girls.
A large percentage of children do not even consider stepparents to be part of their families, according to the National Survey on Children. The NSC asked children, "When you think of your family, who do you include?" Only 10 percent of the children failed to mention a biological parent, but a third left out a stepparent. Even children who rarely saw their noncustodial parents almost always named them as family members. The weak sense of attachment is mutual. When parents were asked the same question, only one percent failed to mention a biological child, while 15 percent left out a stepchild. In the same study stepparents with both natural children and stepchildren said that it was harder for them to love their stepchildren than their biological children and that their children would have been better off if they had grown up with two biological parents.
One of the most severe risks associated with stepparent-child ties is the risk of sexual abuse. As Judith Wallerstein explains, "The presence of a stepfather can raise the difficult issue of a thinner incest barrier." The incest taboo is strongly reinforced, Wallerstein says, by knowledge of paternity and by the experience of caring for a child since birth. A stepfather enters the family without either credential and plays a sexual role as the mother's husband. As a result, stepfathers can pose a sexual risk to the children, especially to daughters. According to a study by the Canadian researchers Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, preschool children in stepfamilies are forty times as likely as children in intact families to suffer physical or sexual abuse. (Most of the sexual abuse was committed by a third party, such as a neighbor, a stepfather's male friend, or another nonrelative.) Stepfathers discriminate in their abuse: they are far more likely to assault nonbiological children than their own natural children.
Sexual abuse represents the most extreme threat to children's well-being. Stepfamilies also seem less likely to make the kind of ordinary investments in the children that other families do. Although it is true that the stepfamily household has a higher income than the single-parent household, it does not follow that the additional income is reliably available to the children. To begin with, children's claim on stepparents' resources is shaky. Stepparents are not legally required to support stepchildren, so their financial support of these children is entirely voluntary. Moreover, since stepfamilies are far more likely to break up than intact families, particularly in the first five years, there is always the risk--far greater than the risk of unemployment in an intact family--that the second income will vanish with another divorce. The financial commitment to a child's education appears weaker in stepparent families, perhaps because the stepparent believes that the responsibility for educating the child rests with the biological parent.
Similarly, studies suggest that even though they may have the time, the parents
in stepfamilies do not invest as much of it in their children as the parents in
intact families or even single parents do. A 1991 survey by the National
Commission on Children showed that the parents in stepfamilies were less likely
to be involved in a child's school life, including involvement in
extracurricular activities, than either intact-family parents or single parents.
They were the least likely to report being involved in such time-consuming
activities as coaching a child's team, accompanying class trips, or helping with
school projects. According to McLanahan's research, children in stepparent
families report lower educational aspirations on the part of their parents and
lower levels of parental involvement with schoolwork. In short, it appears that
family income and the number of adults in the household are not the only factors
affecting children's well-being.
There are several reasons for this diminished interest and investment. In the law, as in the children's eyes, stepparents are shadowy figures. According to the legal scholar David Chambers, family law has pretty much ignored stepparents. Chambers writes, "In the substantial majority of states, stepparents, even when they live with a child, have no legal obligation to contribute to the child's support; nor does a stepparent's presence in the home alter the support obligations of a noncustodial parent. The stepparent also has . . . no authority to approve emergency medical treatment or even to sign a permission slip. . . ." When a marriage breaks up, the stepparent has no continuing obligation to provide for a stepchild, no matter how long or how much he or she has been contributing to the support of the child. In short, Chambers says, stepparent relationships are based wholly on consent, subject to the inclinations of the adult and the child. The only way a stepparent can acquire the legal status of a parent is through adoption. Some researchers also point to the cultural ambiguity of the stepparent's role as a source of diminished interest, while others insist that it is the absence of a blood tie that weakens the bond between stepparent and child.
Whatever its causes, the diminished investment in children in both single-parent and stepparent families has a significant impact on their life chances. Take parental help with college costs. The parents in intact families are far more likely to contribute to children's college costs than are those in disrupted families. Moreover, they are usually able to arrive at a shared understanding of which children will go to college, where they will go, how much the parents will contribute, and how much the children will contribute. But when families break up, these informal understandings can vanish. The issue of college tuition remains one of the most contested areas of parental support, especially for higher-income parents.
The law does not step in even when familial understandings break down. In the 1980s many states lowered the age covered by child-support agreements from twenty-one to eighteen, thus eliminating college as a cost associated with support for a minor child. Consequently, the question of college tuition is typically not addressed in child-custody agreements. Even in states where the courts do require parents to contribute to college costs, the requirement may be in jeopardy. In a recent decision in Pennsylvania the court overturned an earlier decision ordering divorced parents to contribute to college tuition. This decision is likely to inspire challenges in other states where courts have required parents to pay for college. Increasingly, help in paying for college is entirely voluntary.
Judith Wallerstein has been analyzing the educational decisions of the college-age men and women in her study. She reports that "a full 42 percent of these men and women from middle class families appeared to have ended their educations without attempting college or had left college before achieving a degree at either the two-year or the four-year level." A significant percentage of these young people have the ability to attend college. Typical of this group are Nick and Terry, sons of a college professor. They had been close to their father before the divorce, but their father remarried soon after the divorce and saw his sons only occasionally, even though he lived nearby. At age nineteen Nick had completed a few junior-college courses and was earning a living as a salesman. Terry, twenty-one, who had been tested as a gifted student, was doing blue-collar work irregularly.
Sixty-seven percent of the college-age students from disrupted families attended college, as compared with 85 percent of other students who attended the same high schools. Of those attending college, several had fathers who were financially capable of contributing to college costs but did not. The withdrawal of support for college suggests that other customary forms of parental help-giving, too, may decline as the result of family breakup. For example, nearly a quarter of first-home purchases since 1980 have involved help from relatives, usually parents. The median amount of help is $5,000. It is hard to imagine that parents who refuse to contribute to college costs will offer help in buying first homes, or help in buying cars or health insurance for young adult family members. And although it is too soon to tell, family disruption may affect the generational transmission of wealth. Baby Boomers will inherit their parents' estates, some substantial, accumulated over a lifetime by parents who lived and saved together. To be sure, the postwar generation benefited from an expanding economy and a rising standard of living, but its ability to accumulate wealth also owed something to family stability. The lifetime assets, like the marriage itself, remained intact. It is unlikely that the children of disrupted families will be in so favorable a position.
Moreover, children from disrupted families may be less likely to help their aging parents. The sociologist Alice Rossi, who has studied intergenerational patterns of help-giving, says that adult obligation has its roots in early-childhood experience. Children who grow up in intact families experience higher levels of obligation to kin than children from broken families. Children's sense of obligation to a nonresidential father is particularly weak. Among adults with both parents living, those separated from their father during childhood are less likely than others to see the father regularly. Half of them see their father more than once a year, as compared with nine out of ten of those whose parents are still married. Apparently a kind of bitter justice is at work here. Fathers who do not support or see their young children may not be able to count on their adult children's support when they are old and need money, love, and attention.
short, as Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenburg put it, "Through divorce and
remarriage, individuals are related to more and more people, to each of whom
they owe less and less." Moreover, as Nicholas Zill argues, weaker parent-child
attachments leave many children more strongly exposed to influences outside the
family, such as peers, boyfriends or girlfriends, and the media. Although these
outside forces can sometimes be helpful, common sense and research opinion argue
against putting too much faith in peer groups or the media as surrogates for Mom
Poverty, Crime, Education
Family disruption would be a serious problem even if it affected only individual children and families. But its impact is far broader. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to characterize it as a central cause of many of our most vexing social problems. Consider three problems that most Americans believe rank among the nation's pressing concerns: poverty, crime, and declining school performance.
More than half of the increase in child poverty in the 1980s is attributable to changes in family structure, according to David Eggebeen and Daniel Lichter, of Pennsylvania State University. In fact, if family structure in the United States had remained relatively constant since 1960, the rate of child poverty would be a third lower than it is today. This does not bode well for the future. With more than half of today's children likely to live in single-parent families, poverty and associated welfare costs threaten to become even heavier burdens on the nation.
Crime in American cities has increased dramatically and grown more violent over recent decades. Much of this can be attributed to the rise in disrupted families. Nationally, more than 70 percent of all juveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes. A number of scholarly studies find that even after the groups of subjects are controlled for income, boys from single-mother homes are significantly more likely than others to commit crimes and to wind up in the juvenile justice, court, and penitentiary systems. One such study summarizes the relationship between crime and one-parent families in this way: "The relationship is so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature." The nation's mayors, as well as police officers, social workers, probation officers, and court officials, consistently point to family breakup as the most important source of rising rates of crime.
Terrible as poverty and crime are, they tend to be concentrated in inner cities and isolated from the everyday experience of many Americans. The same cannot be said of the problem of declining school performance. Nowhere has the impact of family breakup been more profound or widespread than in the nation's public schools. There is a strong consensus that the schools are failing in their historic mission to prepare every American child to be a good worker and a good citizen. And nearly everyone agrees that the schools must undergo dramatic reform in order to reach that goal. In pursuit of that goal, moreover, we have suffered no shortage of bright ideas or pilot projects or bold experiments in school reform. But there is little evidence that measures such as curricular reform, school-based management, and school choice will address, let alone solve, the biggest problem schools face: the rising number of children who come from disrupted families.
The great educational tragedy of our time is that many American children are failing in school not because they are intellectually or physically impaired but because they are emotionally incapacitated. In schools across the nation principals report a dramatic rise in the aggressive, acting-out behavior characteristic of children, especially boys, who are living in single-parent families. The discipline problems in today's suburban schools--assaults on teachers, unprovoked attacks on other students, screaming outbursts in class--outstrip the problems that were evident in the toughest city schools a generation ago. Moreover, teachers find many children emotionally distracted, so upset and preoccupied by the explosive drama of their own family lives that they are unable to concentrate on such mundane matters as multiplication tables.
In response, many schools have turned to therapeutic remediation. A growing proportion of many school budgets is devoted to counseling and other psychological services. The curriculum is becoming more therapeutic: children are taking courses in self-esteem, conflict resolution, and aggression management. Parental advisory groups are conscientiously debating alternative approaches to traditional school discipline, ranging from teacher training in mediation to the introduction of metal detectors and security guards in the schools. Schools are increasingly becoming emergency rooms of the emotions, devoted not only to developing minds but also to repairing hearts. As a result, the mission of the school, along with the culture of the classroom, is slowly changing. What we are seeing, largely as a result of the new burdens of family disruption, is the psychologization of American education.
Taken together, the research presents a powerful challenge to the prevailing
view of family change as social progress. Not a single one of the assumptions
underlying that view can be sustained against the empirical evidence.
Single-parent families are not able to do well economically on a mother's
income. In fact, most teeter on the economic brink, and many fall into poverty
and welfare dependency. Growing up in a disrupted family does not enrich a
child's life or expand the number of adults committed to the child's well-being.
In fact, disrupted families threaten the psychological well-being of children
and diminish the investment of adult time and money in them. Family diversity in
the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not
strengthen the social fabric. It dramatically weakens and undermines society,
placing new burdens on schools, courts, prisons, and the welfare system. These
new families are not an improvement on the nuclear family, nor are they even
just as good, whether you look at outcomes for children or outcomes for society
as a whole. In short, far from representing social progress, family change
represents a stunning example of social regress.
The Two-Parent Advantage
All this evidence gives rise to an obvious conclusion: growing up in an intact two-parent family is an important source of advantage for American children. Though far from perfect as a social institution, the intact family offers children greater security and better outcomes than its fast-growing alternatives: single-parent and stepparent families. Not only does the intact family protect the child from poverty and economic insecurity; it also provides greater noneconomic investments of parental time, attention, and emotional support over the entire life course. This does not mean that all two-parent families are better for children than all single parent families. But in the face of the evidence it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the proposition that all family structures produce equally good outcomes for children.
