Thursday, October 02, 2014

The End of Marriage?

This article by Susan Reimer of the BALTIMORE SUN is headlined "The End of Marriage" on the website and the editorial page of the print issue for that day:

The End of Marriage

Headlines, of course, aren't written by the author of the article. I trust Reimer herself didn't intend to make such a sweeping pronouncement of doom on the grounds that, as she puts it, "The American household is nearly unrecognizable from our sitcom past." The nuclear family "made up of a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother, and a couple of kids" can hardly be considered synonymous with the whole institution of marriage, considering the concept was invented in the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution met middle-class Victorian values, and reached a brief peak in the 1950s. This model was, of course, far from universal even among the American middle class at the time (I myself grew up in a "blended" family; my father and stepmother were both previously married and divorced, with children, and Mamma worked full-time until the birth of our half-sister), and unattainable in any era for most working-class families. Moreover, Reimer notes that this period sometimes idealized as "the golden age of family life" was "also a repressive time for women."

Regardless of the headline, the bulk of her essay, in fact, isn't about the shift from the "Ozzie and Harriet" ideal to more varied types of marriage such as male-breadwinner and two-career households, not to mention same-sex unions. It's mainly about recent research on the links between out-of-wedlock childbirth and poverty. Few people would deny the importance of family stability and "a sense of certainty about the core issues of job security, wages, health care, child care and retirement" to lifting parents and children out of poverty. These issues, however, are separate from the observed trend that, as remarked by sociologist Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland, "there is no single family arrangement that encompasses a majority of children."

For a more nuanced analysis of American marriage trends as contrasted with what the popular imagination views as "traditional," I recommend sociologist Stephanie Coontz's THE WAY WE NEVER WERE. Interestingly, when Coontz asked her college students in the early 1990s to define the traditional marriage, they described a cross between OZZIE AND HARRIET and THE WALTONS, often citing those TV series by name. In fact, those programs portrayed two distinctly different models of marriage and the family, and the 1950s ideal was a conscious reaction against the Depression-era extended-family household.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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