Review of: The Way We Really Are

Kirkus Reviews, 3/1/97

A historian of the American family debunks the myth that a return to the so-called traditional two-parent nuclear family can provide us with an unassailable refuge from the social, economic, and psychological malaise Americans seem to feel so acutely these days.

The latest book by Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992), focuses on the anxieties of contemporary American women and men about their lives, work, and families, and addresses these fears in the context of more accurate historical data and the most recent sociological research. What people really miss about the so-called Golden Age of the 1950s, Coontz points out, is an economy that supported unprecedented growth in real wages. We now tend to blame the instability of families for economic disruptions, when in fact economic dislocations have undermined our families. Furthermore, the prominence of the single-breadwinner, middle-class family so emblematic of post WWII prosperity was actually a short-term anomaly in the history of family structure. The changes we have experienced since the 1970s could even be said to represent a revival of the role of women as family co-provider, a pattern that not only served us well in pre-industrial times, but may be better suited to the new post-industrial economy. The burden of housework and child care falling almost exclusively on women has been the primary source of recent marital conflict and family stress, and Coontz points out that the demands of work schedules and the behavior of most men have yet to acknowledge the inability of working women to carry all the weight at home.

Coontz's refreshingly grounded perspective encourages the development of a broader social intelligence that would enable us to move beyond, for example, simpleminded scapegoating of the single welfare mother, coming up with social policies that truly assist more of us in improving our lives.

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