Curiously, many in the research community are hesitant to say that two-parent families generally promote better outcomes for children than single-parent families. Some argue that we need finer measures of the extent of the family-structure effect. As one scholar has noted, it is possible, by disaggregating the data in certain ways, to make family structure "go away" as an independent variable. Other researchers point to studies that show that children suffer psychological effects as a result of family conflict preceding family breakup. Consequently, they reason, it is the conflict rather than the structure of the family that is responsible for many of the problems associated with family disruption. Others, including Judith Wallerstein, caution against treating children in divorced families and children in intact families as separate populations, because doing so tends to exaggerate the differences between the two groups. "We have to take this family by family," Wallerstein says.
Some of the caution among researchers can also be attributed to ideological pressures. Privately, social scientists worry that their research may serve ideological causes that they themselves do not support, or that their work may be misinterpreted as an attempt to "tell people what to do." Some are fearful that they will be attacked by feminist colleagues, or, more generally, that their comments will be regarded as an effort to turn back the clock to the 1950s--a goal that has almost no constituency in the academy. Even more fundamental, it has become risky for anyone--scholar, politician, religious leader--to make normative statements today. This reflects not only the persistent drive toward "value neutrality" in the professions but also a deep confusion about the purposes of public discourse. The dominant view appears to be that social criticism, like criticism of individuals, is psychologically damaging. The worst thing you can do is to make people feel guilty or bad about themselves.
When one sets aside these constraints, however, the case against the two-parent family is remarkably weak. It is true that disaggregating data can make family structure less significant as a factor, just as disaggregating Hurricane Andrew into wind, rain, and tides can make it disappear as a meteorological phenomenon. Nonetheless, research opinion as well as common sense suggests that the effects of changes in family structure are great enough to cause concern. Nicholas Zill argues that many of the risk factors for children are doubled or more than doubled as the result of family disruption. "In epidemiological terms," he writes, "the doubling of a hazard is a substantial increase. . . . the increase in risk that dietary cholesterol poses for cardiovascular disease, for example, is far less than double, yet millions of Americans have altered their diets because of the perceived hazard."
The argument that family conflict, rather than the breakup of parents, is the cause of children's psychological distress is persuasive on its face. Children who grow up in high-conflict families, whether the families stay together or eventually split up, are undoubtedly at great psychological risk. And surely no one would dispute that there must be societal measures available, including divorce, to remove children from families where they are in danger. Yet only a minority of divorces grow out of pathological situations; much more common are divorces in families unscarred by physical assault. Moreover, an equally compelling hypothesis is that family breakup generates its own conflict. Certainly, many families exhibit more conflictual and even violent behavior as a consequence of divorce than they did before divorce.
Finally, it is important to note that clinical insights are different from sociological findings. Clinicians work with individual families, who cannot and should not be defined by statistical aggregates. Appropriate to a clinical approach, moreover, is a focus on the internal dynamics of family functioning and on the immense variability in human behavior. Nevertheless, there is enough empirical evidence to justify sociological statements about the causes of declining child well-being and to demonstrate that despite the plasticity of human response, there are some useful rules of thumb to guide our thinking about and policies affecting the family.
For example, Sara McLanahan says, three structural constants are commonly associated with intact families, even intact families who would not win any "Family of the Year" awards. The first is economic. In intact families, children share in the income of two adults. Indeed, as a number of analysts have pointed out, the two parent family is becoming more rather than less necessary, because more and more families need two incomes to sustain a middle-class standard of living.
McLanahan believes that most intact families also provide a stable authority structure. Family breakup commonly upsets the established boundaries of authority in a family. Children are often required to make decisions or accept responsibilities once considered the province of parents. Moreover, children, even very young children, are often expected to behave like mature adults, so that the grown-ups in the family can be free to deal with the emotional fallout of the failed relationship. In some instances family disruption creates a complete vacuum in authority; everyone invents his or her own rules. With lines of authority disrupted or absent, children find it much more difficult to engage in the normal kinds of testing behavior, the trial and error, the failing and succeeding, that define the developmental pathway toward character and competence. McLanahan says, "Children need to be the ones to challenge the rules. The parents need to set the boundaries and let the kids push the boundaries. The children shouldn't have to walk the straight and narrow at all times."
Finally, McLanahan holds that children in intact families benefit from stability in what she neutrally terms "household personnel." Family disruption frequently brings new adults into the family, including stepparents, live-in boyfriends or girlfriends, and casual sexual partners. Like stepfathers, boyfriends can present a real threat to children's, particularly to daughters', security and well-being. But physical or sexual abuse represents only the most extreme such threat. Even the very best of boyfriends can disrupt and undermine a child's sense of peace and security, McLanahan says. "It's not as though you're going from an unhappy marriage to peacefulness. There can be a constant changing until the mother finds a suitable partner."
McLanahan's argument helps explain why children of widows tend to do better than children of divorced or unmarried mothers. Widows differ from other single mothers in all three respects. They are economically more secure, because they receive more public assistance through Survivors Insurance, and possibly private insurance or other kinds of support from family members. Thus widows are less likely to leave the neighborhood in search of a new or better job and a cheaper house or apartment. Moreover, the death of a father is not likely to disrupt the authority structure radically. When a father dies, he is no longer physically present, but his death does not dethrone him as an authority figure in the child's life. On the contrary, his authority may be magnified through death. The mother can draw on the powerful memory of the departed father as a way of intensifying her parental authority: "Your father would have wanted it this way." Finally, since widows tend to be older than divorced mothers, their love life may be less distracting.
Regarding the two-parent family, the sociologist David Popenoe, who has devoted
much of his career to the study of families, both in the United States and in
Scandinavia, makes this straightforward assertion: Social science research is
almost never conclusive. There are always methodological difficulties and stones
left unturned. Yet in three decades of work as a social scientist, I know of few
other bodies of data in which the weight of evidence is so decisively on one
side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are
preferable to single-parent and stepfamilies.
The Regime Effect
The rise in family disruption is not unique to American society. It is evident in virtually all advanced nations, including Japan, where it is also shaped by the growing participation of women in the work force. Yet the United States has made divorce easier and quicker than in any other Western nation with the sole exception of Sweden--and the trend toward solo motherhood has also been more pronounced in America. (Sweden has an equally high rate of out-of-wedlock birth, but the majority of such births are to cohabiting couples, a long-established pattern in Swedish society.) More to the point, nowhere has family breakup been greeted by a more triumphant rhetoric of renewal than in America.
What is striking about this rhetoric is how deeply it reflects classic themes in American public life. It draws its language and imagery from the nation's founding myth. It depicts family breakup as a drama of revolution and rebirth. The nuclear family represents the corrupt past, an institution guilty of the abuse of power and the suppression of individual freedom. Breaking up the family is like breaking away from Old World tyranny. Liberated from the bonds of the family, the individual can achieve independence and experience a new beginning, a fresh start, a new birth of freedom. In short, family breakup recapitulates the American experience.
This rhetoric is an example of what the University of Maryland political philosopher William Galston has called the "regime effect." The founding of the United States set in motion a new political order based to an unprecedented degree on individual rights, personal choice, and egalitarian relationships. Since then these values have spread beyond their original domain of political relationships to define social relationships as well. During the past twenty-five years these values have had a particularly profound impact on the family.
Increasingly, political principles of individual rights and choice shape our understanding of family commitment and solidarity. Family relationships are viewed not as permanent or binding but as voluntary and easily terminable. Moreover, under the sway of the regime effect the family loses its central importance as an institution in the civil society, accomplishing certain social goals such as raising children and caring for its members, and becomes a means to achieving greater individual happiness--a lifestyle choice. Thus, Galston says, what is happening to the American family reflects the "unfolding logic of authoritative, deeply American moral-political principles."
One benefit of the regime effect is to create greater equality in adult family relationships. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, enjoy relationships far more egalitarian than past relationships were, and most Americans prefer it that way. But the political principles of the regime effect can threaten another kind of family relationship--that between parent and child. Owing to their biological and developmental immaturity, children are needy dependents. They are not able to express their choices according to limited, easily terminable, voluntary agreements. They are not able to act as negotiators in family decisions, even those that most affect their own interests. As one writer has put it, "a newborn does not make a good 'partner.'" Correspondingly, the parental role is antithetical to the spirit of the regime. Parental investment in children involves a diminished investment in self, a willing deference to the needs and claims of the dependent child. Perhaps more than any other family relationship, the parent-child relationship--shaped as it is by patterns of dependency and deference--can be undermined and weakened by the principles of the regime.
More than a century and a half ago Alexis de Tocqueville made the striking observation that an individualistic society depends on a communitarian institution like the family for its continued existence. The family cannot be constituted like the liberal state, nor can it be governed entirely by that state's principles. Yet the family serves as the seedbed for the virtues required by a liberal state. The family is responsible for teaching lessons of independence, self-restraint, responsibility, and right conduct, which are essential to a free, democratic society. If the family fails in these tasks, then the entire experiment in democratic self-rule is jeopardized.
To take one example: independence is basic to successful functioning in American life. We assume that most people in America will be able to work, care for themselves and their families, think for themselves, and inculcate the same traits of independence and initiative in their children. We depend on families to teach people to do these things. The erosion of the two-parent family undermines the capacity of families to impart this knowledge; children of long-term welfare dependent single parents are far more likely than others to be dependent themselves. Similarly, the children in disrupted families have a harder time forging bonds of trust with others and giving and getting help across the generations. This, too, may lead to greater dependency on the resources of the state.
Over the past two and a half decades Americans have been conducting what is tantamount to a vast natural experiment in family life. Many would argue that this experiment was necessary, worthwhile, and long overdue. The results of the experiment are coming in, and they are clear. Adults have benefited from the changes in family life in important ways, but the same cannot be said for children. Indeed, this is the first generation in the nation's history to do worse psychologically, socially, and economically than its parents. Most poignantly, in survey after survey the children of broken families confess deep longings for an intact family.
Nonetheless, as Galston is quick to point out, the regime effect is not an irresistible undertow that will carry away the family. It is more like a swift current, against which it is possible to swim. People learn; societies can change, particularly when it becomes apparent that certain behaviors damage the social ecology, threaten the public order, and impose new burdens on core institutions. Whether Americans will act to overcome the legacy of family disruption is a crucial but as yet unanswered question.
THE DIVORCE CULTURE
BY BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD
Not all children of
divorce are doomed, but in just about every way
we have to measure such things, divorce hurts children.
Review by Wendy Dennis
IN 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote "Dan Quayle Was Right", a widely read article for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, in which she argued the verdict was in on divorce and it wasn't good: divorce devastated huge numbers of children in lasting ways; kids raised in intact families did significantly better than others; alternative family structures weakened the social fabric. This was not a particularly popular point of view to be espousing in North America at the end of the 20th century, and she took a fair bit of flak
Single parents, doing the best they could, got mad. Feminists, who saw divorce as a hard-won right, got mad. Divorce, like abortion, is one of those issues that tends to cause riots in the streets. If the message is politically incorrect or uncomfortably disturbing - as this one was - people take aim and shoot the messenger.
Faced with widespread resistance to hearing the dark truth about divorce, Dafoe Whitehead did what any self-respecting writer would: She wrote a book. In The Divorce Culture, the author, a social historian and critic, debunks many of the ideas behind current divorce trends. Peering through a historical and cultural lens, she argues that since the mid-sixties, Americans have embraced an "expressive divorce culture" which sees divorce as an individual entitlement, ticket to personal growth and vehicle for social progress, particularly for women and children.
