The History of Family

Christians contemplating “family” today have lots to think about. The modern age has made issues about family (empty-nest parents, taking in an elderly or disabled relative, pondering if/how many children of our own to have, etc.) arguably more difficult than they have ever been at any other point in history. How did something so common and natural become so complex?

The American family has gone through three distinct phases, correlated to the major changes in economy, which has made individuals progressively more alienated from family and the natural issues which arise because of them.

First was the agricultural family where father, mother, children, and often extended relatives were all at home, engaged in producing what was needed to live, often on a daily basis. Domestic activites were the work of the day: cooking, cleaning, farming, and related jobs. Genders were divided into somewhat generalized “spheres” regarding the domestic work, but the family and economic life was tied together in one location with education, health, and economy all taking place under one roof. The agricultural family did not allow for much flexibility or metacognition about work and children—they were expected, and children were assimilated into work quickly, as every hand added was more important than the extra mouth. People were interdependent on one another but largely independent from larger institutions.

The second phase of the American family occurred during the Industrial Revolution when agriculture could no longer be home-based. Cottage industry quickly turned into factory-based work, and men had to leave home from early morning to late evening just to make enough money for their families to eat. While labor unions strove for benefits and better working conditions, it was a shock to the family as mothers and children were divided from their fathers not only in tasks but in spirit. Women were left with their own domestic sphere and often too much time on their hands, so “women’s culture” boomed with church or community groups, magazines, shops, and other phenomena. Men’s culture did not catch on as much because men had less free time, but it is notable that drinking problems which precipitated the Prohibition movement arose as men, overworked and despirited, flocked to pubs instead of their homes after hours.

Whereas the transition to the Industrial Era happened almost overnight, the contemporary shift to a service economy—and the third phase of American family—happened more gradually. Facilitated by the World Wars and changing occupation patterns for men, women entered the workforce. While “Rosie the Riveter” posters suggest that women simply took over men’s jobs, it was more the case that a woman’s workforce of its own began.  Service jobs such as nursing, typing, teaching, phone operating, and textile production flourished. No longer content to go back to the lonely home when their husbands returned from war, women stayed in the  marketplace and had fewer children, often supported by new birth control options. There was a brief “Donna Reed” era where women exulted in a suburban mother role with a home of their own and two gloriously groomed children.  But the stage was set for women and men to contribute uniquely (indeed, competitively) to the larger world of services—a stage which would deal a deathblow to the traditional family forever.

So what? What does this mean to us today? In my above descriptions, I tried not to overly romanticize or demonize the phases. While many conservatives hail “the old days,” it is impossible to rewind the clock. This is because the current attitudes toward family reflect not just emotions (which are fixable), but actual economic realities such as those discussed above.  What the history of the American family teaches is that only recently has the disunity of fathers, mothers, and children been culturally acceptable.  The world today assumes each role must be divided, but for the first two hundred and fifty years in America, families were an integrated whole.  When conservatives wonder why women don’t want to have more children, why moms don’t want to stay home, why children disrespect adults, why more men are checking out at home and career, and why family businesses and legacies are dying out, they often address superficial matters.  They fail to realize that we have lost the unified family substructure that used to support these things.  Now everyone is fending for themselves and expected to do so… no amount of hearkening or persuading is going to do the trick.

Even in the best of homes, we have sub-cultures for fathers, mothers, and children where we do not relate to each other until, perhaps, mealtime comes and we are forced to reckon with one another again for a grueling 30 minutes. The children don’t have the parent’s hearts, and the parent’s don’t know their children’s. If an in-law needs to move in, someone goes on disability, a child needs to leave, or a guest needs a temporary place to stay, the whole family is in shambles!  We do not know how to incoporate these types of changes. Partly fueled by the economic situation, our family substructure is now divided up and inflexible… it puts everyone out when a new variable is introduced.  Indeed, our individual sense has capitulated our family sense so that we don’t know how to balance private passions with corporate (family unit) advance. Just like business and church, in a place where corporate advance is everything, we have largely sold out to personal destiny messages.

I believe part of reconstructing what was beneficial but lost in the “old days” is that sense of an interdependent but independent state of the family. Today, homey families often feel they couldn’t have a generally organic and work-filled life in the home again even if they tried—Laws and culture make that impossible, and most of us don’t have the skills necessary to be independent from larger institutions. Perhaps mother does stay home and father tries to help mother educate the children, but we generally live in a confused and alienated state, dependent on something which we do not love yet something we do not know how to reject.

What we really need is a new foundation, a new model. We cannot fix the fragmented American family with band-aids (i.e. just mom staying home, or just the children learning a trade). We need reconstructive surgery. How could we work within the constraints of our culture to reunite father to mother, and father to children? How could we reunite family with individual? Family with society? The reconciling process must begin…


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