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BOOK REVIEW : Skewering Myths About the Family : THE WAY WE NEVER WERE: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz , Basic Books $27; 383 pages.

October 23, 1992|CONSTANCE CASEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When reviewing nonfiction books, I put one check mark next to interesting and useful facts and two next to interesting and useful facts that are new to me.

My copy of "The Way We Never Were" has check marks on nearly every page, a web of checks on many pages. If you knew how many books I read that remain essentially check-less, you'd appreciate what a treasure Stephanie Coontz's book is. Coontz's ample evidence exposes the falseness, sentimentality and self-righteousness of most public statements about the family.

I wish Coontz, who teaches history at Evergreen State College in Washington state, had been at the first presidential debate to answer the question "What is a family?" Maybe in the future a couple of history professors should join the journalists in asking debate questions. This book was to be a sequel to Coontz's more strictly scholarly work, "The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600-1900." At some point along the way, though, Coontz obviously felt the need to do more than establish her reputation in academia. The liveliness of "The Way We Never Were" comes from a real passion to set the general public straight and to relieve people of the fear, or the excuse, that every social ill comes from bad parents.

American families have changed in the last 20 years--nearly half of all families with children have both parents working--and our anxiety about change is no delusion. There has certainly been some decay in values recently. As Coontz tartly observes, "Twenty-five percent of the people polled in a recent national inquiry into American morality said that for $10 million they would abandon their entire family; a large number of people are evidently willing to do the same thing for free."

Coontz believes that what we're experiencing now, however, is not so much the family's dissolution as "an erosion of commitment to social obligations in general, and to children in particular." Furthermore, things weren't all that great before. Chapter by chapter, Coontz takes on the myths. Divorce may end many marriages now, but largely because of high mortality rates, the average length of marriage in Colonial times was less than 12 years.

The "Life With Father" Victorian family--in which men were the breadwinners and women the domestic angels--owed its existence to the fact that other families were poor. Middle-class women had time to spend with their children because they employed laundresses and maids and cooks. Often these German or Welsh or Irish immigrant servant "girls" really were girls, as young as 11.

While 20% of American children today are poor, she writes, "At the turn of the century the same proportion lived in orphanages, not because they actually lacked both parents, but because one or both parents simply could not afford their keep."

Coontz's take on the Golden Age of the family--Ward and June, Ozzie and Harriet--is not brand new, but worth restating. "The apparently stable families of the 1950s were the result of an economic boom--the gross national product grew by nearly 250% and per capita income by 35%." Most important, there was steady employment for the Ward Cleavers of America.

Ozzie never came home with a pink slip and never applied for welfare. But the Nelsons and the Cleavers were generously underwritten by the federal government. Because of the extraordinary boom, the feds could afford to be generous with everything from education money to housing loans and highway construction.

Part of the mythology of the Golden Age was that only morally deficient families required government help. As refutation, Coontz provides a wonderfully specific example--Phil Gramm, senator from Texas and staunch opponent of government handouts: "Born in Georgia in 1942, to a father who was living on a federal veterans disability pension, Gramm attended a publicly funded university on a grant paid for by the federal War Orphans Act. His graduate work was financed by a National Defense Education Act fellowship, and his first job was at Texas A & M University, a federal land-grant institution."

Coontz makes it hard for us to blame the usual suspects for family decay--those negligent working mothers and those immoral teen-age girls. She demonstrates that most of the family problems associated with working women rise from "the inadequate and incomplete integration of women into productive work." And she charges that, "The image of teen-age girls having babies to receive welfare checks is an emotion-laden but fraudulent cliche." If welfare benefits cause teen pregnancy, "why is it that other industrial countries, with far more generous support policies for women and children, have far lower rates of teen pregnancy?" (Incidentally, the highest rate of teen-age childbearing in 20th-Century America was in 1957.)

"Children do best," Coontz concludes, "in societies where child-rearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents." In order to be elected these days, candidates have to demonstrate that they care deeply about their own children. We should demand that they also care about other people's children.

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