After 30 years of persistently high divorce rates and a significant body of research studying the phenomenon, the latter view, says the author, is an illusion.(Today, nearly half of all North American children are likely to experience parental divorce or separation by the age of 20. In Canada, an estimated 31-32 per cent of marriages end in divorce, while in the United States, the figure is just under 50 per cent.)
If you're a reader who likes to know the truth, however awful, The Divorce Culture is for you. Still, I think this book should come with a warning label for divorced parents, or anyone considering becoming one. You think your kids will "bounce back" from your divorce ? Guess again. Divorce is less like a cold for children than "a serious chronic disease.
You think you'll eventually re-partner and create a new family unit where the kids will live happily ever after? Forget it. Children in stepfamilies are more likely than kids from intact families to drop out of school, become unwed teenage mothers and wind up unable to hold steady jobs as young adults.
Of course, not all children of divorce are doomed, but, in just about every way we have to measure such things, says the author, divorce has hurt children. It sets in motion a chain of disruptive events which unleash "a host of destabilizing forces" into their lives. She writes: "Indeed, if recent social history were written through the eyes of children, 1974 might be described as the Great Crash, a moment when divorce became the leading cause of broken families and unexpectedly plunged children into a trough of family instability, increased economic vulnerability, and traumatic loss."
Dafoe Whitehead offers persuasive evidence to depict a world of exhausted mothers, lost fathers and uninterested, sometimes cruel step-parents. But those who've managed to stay married and defy the statistics have no cause for smudginess; the author sees a society corroding through its abandonment of the value of commitment; juvenile crime is up, and more violent; the teen suicide rate has more than tripled; school performance has continued to decline.
A meticulous researcher, the author is as comfortable surveying Edith Wharton's writings, the social trends in Hallmark's greeting cards and the etiquette manuals of Emily Post as she is interpreting social-science data. Those familiar with the latter will recognize a trustworthy reporter; those unfamiliar will sense a broadly informed, even-handed writer who refuses to draw conclusions unless they're firmly rooted in empirical evidence.
Much of her data is fascinating, and little-known: These days, a marriage may be a more important resource than a college degree; parents who are college graduates and married form the new economic elite among families with children.
Legislators and family court judges take note: Children continue to long for their fathers after they leave the household, and one form of long-term damage suffered by a majority of such children is the disruption of a relationship with their dads. Fathers who live with their kids usually work hard to increase their incomes, while fathers who've been banished from the day-to-dayness of their children's lives tend to lose the incentive to put more money into their households.
Moreover, the trend toward punitive child-support enforcement measures has been largely ineffective in resolving a problem whose origins go far deeper than a loaded label like "deadbeat dad" suggests.
The Divorce Culture is an intensely moral book, but not a moralizing one. Unlike "family values" advocates who tend to see the world in black and white, or pretty colourized pastels, Dafoe Whitehead sees divorce as an event with a chain of moral and social consequences.
At the book's heart is a passionate respect for children. She doesn't argue against divorce per se, but questions "casual divorce", in which an adult's desires take precedence over a child's needs. She concludes by imagining a world where marriage is strengthened as the central institution for child-rearing, a world offering a "vision of the obligated self" bound to sacrifice for the next generation, where a new consciousness about the meaning of commitment flourishes.
The author appears, from the acknowledgments, to be living with her husband and kids in an intact family. Since I've yet to meet a parent for whom getting divorced was anything but a wrenching experience, the term " casual divorce " struck me as an oxymoron, and made me wonder if the author had ever been through a divorce involving children. As a divorced parent who has seen, perhaps more than some, the dark side of divorce for children, but has also witnessed some of its unexpected triumphs, I felt uneasy at times reading about divorce by someone who may never have been there. Admittedly, this is an emotional reaction, and to some extent an irrational one. Never having been divorced certainly doesn't disqualify a writer from tackling the subject, and Dafoe Whitehead does a superb job. But divorce, like parenthood, is one of those experiences that can't fully be understood, I think, by someone on the other side. When one looks at children of divorce only through the clinical eye of the social scientist - or indeed from on high, where judges sit - a key element of the story may go missing.
Still, Dafoe Whitehead has written an original, iconoclastic book on a subject long overdue for public debate. Anyone with an interest in divorce, which means anyone living in North America as the millennium approaches, will find it thought-provoking. But it should be required reading for every legislator, policymaker, family court judge, lawyer, mediator and mental health professional working in the divorce industry. No doubt many will be surprised and uncomfortable to discover that a great number of their sacrosanct notions about what is in the "best interests of the children" are nothing more than misconceptions that fly utterly in the face of the evidence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
WENDY DENNIS is a journalist and author who has written for numerous publications,including The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, Cosmopolitan, New Woman and TV Guide. Currently a contributing editor to Toronto Life, Dennis has been a columnist for Flare, won a National Business Writing Award, been nominated for a National Magazine Award,and taught at Ryerson University's School of Journalism. Her best-selling book, HOT AND BOTHERED: Men and Women, Sex and Love in the 90s, was published in eight countries.
THE DIVORCE FROM HELL
BY WENDY DENNIS
MACFARLANE, WALTER & ROSS
$29.95 IN CANADA
The painful dissolution of a marriage is a tragically familiar phenomenon; the unexamined question is why it is so. This searing anatomy of a divorce, from mediation to litigation--through motions, appeals family assessments, and custody trial--illuminates a real-life drama in which the villain is a process that encourages conflict, rewards manipulation, and reinforces cultural stereotypes.
For beyond the courtroom is the culture: the expectations and assumptions of wives and husbands and the prejudices that surround our notions of motherhood, fatherhood and the nature of parenting.
Circumstances conspired to place Wendy Dennis at the edge and the centre of this story. When she met Ben Gordon, he was going through a bad divorce. An ex-wife in a difficult divorce herself, Dennis knew the pitfalls from a woman's and a mother's perspective.
She was also a seasoned journalist, skeptical and observant. As she and Ben became intimately involved, she had an unprecedented inside look at the system we have devised to deal with contested divorce. Nothing in her experience or imagination prepared her for the events to which she bore witness. When his marriage failed, Ben's simple ambition was to ensure that he would remain deeply involved as a father to his two young daughters, and avoid a long, messy divorce in which the children suffer and no one wins but the lawyers.
But after seven painful years and $275,000 in legal fees, the "remedy" of the courts left him deep in debt and a stranger to his children.
Dennis' observations of Ben's attempts to remain more than a visitor in his children's lives overthrew virtually every popular assumption about the family law system, and many of her own. She saw lawyers play the game of law and grow richer; she saw judges with too many cases and too little wisdom; she saw therapeutic "experts" wield extraordinary power with devastating consequences; and she saw an arbitrary system without accountability profess to act in the best interests of children but fail spectacularly to do so.
Rarely does a book appear that can touch its readers' hearts and minds at a deeply personal level and at the same time challenge a society's prevailing archetypes. Such books become lightening rods, arousing passion and controversy.
This year THE DIVORCE FROM HELL is that book.
In response to "The War Over the Family" (December 4, 1997)
To the Editors:
I recognize that review essays give authors scant time to explore books in depth, but Andrew Hacker's treatment of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families [NYR, December 4, 1997] leaves the impression that I romanticize single parenthood. My book never equates divorce with "liberation." In fact, it points out that children of divorced parents, unwed mothers, and stepfamilies have, on average, more adjustment problems than children raised by continuously married couples. An effective parental alliance and respectful marriage offer children many advantages.
A healthy marriage, however, is not always what one gets, and a high-conflict marriage is usually harder on kids than divorce or nonmarriage. My book suggests we can save more marriages than we currently do by adjusting work policies, school hours, and the household division of labor to the reality that mothers are in the workforce to stay. But modern socioeconomic trends ensure that, like it or not, family diversity is also here to stay. Recognizing reality is not the same as romanticizing it, but it does mean rejecting the fantasy that we can reinstitute lifelong marriage as the main mechanism for organizing obligations between men and women, young and old.
The age of marriage for women is at an all-time high. For men it has tied the previous peak in 1890. Meanwhile, the average 60-year-old has another 25 years to live. Thus both young and old have more opportunities for a satisfying life outside marriage than ever before. And women's economic independence gives them the option to leave a bad marriage or refuse a shotgun one.
We should distinguish between risks inherent in a particular family structure and risks that flow from other family dynamics or social factors. Researchers studying children who do poorly after divorce, for example, have found their behavior problems were often already evident years before the divorce took place, suggesting that both child maladjustment and divorce are frequently symptoms of more deep-rooted family dysfunctions. A mother's parenting skills, income security, and educational status have more impact on her child's outcome than her marital status.
I too am concerned when young women with poor job and education prospects have babies without being ready for parenthood. But the decline in real wages for poorly educated young men means that marriage is often not the best solution to a teen's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And pressuring young mothers into marriage is not necessarily best for their kids. One study of teens who gave birth while unmarried found that the reading scores of their children were higher when the mothers remained single than when they wed the father of their child, probably because such marriages tend to be especially conflicted. My book demonstrates that parental strife, poverty, social isolation, lead poisoning (still all too common in inner-city neighborhoods), and the corrupting effects of a winner-take-all, dependents-be-damned economy have measurably worse effects on children than a one-parent family per se.
Dr. Hacker takes exception to my report that single parents talk to their children and praise good grades more than adults in two-parent families. But I also noted that single parents are more likely to get angry when grades fall, a reaction that escalates parent-child hostility, and that they face difficulties in setting firm generational boundaries. My point was simply that every family form has typical vulnerabilities to avoid, while almost every family also has strengths it can cultivate.
Whatever their unease about family change in the abstract, most Americans agree that it makes more sense to teach all types of families how to build on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses than to issue pronouncements of doom for one-parent families while ignoring the stresses facing two-parent ones. That's why I'm more optimistic than Dr. Hacker about the possibility that we can move past polarized debates over "the" family to help all our families meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.
The Evergreen State College
To the Editors:
Andrew Hacker's account of my book, The Divorce Culture [NYR, December 4, 1997], is largely at odds with what the book actually says. Let me correct his errors and then turn to his chief omission.
Hacker writes: "Whitehead generally blames liberal attitudes and policies for the rise of the 'divorce culture.' She fails to ask how and why the same ethos has pervaded conservative circles as well." He then lists some notable Republicans who are divorced: Gingrich, Reagan, Dole, etc.
In fact, I don't blame liberal policies. If he sees contrary evidence, let him cite it. As for attitudes, I argue that the divorce culture has been supported by a consensus that runs across ideology and party. In a section entitled "The Ideological Consensus," I write: "Liberals were attracted by the psychological benefits as well as the political advantages expressive divorce seemed to hold for women. Liberals saw such traits as self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-determination as valuable assets for women. If divorce nurtured such traits and often required women to use them in the workforce, then divorce was fully compatible with the larger goal of economic independence for women…. For their part, conservatives found the ideology of expressive divorce compatible with their philosophical commitment to a deregulated environment that left the individual free to pursue opportunities and maximize profits. And on practical grounds as well, conservatives embraced the idea of divorce as an individual prerogative to be freely exercised by adults…. Leading conservative politicians had themselves exercised this prerogative, including…Phil Gramm and Bob Dole and…Newt Gingrich." Thus, I do exactly what he criticizes me for failing to do.
Mr. Hacker also omits the central argument of the book: namely, that the divorce culture has contributed to the decline of child well-being over the past twenty-five years. To be sure, a number of conditions figure in this decline, but I focus on divorce for several reasons. First, it does damage to a substantial minority of the one million children a year who have experienced it over the course of more than two decades. Second, it is a middle-class phenomenon. Mainstream America clings to the easy illusion that the declining well-being of children has to do almost entirely with the behavior of unwed teen mothers or poor women on welfare rather than with the fragility of marital commitment within its own ranks. This has led to the scapegoating of some of the nation's most vulnerable families. Three, the divorce culture undermines the foundation of our public commitment to children. A society cannot sustain a public ethic of obligation to children if it also embraces a private ethic that tells adults that they should put their own needs and interests before their children's happiness and security.
