Freer, Messier, Happier: What Happy Families Know

In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a Massachusetts quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”

By the time my mother and father met in Dracut High School in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.

By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.

For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited San Francisco’s playgrounds, I met other stay-at-home dads, gay and lesbian parents, single mothers and fathers, and multiracial and immigrant families. I watched these disparate kinds of families manage to knit themselves into a community.

The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.

These day-to-day challenges can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. We tend to see decades of battles over divorce, single moms, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and even immigration as isolated “issues.” In fact, each of these issues is a frontline in a wider conflict over family ideals.

Each is part of a larger debate about what kind of society we want to be: one rooted in solidarity, cooperation, nurturance, and inclusiveness, the other in ideals now being most forcefully articulated by the Tea Party movement.

Today’s parents are pioneering new relationships among moms, dads, neighbors, relatives, and community, largely in response to challenging economic conditions—and they’re doing it with little or no support from marriage, divorce, and medical leave policies designed to support married, heterosexual, nuclear families. Those policies need to change, and we’re the ones who are going to have to change them.

Women at Work, Men at Home

Economics have always shaped family. For most of human history, extended families were consolidated business units, growing and making what they needed to live and then selling the surplus to other families. The sole-male-breadwinner, nuclear family came with the rise of industrial capitalism, when fathers marched off to factories and mothers tended homes that became more mechanistic and consumerist as time went on. Today, we are in the throes of another economic and technological evolution that is transforming our most intimate family relationships. As money and people move across borders, barriers against intercultural marriage are dissolving. Today, one in seven new marriages is interracial.

Meanwhile, jobs are becoming more portable, less stable, and more technically demanding—and the recession has hit hardest in male-dominated sectors of the economy.

For almost every decade for the past 100 years, more and more women have gone to college and work. Over the past three years, men have been much more likely to lose their jobs than women, who are concentrated in fast-growing, high-skill industries like health care and education. Between 2009 and 2010, men with college degrees saw their median weekly earnings drop 3 percent while the income of women with degrees grew by 4.3 percent. Today, young women’s pay exceeds that of their male peers in most metropolitan areas.

These trends have changed the way moms and dads relate to each other and to their children. As men lost the ability to reliably support families on one income, families responded by diversifying. Men have developed emotional and interpersonal skills by taking care of children—since the mid-1990s, the number of hours dads spend with kids has nearly doubled—and women have gone to school and to work. In the eyes of many couples, equity between parents has moved from a nice ideal to an urgent matter of survival.

And it’s a strange but true fact that these changes to the structure of heterosexual families are what’s driving acceptance of gay and lesbian marriage and parenthood. In August of 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker explicitly recognized this connection when he overturned Proposition 8, an amendment to California’s constitution that defined marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” In his decision, Walker wrote:

“The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. … The exclusion [of same-sex couples] exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.”