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The Fractured Family


By Carol Mithers

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM


The answer seems to be "not so well." CELF data collection completed in 2005 has fueled a series of articles, and the center's staff hopes to have a book manuscript completed by next spring. Findings suggest that family life endures in the 21st century, but it's different than it used to be, and neither our social institutions nor our expectations and fantasies have adapted. The result is struggle and stress.

No one who seriously studies the family would suggest we look to the historical blip that was the 1950s for an archetype, but still, family life has "been through a revolution," says Evergreen State College's Stephanie Coontz, who serves as director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “The first phase came 200 years ago with the idea that men and women should choose their own mates on the basis of love. The second came in the 1970s and 1980s when women went to work."

"The median age for first marriage has risen to an all-time high of 25 for women and 27 for men," says Megan Sweeney, an associate professor in UCLA's sociology department who studies family-related issues. "The divorce rate has stabilized, but it's still very high; as many as a third of all young people will live in a stepfamily at some point in their lives."

Add to these numbers the growing percentage of same-sex couples raising children and it's not surprising that in the 2000 census, the traditional nuclear family represented only 24 percent of American households. These changes aren’t breaking news, of course. What's startling is how little we’ve dealt with or adapted to them.

Take chores, for example. Even though two-thirds of mothers with kids under 18 are working, husbands and wives still fight about housework. CELF fellow and postdoc scholar Carolina Izquierdo '94, M.A. '95, Ph.D. '01, who has previously studied families of the Peruvian Amazon, noted that "in that region, there’s a cultural expectation of what each person does, so things get done." By contrast, in the CELF households, "there was a lack of clear division of labor and understanding of what tasks couples should do and how to do them."

Also unresolved: how to manage the dual-career family time crunch. In fact, in that arena, we've gone backwards, taking on more to do in less time, with research showing that dual-income parents now work more than 90 hours a week combined.

San Jose State University anthropologist Chuck Darrah has pointed out that parents are expected to be far more involved in their children's lives than in the past. It's not just the endless round of distant soccer games, the weekly ballet and flute lessons, and the helping with hours of homework each night, but also considering, selecting and managing school choices, an option that either didn't exist a generation or two ago, or that middle-class parents didn’t consider.