Finally, Andrew Hacker characterizes my views as a call to a nineteenth-century code of self-abnegating duty. This misrepresents and caricatures what Isay. I call for a social ethic that treats children as the principal stakeholders in their parents' marriages and places the needs and interests of children first in the dissolution of marriage. Moreover, Professor Hacker uncritically accepts the idea that self-restraint is antithetical to individual freedom. When it comes to divorce, that view runs contrary to the evidence. In a divorce culture, the state expands its role in the regulation and control of individual and family relationships. Self-restraint is replaced by restraint by the state and that often takes remarkably coercive forms. Now that New York has opened Family Court to the public, I suggest that Professor Hacker take a look at what goes on there. Perhaps then he might understand why the social ethic of family life that Iespouse is far less limiting of adult freedoms than the often oppres-sive legal consequences of quick and easy divorce.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
True, Whitehead and I both cited conservative leaders—Gramm, Gingrich, Reagan, Dole—who discarded original wives for younger partners. She believes they were acting on their "philosophical commitment to a deregulated environment." I was more prepared to put it down to hormones, which transcend ideological lines. And it may be that some liberals sought to ease divorce in hopes of aiding women. Even so, men of all persuasions have been the major beneficiaries. Whitehead also wants to deny that "self-restraint is antithetical to individual freedom." That sounds a lot like Gramm and Gingrich. Choices must always be made between what we want to do and what we ought to do. The more we go one way, the less we'll have of the other. Ask anyone who has stuck with a tiresome spouse for the sake of the children.
Volume 8, Issue 32. May 1, 1997 - June 1, 1997.
Family Values: The Sequel
WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love (Regnery Publishing, 1996).
John R. Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values (Basic Books, 1996).
David Popenoe, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society (Martin Kessler Books, 1996).
David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn, eds., Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America (Rowan and Littlefield, 1996).
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (Knopf, 1997).
In 1976, a team of social researchers returned to the small midwestern city that Helen and Robert Lynd immortalized as "Middletown" a half century earlier in the sociological classic by that name. Like the rest of the country in the 1970s, Middletown—actually Muncie, Indiana—had been shaken by the series of social and cultural upheavals that had suddenly undone the seemingly placid domesticity of the postwar era—the pill, the sexual revolution, the women's movement, the divorce revolution. Middletowners were strikingly ambivalent about these changes. For example, they "detested'' divorce. Nostalgic for the era when divorce was scandalous and hard to get, they deplored the weakening of the spiritual foundations of marriage.
Nevertheless, by 1976 a majority of Middletowners had experienced one or more divorces in their own families. Asked about the divorces of people they knew, they expressed little disapproval. Speaking of the breakup of a daughter's marriage to an alcoholic or of a friend's to a philanderer, they said they were glad that divorce was now easy to get and no longer shameful. As one woman put it, "Women no longer feel they have to be married to be accepted. Women aren't staying in a miserable situation just to say they have a husband."
Middletown both opposed divorce and supported it. As the researchers noted, however, these attitudes are not as contradictory as they seem at first glance. Middletowners were deeply committed to marriage as an institution and a way of life, but they did not believe that loveless marriages should remain intact. They saw divorce as a necessary remedy, but worried whether divorce had become too easy. In short, Middletowners were moralists about marriage in general and pragmatists when it came to particular troubled marriages.
[Theodore Caplow et al., Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity (Minnesota University Press, 1981)]
Two decades later, Americans have still not come to terms with the gap between the way we think our families ought to be and the complex, often messy realities of our lives—or as John Gillis puts it, in his new book A World of Their Own Making, the gap between the families we live with and the symbolic families we "live by."
Back in the 1970s, when the research team returned to Middletown, family was not yet a major partisan issue. By the end of the 1970s, however, "family values" had become a major battleground in a still ongoing political and cultural war. In 1980, the moral uneasiness of Middletown and the rest of America served as political fuel that helped launch the Reagan era and the conservative ascendancy.
In 1992, it looked as if the fuel finally had run out; voters were turned off by Dan Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown, Marilyn Quayle's attack on working women, and Pat Buchanan's call for a religious war for "family values." In August 1993, columnist Christopher Matthews predicted that never again would the Republicans waste their resources on the "fool's gold" of cultural issues. Instead, they would follow the Clinton campaign mantra "the economy, stupid." "The GOP has done a political/moral gut check and decided that the most vital 'family value' is a daddy, mommy, or live-together bringing home the bacon."
Yet less than a year after the election, "Dan Quayle was right" became the new national consensus. A sudden surge of op-eds, magazine articles, and talk show punditry warned that the growth of single-parent families was the root cause of poverty, crime, youth violence, and other social ills and thus the single greatest problem facing the nation. (The American Prospect, in its Summer 1994 issue, was one of the few publications to look critically at these claims.) With liberals and moderates joining in, the conservative rhetoric of moral crisis has come to dominate discussions of welfare, education, and crime and helped to drive American domestic policy well to the right.
With yet another national election behind us, it is a good time to step back and reflect on the strange career of "family values" as a theme in American political life. Why was the public's verdict on Dan Quayle so quickly reversed? Along with his economic message in 1992 Clinton had articulated a pluralistic vision of family values:"an America that includes every family. Every traditional family and every extended family. Every two-parent family, every single-parent family, every foster family." What happened to that vision?
A bumper crop of recent books on family is a good starting place. John Gillis's book attempts to place America's current obsession with the family into historical and cultural perspective. Gillis, a social historian, uses the past not as a repository of lost virtues, but as a way to illuminate the present. Family life has changed drastically in America and the rest of the industrialized world. But as Gillis reminds us, family change is nothing new; neither is anxiety about the state of the family. Recent research into family life in past times reveals that diversity, instability, and discontinuity have been part of the European experience of family at least since the late Middle Ages, and continued into the new world.
Despite the nostalgia that has engulfed American culture in recent years, there never was a "golden age"; of family. When the Lynds visited Middletown in the 1920s, it was in the midst of the mother of sexual revolutions—the age of flaming youth. The 1950s, now revered as the pinnacle of the American family dream, was to people who lived it also an age of anxiety. For cultural critics of the time, the great menaces to family life and American character were juvenile delinquency, comic books (the Senate even held hearings on comics), and, strange as it may seem now, the suburbs.
History is an antidote to hysteria. Gillis, along with other historians of the family, recognizes that we are now, for good or ill, living through one of the most intensive periods of social, economic, and political change since the democratic and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the world is not what it was in 1955 or 1855; families today face unprecedented conditions—some of which stem from changes few would want to reverse, such as women's strides toward equality.
Four of these books bring us into the firing line of the current cultural war over the family. They represent part of the output of the Institute for American Values, the think tank responsible for the sudden shift in the national debate on the family since 1992. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture, wrote the op-ed on Murphy Brown that inspired the remark in Dan Quayle's speech; she was also the author of the 1993 cover article in the Atlantic Monthly declaring that "Dan Quayle Was Right."
Whitehead's new book expands on those earlier pieces about the dangers of divorce and single parenthood. So do the books by her colleagues—Maggie Gallagher's The Abolition of Marriage, David Popenoe's Life Without Father, and most of the articles in Promises to Keep, a book of readings edited by Popenoe, along with Jean Bethke Elshtain and David Blankenhorn, who have also written variations on the same themes. Their argument is, we live in a "post-marital," "post-nuclear family" society. Marriage has disappeared as a cultural ideal. A "culture" or ideology of liberation and self-fulfillment, originating in the 1960s and sustained by the liberal elite, has spread throughout the society, leading to the disintegration of the two-parent family and the desertion of their children by vast numbers of men. Single parenthood, or "fatherlessness," whether it occurs in the inner city or the suburbs or through divorce or out-of wedlock birth, is a tragedy for children, and a catastrophe for the rest of society. It is the direct cause of our worst individual and social problems: poverty, crime, violence, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, school failure, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency. In short, it is the number one domestic problem facing the country, because it drives all the rest.
The solution? A crusade to dismantle and repeal the culture of divorce and unwed parenthood. As the Institute for American Values writes in its mission statement, "the two-parent family, based on a lasting monogamous marriage," is "the most efficacious one for child rearing." These authors differ on particular issues such as no-fault divorce (Gallagher would abolish it, Whitehead has recently argued that doing so would be a mistake), or premarital sexual relationships (Popenoe favors responsible ones, Gallagher is shocked by the idea). But they all agree that the heart of the problem lies in the prevailing cultural values. They favor a range of public and private initiatives to "restore" marriage and make alternatives to the two-parent biological family socially unacceptable and practically difficult.
Since these arguments have become the conventional wisdom over the past four years, there is a certain déjà vu quality to the books. Social scientists and others who take issue with this analysis have been on the defensive, fending off charges of being "against" the two-parent family, "for" divorce and single parenthood, and indifferent to children's well-being. Nevertheless, the analysis remains flawed. The Institute for American Values and its associates present a skewed and misleading version of the research evidence on the causes and effects of divorce and single parenthood. For example, institute writers feature the highly pessimistic divorce studies of Judith Wallerstein and her colleagues, which have been severely criticized on methodological grounds by other divorce researchers. The children in Wallerstein's study were not studied before the divorce to determine whether their problems were new. Nor were they compared to children whose parents remained in unhappy marriages or, indeed, to any other control group.
At the same time, Whitehead and her colleagues ignore more systematic research that does not support horror stories about the effects of divorce. In 1991, for example, the journal Science published a report based on a large, two-nation study of children at age 7 and later at age 11. The results showed that, compared to those who remained in intact families, children whose parents had divorced in the interim did have more problems, but they had shown those problems at age 7, before the parents divorced.
Even without discounting the effects of pre-divorce problems, the differences between children of divorced and intact families are not as gross and categorical as these writers insist. The figure "How Divorce Affects Children's Well-Being" illustrates why it is misleading to write, as Whitehead repeatedly does, of the "average child of divorce." Note that while the average score of the divorced group is lower than that of the non-divorced, the two curves overlap. Some of the divorced group score higher than the average of the intact family group.
Despite all the hand-wringing, there is no evidence that the remarkable demographic changes of recent decades represent a basic shift in family values. Indeed, marriage and two-parent families remain the norm and continue to prevail statistically. Anyone reading these books and little else on family structure, however, is likely to be surprised to learn that, according to the Census Bureau, most children are born to married mothers and spend most of their youth with their two parents. And the divorce rate has been revised down to 40 percent from 50 percent. Of course, families are more varied and more fragile than in the past, and today's Ozzies and Harriets are both working outside the home.
But we are far from a culture that has "abolished" marriage and the nuclear family. On the contrary, cross-national surveys reveal that we are the most traditionalist of Western nations in our family values. We have the highest marriage rates in the industrial world. Our attitudes toward divorce would predict that we would have the lowest rates of divorce, rather than one of the highest. Nor is this a recent trend: We have always had higher rates of both marriage and divorce than other Western nations.
The Institute for American Values views the family in a social and economic void, as if family behavior were shaped only by culture and values. Indeed, Whitehead and her colleagues seem to have invented a germ theory of culture, in which bad ideas and values spring up, infect a few minds, and then spread relentlessly throughout the population. But most family scholars believe that the recent transformation of the family results from an accumulation of cultural, social, and economic changes. Shifts in women's roles are pivotal. The shift to a service economy, for example, has drawn women into the workplace; a series of life-course revolutions has reduced the period of active child care in a women's life to a small segment of an 80-year life span. Educational levels of both sexes have risen.
Part of the reason for the impact of Whitehead and colleagues is that they place the well-being of children at the center of the national debate. The number of children involved in divorce is huge—more than a million a year. Children growing up in single-parent families are on the average likely to face greater disadvantages than children in two-parent families. The United States is plagued by a host of social problems, including the highest child poverty rates in the Western world. And it is certainly true that the nation's future depends on finding solutions to the problems plaguing many children and families. But because these writers' definition of family is so narrow, their genuine concern for children has contributed to a frightened and punitive public mood. Instead of seeking ways to assist children who grow up in less-than-ideal family situations, these writers call for policies that will disadvantage them still further.
Whether or not the new welfare bill does threaten more than a million children with destitution, the vast majority of Americans were willing to take that risk to send a message of disapproval to single mothers. Similarly, exaggerating the effects of divorce on children is likely to have unfortunate consequences. In his book Childhood, the anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes that "to continue sounding a hysterical alarm about the effects of this experience without better evidence is simply irresponsible. It preserves bad marriages that may harm children more than divorce does, and it creates an epidemic of hurtful guilt and shame in many millions of parents who failed at marriage after doing the best they could."
It is also irresponsible to ignore how the risks to children in divorced and single-parent families can be reduced. Whitehead scoffs at the notion of a "good divorce," but a number of factors do make a great difference. Indeed, a broad scholarly consensus holds that economic hardship and high levels of marital and family conflict are the major causes of stress in children's lives. These are more important than the number of parents living in the home for predicting developmental outcomes.
More recently, researchers have found that maternal stress and depression account for substantial variation in children's psychological functioning, including school achievement. Children do better after divorce when finances are adequate, when both parents remain involved, when parents manage to contain their conflicts, and when other life stresses aren't added onto the stress of divorce. Again and again, the importance of a warm, responsive relationship with the custodial parent comes through as a critical factor. One recent study of adolescents after divorce found that a nonresidential parent's remembering special occasions like holidays and birthdays had a significant impact on the child's adjustment.
In general, Whitehead and her colleagues have a highly selective approach to the research literature. Many of the family researchers cited in Whitehead's Atlantic article protested her misuse of their data. Sara McLanahan, for example, has objected to efforts to "demonize single mothers." "The evidence does not show," she wrote in these pages ["The Consequences of Single Motherhood," TAP, Summer 1994], "that family disruption is the principal cause of high school failure, poverty, and delinquency." She points out that the high school dropout rate for children in two-parent families is 13 percent, compared to an overall rate of 19 percent. "So the dropout rates would be unacceptably high, even if there were no single-parent families." Further, while McLanahan points to vulnerabilities in single-parent families in order to propose policies to remedy them, Whitehead and her colleagues point to them as signs of the moral failings of such families.
McLanahan's comments highlight an even larger problem with the analysis: The passions aroused by debates about Dan Quayle and the virtues of two-parent families have obscured the stresses and anxieties experienced by families in all living arrangements and across class, racial, and ethnic lines. The largest source of family change and family stress is the shift to a postindustrial, globalized economy, a change that many scholars have compared to the industrial revolution. Indeed, the effects of today's transformation on the family are precisely to reverse the gender-based division of labor that emerged when work moved out of the home and men followed it. The breadwinner-housewife family, with the accompanying domestic ideology of "separate spheres," was a social arrangement associated with the earliest stages of the industrial revolution. Further economic development has drawn women out of the home in a slow and, until the 1970s, nearly invisible revolution that has been in progress for more than a century.
Commentators on both sides of today's family debate agree that the shift in gender roles has unraveled the traditional marriage bargain—she does all the family work, he brings home the bread and the bacon. Now that wives are also employed outside the home, they expect husbands to share in caring for the children and the housework. Men are doing more than their fathers did, but not enough to live up to the ideal of equal sharing that increasing numbers of both men and women claim as their ideal marriage.
Economic shifts have also had unsettling effects on families by pulling the rug out from under blue-collar families and people with no more than a high school education. As sociologist Frank Furstenberg has pointed out, marriage has come to be a luxury item, something many young men feel is beyond their economic reach. Living in a society that is becoming polarized economically, we should not be surprised that family life is also becoming polarized. In the 1950s, a young man just out of high school could support a family. In the 1990s, the lack of high-paying industrial jobs and the need for higher education has prolonged the transition to adulthood. Living together unmarried—which in a legal sense counts as single parenthood—has been the low-cost way to start a family.
No country has anything like the polarized, partisan "family values" debate we have here. Even in England, John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign became an embarrassment. Instead, both right and left in most other rich industrial nations have supported attempts to mitigate the strains arising out of family change. Why has the United States been unable to adapt pragmatically to late-twentieth-century social realities?
Paradoxically, it may be our very devotion to family values that makes the theme so politically appealing and yet so ineffectual. Despite the decline of "traditional" family households and the rise of single-parent families, these demographic shifts don't necessarily reflect a fundamental change in what Ameri cans believe and value. Ac cord ing to surveys and other studies of American culture, marriage and parenthood remain essential ingredients of the American dream.
Indeed, John Gillis argues that our current obsession with family values reflects Americans' reverence for the family as a religious symbol, whether or not they are traditionally religious or live in "traditional" families. He describes how American family culture has become increasingly like a religion; living rooms have been turned into shrines of family photographs, and family rituals like Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, and a host of others have been elaborated in ways that were unknown until recent years.
The country badly needs a realistic national conversation about family matters where we could explore our concerns, differences, and ambivalences—and seek the common ground buried under the polarizing, moralizing rhetoric. Above all, we need to ask whether secure, family-sustaining jobs are a possibility or a pipe dream in the kind of economy we now have, and what we can do if they are not.
Such a conversation began in the middle 1970s, when President Ford supported the ERA as well as the International Women's Year, newspapers carried pictures of the President as the New Man making his own breakfast, and the First Lady was an outspoken feminist. The Democrats introduced the family theme to national politics under the banner of "family policy." Walter Mondale and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were among the first to propose that government had a role to play in "strengthening families"; Jimmy Carter picked up the theme in his presidential campaign and promised, if elected, to convene a White House Conference on the Family.
For a brief time, the country seemed ready to confront the changes in the family. The Ford and early Carter years were a time of relative social calm. Policy intellectuals began to take an interest in the family, out of disillusion with the social programs of the 1960s and as a way to give policies for the poor a more universal appeal. An array of study groups, foundations, and government task forces began to take stock of the state of the nation's children and families in order to propose policies to cope with older problems as well as the new realities.
In a 1979 article in the Harvard Education Review, Joseph Featherstone summed up reports by the Carnegie Council and the National Science Foundation among others: American families were under stress, though recent changes did not amount to a collapse of the family. The impact of the economy and working conditions on families was a central theme; the reports addressed the conflict between work and family by proposing government and corporate policies such as flexible work schedules for men and women and leaves for pregnancy and child rearing. Jobs, a decent income, and adequate housing and health care, they said, are the minimal conditions for a healthy family life. The care of young children is an important form of work, and anyone who does it should have an adequate income. These recommendations sound utopian in the 1990s, yet are generally similar to family policies that most other advanced Western countries have adopted.
Ironically, writing in the 1970s, Featherstone felt obliged to defend these proposals against "the current fashion for sneering at liberal reforms" then rampant on the left. Incremental liberal reforms would not overthrow capitalism, he conceded, but would temper "the viciousness of the system" and lead to further reforms. Yet Featherstone was presciently pessimistic that a new focus on the family would help spawn new policies; instead, he feared that it would lead to an era of private solutions to public problems—"an era of empty therapizing and empty spiritualizing."
The fate of the White House Conference on the Family justified this pessimism. The idea of such a conference had wide appeal across the political spectrum. Yet its planning stages quickly became a battleground over abortion, sex education, the equal rights amendment, gay rights, and the very definition of family. The conference was renamed "The White House Conference on Families." The planners, considering this move a simple recognition of the reality of family diversity, assumed the issue was, as one put it, "How do we make it healthy and functional and positive for those people who find themselves in those many situations?"
They were surprised to find that the name change galvanized conservative forces determined to limit the definition of family to the basic unit of husband, wife, and children. One of the original architects of the New Right, Paul Weyrich, whose idea it was to use moral issues to "ignite people who do not ordinarily vote Republican," recently recalled that the White House conference was the decisive event that turned religious activists toward Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.
In the early 1990s, it again seemed reasonable to hope that the ideologically polarized debate about family values might give way to a more constructive, nuanced discussion. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of conservatives and liberals attempted to find common ground on a number of child and family issues—for example, child care and enhanced economic security for families raising children. Once again, however, pragmatism was overcome by moral panic.
The war over family values has been a convenient way for both conservatives and liberals to avoid confronting the harder political questions: What kind of country are we becoming? Will we become more like the other rich democracies, conservative and social democratic, who invest in families, whatever their form, as an essential part of the nation's social infrastructure? Or will we continue further down the path of increasing inequality, toward what Edward Luttwak has called the Brazilianization of American society, as more Americans live in middle-class suburban comfort or the well-guarded enclaves of the wealthy while those outside the gates grow poorer and angrier.
There are some signs of hope. One is the fate of the 1994 Republican revolution, which demonstrated that although liberalism may have become a dirty word, naked conservatism is frightening. As a campaign epithet, "liberal" lost its sting; the candidates who made the most derogatory use of the L-word went down to defeat. With welfare off the table, the 1996 debate shifted away from talk of virtues and values and toward the small incremental policies aimed at "soccer moms": 48-hour hospital stays, extension of medical and family leave, and the like.
Another sign of hope is the revival of the AFL-CIO in the last election, under the new direction of John Sweeney. Seeking ways to move its agenda forward, labor is beginning to reclaim the language of family by speaking of "working families." One survey found that 83 percent of a national sample agreed with the statement that "working families have less economic security because corporations have become too greedy and care more about profits than their employees." The idea of appealing to core American values like fairness and loyalty is a strategy that can help liberals transcend the identity politics that has outlived its usefulness.
Executives of some of our largest corporations are also at the forefront adapting to the new realities of family life. Still another sign of hope is the moral vision that has been articulated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other religious groups offended by the claims of the Christian Coalition to define family values for the rest of the country. A recent article in Christian Century called for "a new political agenda" that stresses "both personal responsibility and social justice, good values and good jobs, sexual morality and civil rights for homosexuals. . . ." If liberals want to add their own approaches to the problems of American families, a good starting place would be the old memos and reports issued in the 1970s—not just as a source of good ideas, but also as a warning of where the pitfalls lie.
But liberals find themselves in a far more difficult situation than they did 20 years ago. The demise of the political left has transformed liberals into the only left there is.
The right wraps itself in the mantle of virtues and values, intones the standard litany of social crisis—crime, drugs, illegitimacy, teenage pregnancy, divorce, welfare dependency—and blames liberal permissiveness and policies. And when cultural conservatives argue that only the stable, monogamous, two-parent family can raise healthy children and keep social chaos at bay, liberals are left either defending everything but the nuclear family, or joining the anti-single-mother, anti-divorce, anti-remarriage crusade.
Seemingly, reconciling these contradictions would require the sleight of hand of a Dick Morris. In fact, Morris sheds some useful light on these dilemmas. In his recent book, Morris says his polling found that voters were far less polarized than the public debate; massive majorities embraced an "amalgam" of conservative and liberal views. On welfare, for example, majorities favored work requirements and time limits but also day care, job opportunities, and training. In other words, they favored the kind of welfare bill Clinton proposed in 1994.
During the 1996 campaign, Morris and Clinton even considered advocating sex education and condom distribution in the schools, based on a program Clinton carried out in Arkansas. "Until we get real and give out birth control in schools," Morris advised the President, "you'll never crack teen pregnancy." In one poll, Morris asked voters which they preferred, a program that promoted abstinence or one that gave out birth control information and condoms. Voters backed birth control by two to one. Yet Morris thought it was too risky to go into an election without at least 70 percent support. "We chickened out," he writes.
Nevertheless, liberals can take heart from these numbers and other statistics like them. Americans repeatedly have shown that while they cherish the family, they define family in an inclusive and pluralistic way. In short, Middletown pragmatism is alive and well, along with Middletown morality. Whitehead, Popenoe, and their colleagues have missed an opportunity to speak to both sides of American ambivalence, to open up a national discussion of the complexities of American family life today. Liberals needn't swallow the ideological bait and become the advocates of divorce and every nontraditional alternative. Indeed, it is hard to find a liberal or feminist who argues that a loving, harmonious, two-parent family is not preferable to a post-divorce single or recombined family.
But that's beside the point. Loving, harmonious families are unlikely to break up. "Just Say No" to divorce is the answer that Whitehead and her colleagues propose for those who find themselves in unloving, miserable marriages. The family restorationists claim to speak for children, but their primary concern is to castigate parents in the "wrong" family forms. Ironically, in their ideological zeal, they fail to consider how the divorce process can be made less destructive to the millions of children already living in divorced and single-parent families. In effect, they are writing off the well-being of these children. The liberal response to hand-wringing about the decline in family values should be to shape a political and economic climate that values all our children and supports those who care for them. We should have no part of efforts to hold children hostage to a narrow definition of family that looks only at form and not at love, care, and responsibility.
Because social change has come on as suddenly as an earthquake, it is not surprising that nostalgia has engulfed American culture in recent years. In a sense, we are all pioneers, leading lives for which the cultural scripts have not yet been written. But liberals need to retain and support our enduring values of compassion and democratic hope, and not succumb to the easy language of loss and moral crisis. We are going to have to make our politics fit the families we live in, not the families we would like to live by.
Volume 8, Issue 33. July 1, 1997 - August 1, 1997.
Maggie Gallagher, David Blankenhorn, Arlene Skolnick
A Reply to Arlene Skolnick, "Family Values: The Sequel," May-June 1997
In "Family Values: The Sequel," Arlene Skolnick raises two important questions. First, is the trend toward family fragmentation—understood as a steady decline in the proportion of children growing up with their two parents—a harmful one? And second, should progressives and other people of goodwill seek to reverse this trend?
Skolnick's answer to the first question hovers somewhere between "maybe" and "probably not." Much of her essay is a defense of the idea that, from a child's perspective, divorce and unwed child bearing are not so bad after all—or at least not as bad as some people (like the two of us) say, and certainly not as bad as some other bad things, such as unemployment, low income, or parents who squabble or are unhappy. Her answer to the second question is a flat "no": "We [liberals] should have no part of efforts to hold children hostage to a narrow definition of family that looks only at form and not at love, care, and responsibility." We disagree with both of these answers. Let us briefly explain why.
On the question of whether today's disintegrating-family trend is harmful to children, Skolnick's determined optimism is increasingly rare today, both in the society at large and among the social scientists who study these issues. Indeed, her sanguine view evokes the 1970s, when the family structure revolution was still new and, in the area of sexuality and procreation, everything seemed possible. (Remember books from that era with titles like Creative Divorce?) Perhaps this time-warp factor explains why one of Skolnick's few concrete recommendations is that, when devising family policy for the next century, "a good place to start would be the old memos and reports issued in the 1970s."
Perhaps. But as Skolnick herself points out, nostalgia is no substitute for analysis. A quarter century has passed since the early 1970s. During that interval, scholars have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the dimensions and consequences of the family structure revolution. And despite whatever nostalgia we may feel for a bygone era, surely we must recognize that, analytically speaking, we can't go back to a more innocent time.
Indeed, to examine the current academic literature in this area is to encounter again and again the story of fair-minded scholars who, on the weight of accumulating evidence, have substantially altered their previous judgments about the benign consequences for children of divorce and unwed child bearing. This list includes Norval Glenn, David Eggebeen, Lynn White, Peter Uhlenberg, Ronald Angel, Sar Levitan, and numerous others—most of whom, by the way, are Democrats.
For example, Norval Glenn, a former editor of the Journal of Family Issues now at the University of Texas, reports that "in the 1970s, the prevalent scholarly view was that such changes as the increase in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, single-parent families, and stepfamilies were benign and adaptive, if not distinctly beneficial." Yet, "by the 1990s, this view began to change, as evidence accumulated about the negative effects of marital disruption on children and about other social costs of the family changes. Not all family social scientists participated in this shift, but it is significant that the most prominent scholars and those most directly involved in the relevant research were most likely to do so."
Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur tell a similar story in their 1994 book, Growing Up with a Single Parent: "The idea that single mothers were to blame for producing a class of criminals, drug addicts, jobless men, and long-term welfare recipients seemed wrongheaded, given what we had learned as graduate students in the 1970s. Hadn't social scientists demonstrated that the negative effects attributed to single motherhood were really due to poverty and racial discrimination? So we thought when we began our study."
But by the 1990s, after years of careful research, they had changed their view: "in our opinion [today] the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries."
Other recent large-scale studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions. Children raised outside of intact marriages are more likely to be poor, to have trouble in school, to report psychological problems, to commit violence against themselves and others, to use drugs, and to experience sexual and physical abuse. As adults, children of divorce report lower levels of satisfaction, more depression, and more physical health problems; they also, on average, obtain less education and hold less-prestigious jobs. They are also more likely to get divorced themselves and to bear children outside of marriage.
Even studies that "control" for income—a technique that tends to minimize the effects of divorce, since lower income is in itself one of the most reliable consequences of family breakdown—repeatedly find that, as Paul Amato and Bruce Keith conclude in their meta-analysis of 35 studies on divorce, " . . . parental divorce (or permanent separation) has broad negative consequences for quality of life in adulthood."
Consider also, as a matter of special importance for progressives, the well-established relationship between growing family fragmentation on the one hand and growing income inequality and child poverty on the other. Overall, children of single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than children living with married couples. They are also nine times more likely than children in married families to experience "deep poverty," with incomes of less than half the official poverty level. Moreover, poverty for these children is far more likely to endure. To take the two extremes, a child whose mother never marries is 30 times more likely to be poor for most of childhood than the child of a lasting, intact marriage. And according to McLanahan and Sandefur, a child who is not poor to begin with experiences, on average, a 50 percent drop in his or her standard of living after divorce.
Child poverty, like crime or school failure, has many causes. But surely the declining number of children raised by both parents is one of the most important. Other countries may have done a better job at narrowing the economic gap that separates children in disrupted families from those in intact families. But no family policy anywhere has succeeded in eliminating the gap. Under these circumstances, how can we fail to be concerned about family disintegration?
Skolnick answers with a familiar refrain: It's not divorce that injures children, it's the family conflict that predates the divorce. Like many others who make this claim, Skolnick relies heavily on a single controversial article, published in the journal Science in 1991. The article summarizes findings from two studies of children of divorce, one from Great Britain, the other from the United States. In her essay, Skolnick seriously misreports the results of these studies: "[C]hildren whose parents had divorced in the interim did have more problems, but they had shown those problems at age 7, before the parents had divorced." Wrong. Though margin of error considerations make these numerical estimates less than completely reliable, the British study actually concludes that pre-divorce family problems account for about half of the increased problems with behavior and school achievement experienced by boys from divorced families. The other half of the problems didn't arise until after the divorce. For girls from divorced homes, three-quarters of the drop in school achievement, and all the increase in behavioral problems, took place after the divorce.
The U.S. survey, based on a far smaller sample, also found that about half the increased behavioral problems of boys could be attributed directly to the divorce. But the U.S. study also reports that the behavior of U.S. girls actually improved after divorce, an oddly anomalous finding that was never adequately explained by the researchers (though the study's lead author Andrew Cherlin theorized plausibly that daughters of divorce tend to internalize their divorce-related problems, becoming anxious or depressed rather than misbehaving or "acting out" in ways that the study was able to measure).
Granted, high levels of family conflict are harmful to children. But Skolnick declines even to address one of the most basic questions: Has the increase in divorce over the last generation taken place primarily among such acutely troubled families? Or alternatively, are we increasingly ending marriages that, at least from the standpoint of child well-being, could and should be saved?
There is no definitive answer to this question. But many researchers have reached conclusions similar to those presented by Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg in their book, Divided Families: ". . . we doubt that such clearly pathological descriptions apply to most families that disrupt. Rather, we think there are many more cases in which there is little open conflict but one or both partners finds the marriage personally unsatisfying. . . . Under these circumstances, divorce may well make one or both spouses happier; but we strongly doubt that [divorce] improves the psychological well-being of the children."
Offering divorce as the "solution" to parental conflict is far more problematic than Skolnick realizes. Indeed, her implicit suggestion that divorce somehow ends parental conflict is one of those easy assumptions—again, this idea was very common in the 1970s—that the experience of the past three decades is forcing us to relinquish. Numerous studies of middle-class divorces, from scholars such as Eleanor Maccoby, Robert Mnookin, and Frank Furstenberg, find that "good divorces" are rare indeed. Even Constance Ahrons's decidedly optimistic book, The Good Divorce, finds that just 12 percent of divorced couples enjoy low-conflict divorces, and almost all of these couples had enjoyed close, friendly relations prior to divorce. By contrast, about 50 percent of divorced parents engage in bitter, open conflict. Good divorces, her research suggests, do not typically heal angry, conflict-filled marriages as much as they terminate relatively friendly ones.
Today's divorce rate, far from reducing the family conflict that children experience, probably increases it. For example, Skolnick ignores analyses by Richard Gill and others suggesting that, in a high-divorce society, not only do more troubled marriages end in divorce, but more marriages become troubled and unhappy. A divorce-oriented society thus generates precisely that "parental conflict" that Skolnick embraces as a reason not to worry about divorce. In addition, the divorce experience itself frequently opens up vast new territory for parental conflict, on issues ranging from late child support checks to who owns the toys. Not surprisingly, parents who cannot contain their conflicts when they are married do not usually uncover large new reserves of patience, understanding, and empathy for their former partners after divorce.
Finally, if preexisting conflict, rather than divorce itself, explains most of the problems that these children face, then children of never-married mothers ought to do better than children of divorce on psychological, behavioral, and academic measures. But they do not: Children in both kinds of single-parent homes appear to face a roughly similar set of disadvantages.
Overall, experience should teach us to be cautious about pinning all our hopes for children's well-being on the idea that we can make parents more cooperative after the divorce than they were before. Accordingly, doesn't it make sense to devote at least part of our attention to the cultural messages, corporate practices, government policies, and economic conditions that may be destabilizing marriage and thus exposing more of our children to the risks of family fragmentation?
Skolnick would like to attribute almost all of the explosive rise in single-parent homes to changing economic conditions. "The largest source of family change and family stress," she maintains, "is the shift to a postindustrial, globalized economy. . . ." To illustrate this idea, she points out that "living together unmarried—which in a legal sense counts as single parenthood—has been the low-cost way to start a family." Is that so? One might begin by asking: Low-cost for whom? For the man, who typically ends up keeping more of his money and time for himself? Or for his child and the mother of his child, who typically get less of both?
More generally, the best efforts of scholars to measure the impact of economic factors like male wages and unemployment have come to the same conclusion: Economic factors do explain part, but only a small part, of the recent decline in marriage. For example, several scholars have concluded that trends in unemployment and wage rates can explain no more than 20 percent of young black men's retreat from marriage. A recent study of the economic determinants of divorce by the economists Saul Hoffman and Greg Duncan concludes that "male incomes, [female] wages, and AFDC benefits did not play a large role in the change in the divorce rate over the past few decades and that the trend reflects primarily either changes in behavior or changes in noneconomic factors."
To answer the second key question raised by her essay—can or should anything be done to reverse the trend of family fragmentation?—Skolnick suddenly shifts her mood. She even shifts her epistemology. If contemplating the consequences of the current family trend puts Skolnick in an unusually optimistic state of mind, contemplating the possible intensification of that trend in the future causes her to become a complete fatalist. For Skolnick, nothing—absolutely nothing—can or should be done to slow down or reverse the trend of family fragmentation, or what she terms family "diversity." The fix is in. It's here to stay. Anyone who says otherwise is actually hurting children.
Much of Skolnick's argument here depends upon our acceptance of an overly simplistic dichotomy between demographics and culture, between the "families we live with" and the "families we live by." For Skolnick, the former consist of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. The latter, on the other hand, consist only of ideas in our heads, fragments of ideology that, unless we are careful, will divert us from the material reality. From this perspective, caring about "the families we live with" means caring about "demographic changes," "economic shifts," and issues like jobs, housing, health care, and condom distribution. But caring about "the families we live by" can only mean yielding to "moral panic" and politically harmful "hysteria."
This way of describing family life—this way of describing any aspect of life—is intellectually unserious. A first principle of social analysis requires understanding the inevitable tension, in all human affairs, between the social "is" and the moral "ought"—between the material and the ideal, between how we act and what we believe. But Skolnick wants to wave this tension away, pretending that it does not exist. In her survey of contemporary family change, the "is" emerges as triumphant and utterly sovereign. The "ought" becomes at best an epiphenomenon, at worst a dangerous distraction from the core task of accommodating the "is."
This recommendation that, in Dietrich Bonhoffer's phrase, we become "servile before fact" is especially unsuited to progressives, since it represents such a sharp break with the American tradition of social reform. Sixty years ago, for example, the union organizers who founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations declined to be servile before the fact of workplace exploitation, even though the smart money and the smart analysts strongly favored current management. Thirty years ago, civil rights leaders in the South declined to be servile before the fact of segregation, even though the laws, the police, and local elite opinion overwhelmingly favored segregation—which was, in those days, one of the "the customs we lived with." Similarly, there is absolutely no reason why progressives today should embrace Skolnick's advice that we become servile before the fact of family fragmentation—unless, of course, we believe that family fragmentation is a good thing.
We reject the pessimistic, even reactionary, claim that current rates of family disintegration constitute an untouchable fact before which reformers must scrape, bow, and make excuses. We reject as well the charge that concern for the health of marriage as an institution somehow signals a lack of compassion for children growing up in single-parent homes. We concede that, in the relatively short time since today's scholars and reformers have begun to focus seriously on this problem, no one has come up with a perfect or definitive solution for reversing family fragmentation and fostering hands-on fatherhood, while at the same time defending and strengthening the ideal of equal regard between men and women. But anyone who cares about the prospects for our children must surely confront these challenges in the years ahead.
Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn respond as if we were on Crossfire, and try to force the argument into a falsely polarized either/or mold. If they are "against" "family fragmentation," I must be "for" it. The result is a caricature of what I wrote and a distortion of the social science literature. They pounce on any evidence that divorce or family structure affects children's well-being, then discard or downplay evidence of other factors that may be even more important.
Most researchers take a shades-of-gray position on family structure. The evidence does show that children in divorced, remarried, or unmarried families are at greater risk for a number of problems, but there is little support for the frightening picture of such families painted by these authors and their colleagues. The vast majority of children in single-parent families turn out reasonably well. Alan Acock and David Demo, who examined a nationally representative sample of children and adolescents in four family structures, reported "few statistically significant differences across family types on measures of socioemotional adjustment and well-being."
It is true that other researchers have found higher rates of divorce-related problems. Mavis Harrington observes, for example, that about twice as many children from divorced families have behavioral problems as those from continuously intact families—20 percent to 25 percent, she estimates, as opposed to 10 percent. "You can say 'Wow, that's terrible,'" she comments, "but it means that 75 to 80 percent of kids from divorced families aren't having problems, that the vast majority are doing well." Sara McLanahan, who also protests the use of her data to scapegoat single parents, makes a similar point. Of course the doubling of risk is worrisome, but it's important to keep in mind that many of the problems experienced by children from divorced or never-married families are caused by poverty, lack of education, psychological problems in the parents, poor parenting skills, and other preexisting factors.
Despite their insistent claims of concern for children, Gallagher and Blankenhorn dismiss factors having a greater and more direct impact on children's well-being than family structure. For example, study after study shows that the key determinant in a child's adjustment is the quality of the relationship with the primary parent; Janet Johnston of Stanford has found that even in hostile, high-conflict divorces, a good parent-child relationship can buffer a child from the effects of a difficult environment.
Still, family conflict strongly affects children's development. Gallagher and Blankenhorn reveal the surprising limits of their familiarity with the research literature when they write, "Like many others who make this claim, Skolnick relies heavily on a single controversial article, published in the journal Science in 1991." It's hard to understand how anyone who prescribes national policy on the basis of the social science evidence can ignore—or, worse, fail to know about—an entire body of research, dating back to the 1950s, showing that marital conflict is more strongly linked to adjustment difficulties among children than to the marital status of their parents. Nobody should divorce casually, but the question is, Divorce compared to what? An angry or conflict-ridden marriage can be more harmful to children than a loving single parent.
Recent research shows that a widespread but far quieter problem—parental depression—is also a significant risk factor for child development. And depression, particularly in women, can result from marital unhappiness. As Richard Weissbourd observes, "Whether parents are chronically stressed or depressed often more powerfully influences a child's fate than whether there are two parents in a home or whether a family is poor."
In short, whether a family consists of two parents is less important for a child than how well the family (in whatever form) functions. Of course, it would be better for children if more marriages were successful. But rather than adopt policies to make divorce more difficult (which may actually discourage marriage in the first place), we ought to address the problems afflicting children in all our families.
Maggie Gallagher, David Blankenhorn, Arlene Skolnick
Volume 8, Issue 34. September 1, 1997 - October 1, 1997.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, David Popenoe, Arlene Skolnick
Continuing the debate from "Family Feud," July-August 1997 and "Family Values: The Sequel," May-June 1997.
In a review essay that purports to include my book, The Divorce Culture, Arlene Skolnick ignores what the book actually says. Instead, she falsely ascribes to me things I have never written. Let me begin with some of her many errors and misrepresentations. Then I will draw on my own argument, since it reveals the weaknesses in her view of how liberals should think about family structure changes.
I have never written: "fatherlessness is the number one domestic problem facing the country because it drives all the rest." I do not point to the vulnerabilities of single-parent families as signs of their "moral failings." I do not argue for making alternatives to two-parent biological families socially unacceptable and practically difficult. I do not use "horror stories" about divorce. I do have files of touching letters from children of divorce, but I use none of this anecdotal evidence. I rely only on clearly identified historical, literary, legal, and social science evidence. I do not say that our culture has "abolished" marriage and the nuclear family. I do not call for policies that will disadvantage children. I do not treat family structure changes in a social and economic void or profess a "germ theory" of divorce. Indeed, I cite many background factors behind the steep increase in divorce rates, including postwar economic affluence; the growing opportunities for women in education and the workplace; women's greater relative economic independence and thus greater freedom to leave bad marriages; weakening social sanctions against parenthood outside of marriage; the relaxation of cultural prohibitions against divorces involving children; and rising expectations for adult emotional satisfactions within marriage. All figure in the growing fragility of marriage and the increased likelihood of marital breakdown and dissolution. I place the seedbed for the divorce revolution in the late 1950s, not the 1960s. Finally, I do not "mislead" by "repeatedly" using the phrase she attributes to me as a direct quotation: "average child of divorce."
Skolnick also writes, "Many of the family researchers cited in Whitehead's Atlantic article [April 1993, "Dan Quayle Was Right"] protested her misuse of their data" and then says in the next sentence, as if to illustrate: "Sara McLanahan, for example, has objected to efforts to 'demonize single mothers.'" Several researchers, including three mentioned in the article—but not McLanahan—did protest, but not over misuse of their data. (The piece went through the Atlantic's meticulous fact-checking process and such misuse would not have survived.) In a letter to the Atlantic, they contended that I "imply erroneously that most children of divorce will have lasting problems." However, in a passage that directly quotes research opinion, the article itself says the exact opposite: "while coming from a disrupted family significantly increases a young adult's risks of experiencing social, emotional or academic difficulties, it does not foreordain such difficulties. The majority [italics mine] of young people from disrupted families have successfully completed high school, do not currently display high levels of emotional distress or problem behavior and enjoy reasonable relationships with their mothers."
Moreover, Skolnick creates the impression that McLanahan has accused me of misusing her data and demonizing single mothers. I am not aware of any such accusations. Indeed, before the article was published, I read the entire passage on her work to McLanahan and made the changes she suggested. As to how we should think about single motherhood, I agree with the views expressed by McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in their book, Growing Up with a Single Parent (1994): "we reject the argument that people should not talk about the negative consequences of single motherhood for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children. While we appreciate the compassion that lies behind this position, we disagree with the bottom line. Indeed, we believe that not talking about these problems does more harm than good."
Another glaring error: Skolnick identifies me as the leader of a group of writers based at the Institute for American Values, referring six times to "Whitehead and her colleagues." I parted company with the Institute for American Values more than two years ago, and I wrote The Divorce Culture after I left. My work is mine alone, not the "output" of any organization.
By generating this smokescreen of falsehoods, Skolnick avoids contending with my ideas. Most scholars agree that the divorce revolution occurred as a result of the social, economic, and cultural factors I identify above. But these factors alone do not explain its single most remarkable feature: the virtual disappearance of widespread social concern over the harmful impact of divorce on children. Earlier in the century, when the divorce rate was minuscule by today's standards, people worried about the damage it did to children. Yet at the very moment that divorce began to affect a historically unprecedented one million children each and every year, this concern vanished. Why this dramatic shift?
Simply put, there was a sea change in the American conception of divorce. The society no longer defined divorce as a social or family event, with multiple stakeholders, notably the children whose interests must be represented and served. Instead, it saw divorce as an individual and psychological event with a single stakeholder, the initiating adult. Divorce also ceased to be regarded as a last-resort remedy for an irretrievably broken marriage and began to be identified with positive outcomes for adults and especially for women: greater happiness and independence; a stronger self-image; and enhanced capacity for initiative, assertiveness, and risk taking. In this conception, children were no longer viewed as stakeholders in marriage or divorce.
There was ideological consensus on this new conception. Conservatives embraced its affirmation of unfettered individualism, which gave adults the freedom to pursue their own individual interests in a socially and legally deregulated environment. Liberals were attracted to the psychological and social benefits of divorce for women. Freed from their economic and psychological dependency on marriage, women would be able to hold their own against men in the workplace and in family life.
This conception of divorce, with its disenfranchisement of children, threatens the child-saving tradition of twentieth-century liberalism. Two defining goals of the liberal project have been to secure greater rights and freedoms for women and to improve the welfare of children. In the past, these goals were compatible because liberals could assume an identity of maternal and child interests. What helped women would help their children. Consequently, if mothers were emotionally stronger and happier after divorce, presumably their children would be as well. However, the empirical evidence on the impact of divorce on children challenges this assumption. A majority of women do report improved psychological health and outlook after divorce, but their children often suffer serious economic disadvantage and emotional loss, including weaker ties to their father. Thus, the advantages of divorce for adults, especially women, are not equally or reliably shared by their children. Liberals like Skolnick try to evade this conflict by soft-pedaling the hardships of divorce for children. Thus, Skolnick argues, concerns about the harmful impact of divorce on children are exaggerated because, by one scholar's estimate, only 25 percent of children (roughly 250,000 per year for more than 25 years) suffer long-term damage. It is inconceivable that she would dismiss such a rate if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence. Her view is a remarkable and tragic retreat from the liberal tradition. Moreover, by branding concerns over marital instability and father absence as "moral panic," she abandons one compelling argument for why we must act to reverse the decline in high school-educated male wages: It shrinks the pool of marriageable men and responsible fathers.
Skolnick is at odds with another liberal tenet. Usually it is liberals who argue that the structural organization of social, economic, and political life shapes outcomes, while it is conservatives who say that individual character and agency count. Here, it is Skolnick who says structure doesn't matter. Rather, it is the quality of relationships that determines children's outcomes. Of course, consistent love, nurture, and supervision are essential to successful child rearing, and these qualities can be found in many different family structures, from single-mother households to married-parent households to foster-parent households and even in some kinds of institutional settings—a point I make in my book. But the idea that family structure has no bearing on the quality of nurture and care giving is nonsense. Structure does matter precisely because it influences the quality and duration of parental nurture and investment. Nondisrupted two-parent households simply have a greater capacity to make higher and often longer-term investments of time and money in their children than the fast-growing alternatives: one-parent, stepparent, and foster-parent families. To say this is not to promote intolerance for other family forms—all families deserve respect. Rather, it is to make an empirical statement about the capacities of different family structures to achieve good outcomes for children.
Moreover, if structure does not matter, then the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been a wild goose chase. Given Skolnick's logic, rather than work to change structures, liberals should work to improve the quality of relationships between rich and poor, corporate moguls and low-wage workers, Donald Trump and the homeless.
More to the point, Skolnick's is a politics of sentimentality, where the goal of securing the objective conditions for child well-being is replaced by the subjective goal of feeling good about ourselves and our families. Her politics is akin to the advertising strategy of for-profit managed health care companies: They tell us warmly how much they care as they cut back ruthlessly on care itself.
Skolnick's view also makes it impossible for liberals to make a persuasive case that all American adults have a collective public duty to all American children. A society cannot sustain an ethic of public obligation to children if it also accepts a private ethic that disenfranchises them. If parents are entitled to put their needs and self-interest before those of their own children, why should they or any other adults feel an obligation to help a stranger's child? If fathers can cut back on their private support to their own flesh and blood, why would they tax themselves to provide public supports to other people's children?
Finally, Skolnick ignores traditional liberal skepticism about the application of marketplace values to family life. Earlier in this century, progressive reformers warned that divorce was the domestic equivalent of robber-baron capitalism. In this tradition, liberals held that family relationships, like relationships in labor unions, were governed by principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and binding obligation whereas the marketplace was governed by principles of individual self-interest, short-term contract, and nonbinding relationships. Yet Skolnick rejects this view of familial relationships and uncritically accepts a popular conception of divorce that advances marketplace values. Divorce is an arena for entrepreneurship and whatever costs it creates are off-loaded onto the children who, as teenagers put it, have to "suck it up and deal." This is why divorce is embraced by libertarian conservatives. It is hard to detect much difference on divorce between Arlene Skolnick and Newt Gingrich. Both take the same position: Can't help it. Can't change it. Can't get hung up on what it does to the kids.
Just when it seemed liberals were finally getting it right about the family, along comes Arlene Skolnick to prove otherwise. Her arguments set liberals back more than 30 years, to 1965, when the left made its first serious misstep in the family values debate. That was the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson, drawing on the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called "the breakdown of the American family structure" the chief threat to the well-being of black Americans. Most liberals were outraged: Family structure was not the cause of inner-city problems; poverty was. Focusing on family structure merely stigmatized and blamed the victims.
Now, it seems, we're still right where we started 30 years ago. The economy may have come a long way since then—but the family hasn't. Indeed, the structural conditions of white families today—judged in terms of rates of single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births—are about what they were for black families in 1965. Many on the left have finally come to acknowledge the family pathology—yes, pathology—of the inner-city ghetto. But when the idea is generalized to the population as a whole, liberals still don't get it. Family? they ask. What's the problem? It's the economy, stupid.
No doubt we should be doing more for the poor, more to improve the economy in every way possible. Yet it's clear that money is not the whole answer to our nation's family problem. If it is, why, in an era of unprecedented affluence, have the living conditions of children of all classes deteriorated? Why, moreover, is the distribution of family structures more or less the same in Brentwood as it is in Bedford-Stuyvesant—with many of the same social consequences in both places.
A good society depends heavily on strong families raising emotionally secure and moral children who can grow up to contribute to the commonweal. Despite Skolnick's pleadings to the contrary, the social science evidence overwhelmingly indicates that single-parent and stepparent families are flawed in a sociological sense—the children in these families are two to three times more likely to experience negative behavioral outcomes.
Sure, many non-nuclear families are successful. And there will always be children growing up without two parents who need, and should have, extra support from the community and the nation. But what kind of politics is it that denigrates support for two-parent families as an exercise in nostalgia?
Arlene Skolnick's main message is this: "Get used to it." Accept that most children will not be growing up with their two parents, and make the best of it. Do we take a get-used-to-it position on racial inequality, environmental degradation, severe poverty, or the campaign finance system?
It defies credulity that seeking to curtail the sky-high divorce rate (close to 50 percent), the nonmarital birth rate (now a third of all births), and the absence of fathers from the home (now more than a third of biological fathers) could be considered illiberal or unprogressive. These are tragedies for children, and for the nation.
They are also avoidable. Nobody is calling for the end of divorce, the end of sex, or for rescinding the gains that women have made in recent decades. But we should push for later marriages, for sound marriage preparation and marital enrichment programs, and for the end of teen pregnancies. We should extend parental leave and remove marriage penalties from the tax code. And we must get beyond the idea that fostering married, two-parent families is somehow "castigating parents in the 'wrong' family forms."
Does the left sincerely want political credibility and a national following? If so, I submit that the path put forth by Arlene Skolnick goes in precisely the wrong direction. Her family platform may appeal to the academic left, but as a way to appeal to the American electorate it is dead wrong. More important, it does not address what children really need.
There's a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland quality to Barbara Whitehead's response to my review. First she accuses me of misquoting her, which is impossible because I never actually quoted her in the article. The sentences she cites as being attributed to her appeared in a paragraph summarizing the general arguments advanced by those currently or previously affiliated with the Institute for American Values.
Later, Whitehead states that in order to "soft-pedal" the effects of divorce on children, I cite a scholar who estimates that "only 25 percent" of children suffer long-term damage. "It is inconceivable," Whitehead writes, "that she [that is, me] would dismiss such a rate if it applied to unemployment or domestic violence.''
I searched in vain for that reference in my original article—because it wasn't there. Whitehead was referring to a comment made by Mavis Hetherington, which I quoted in my reply to David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher in the July-August issue of TAP. A small point, perhaps, but indicative of a certain carelessness. Whitehead's next error, however, is more serious. Hetherington states that while between 20 and 25 percent of children from divorced families have problems, compared to 10 percent in intact ones, it means that between 75 and 80 percent are not having problems. But where Hetherington mentions "problems" Whitehead misquotes her as speaking of "long-term damage."
Reading parts of Whitehead's polemic, however, I lost sight of what the argument is all about. She states that she does not think that fatherlessness is the major domestic problem facing the country; that she does not think that single-parent families reflect the moral failings of the adults involved; and that she agrees that the majority of young people from disrupted families do not suffer academically or emotionally. Furthermore, she says, she does not favor policies that stigmatize single-parent families or make their lives harder and she is not in favor of policies that disadvantage children—by which, I assume, she means she opposes the recently enacted welfare bill.
In the second half of her response, however, Whitehead does a complete about-face. She equates divorce with "robber-baron capitalism," claiming that it tramples on nonmarket values like solidarity and obligation, and inflicts all the costs and damages on children. Whitehead argues that by selfishly putting their own needs and self-interest ahead of their children, parents who divorce thereby undermine any sense of public obligation to children.
Curiouser still is the logic of Whitehead's discussion of "structure." It is true that sociologists describe the parental make-up of a household as a "family structure," and that they also speak of "social structure" in describing the broader arrangements (such as the class system) of a particular society. Somehow, Whitehead imagines this to mean that whatever one says about the number of parents in the home determines what one can say about large-scale social structures—that whatever one says about family structure must apply equally and in the same way to whatever one says about larger structures. "If structure does not matter," she writes, "then the liberal crusade against structural inequalities has been a wild goose chase." Aside from pointing out that I never wrote that family structure doesn't matter, there is little one can say in response to such absurd reasoning.
David Popenoe takes a moderate tone in part of his response: "Nobody," he writes, "is calling for the end of divorce, the end of sex, or for rescinding the enormous gains that women have made in recent decades." Yet Popenoe, like Blankenhorn and Gallagher, prefers to frame the argument in stark black-and-white terms, when the reality is far more subtle.
There are indeed lessons in the history that Popenoe recounts, but they are not what he thinks they are. The controversial Moynihan report that Popenoe refers to, famous for its description of the black family as "a tangle of pathology," was intended more to spur an assault on poverty than to criticize family composition. As Moynihan explained in a 1967 Commentary article, he introduced the topic of family structure in an effort to arouse public attention and to win the support of conservatives who would otherwise have opposed federal programs to provide full employment and guaranteed family incomes.
The notion that poverty and unemployment can lead to family instability and socially destructive behavior was neither novel nor necessarily conservative. But the mixture of morality, pathology, race, and economics turned out to be explosive. In the resulting uproar, both left and right focused on the theme of family pathology—and Moynihan's economic message was lost. Both left and right misunderstood Moynihan to be blaming the poor for their own difficulties. Indeed, contrary to Popenoe's version of events, conservatives won, succeeding over time in shifting the focus from poverty and economic dislocation to the behavior of the poor.
Since 1965, two major developments have had a profound impact on families. One was the shift at the end of the postwar boom to a lean-and-mean postindustrial economy that stripped family-sustaining career opportunities from many blacks and noncollege-educated adults of all demographic groups. Young adults in the family-forming stage of life have been hit especially hard by an insecure and uncertain job market. Popenoe may not be aware of it, but marriage has always been a matter of both love and money—something a man had to be able to "afford." This is still true today, when a man is expected to help cook the bacon as well as bring it home. Further, there is a literature reaching back to the Great Depression showing that economic conditions play a large role not only in the decision to marry, but in the quality of marital life. In recent years, as Frank Furstenberg has pointed out in American Demographics, marriage has become a "luxury item," something that most low-income people would prefer, but find beyond their reach.
Of course, economics is not the whole story. The other major shift was a revolution in women's roles and in middle-class attitudes toward them. The increasing economic independence of women has made divorce and even out-of-wedlock childbearing—a la Murphy Brown—socially permissible, not only among outspoken feminists, but also, surveys show, more generally. But it is impossible to debate seriously someone like Popenoe who equates stepparenting with teenage pregnancy, and calls the life conditions of children in Brentwood and Bed-Stuy comparably "deteriorated."
Popenoe's proposals for premarital counseling and marital enrichment programs make sense. Still, anyone with common sense and a modicum of experience realizes that in this day and age, there will always be children whose family structure does not conform to the idealized standard of two nondivorced parents. Those children need society's concern, regard, and respect. The narrow and fundamentally corrosive vision of Popenoe and his colleagues will contribute little to the well-being of children across the breadth of American society.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, David Popenoe, Arlene Skolnick