The Way We Never Were

Mass Media
The Way We Never Were
American Families and the Nostalgia Trap
If one believes what one sees on television re-runs of classic shows
from the 1950s, then the traditional American family has two kids, a stay
at home mom, who vacuums in pearls, and a Dad who works hard but always has
time for his children. The problem with the image presented in those old
television shows is that the traditional family depicted is a myth.

Unfortunately, too many people frustrated with today’s societal problems
believe the myth of the traditional family and propose that a return to
“the way things used to be” will solve all of society’s ills. In her book
The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz presents a historical look at the
family and how it has changed over time. She argues that the family of the
1950s was an aberration and there has never been a “traditional” family as
people define it today.

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Coontz has spent much of her career studying the ’50s. Were the ’50s
really that special? Yes, though not necessarily for the reasons we may
think, believes Coontz. After two decades of economic depression, wages
grew more in any single year of the ’50s than in the entire decade of the
1980s. Income inequality between the rich and poor actually shrank. The
’50s was the last decade that someone with only a high school diploma
“could reasonably expect to earn a comfortable living,” Coontz said. The
1950s also saw the nuclear family emerge as the preferred model.

While the post-WWII generations came to believe that a dad, a stay-at-
home mom and a couple of children were the norm, this stripped-down version
was largely a creation of the ’50s, an experiment permitted by rising
affluence that allowed many families the luxury of having one spouse, the
mother, stay home full-time. “Until the 1950s, exclusive maternal child
care was very, very rare,” Coontz said. And for the first time, “you were
told the nuclear family was absolutely everything, and that extended
families were a threat to that marital and family solidarity.” This
experiment was memorialized on that new electronic wonder, television, in
shows that still define the era for many Americans. Coontz has pored over
these sacred texts of the 1950s: the scripts of TV classics such as “Ozzie
and Harriet,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” While Americans
today view them as true representations of society, that’s not why the
original viewers tuned in. They watched, she says, to learn. “People
didn’t watch those shows to see their own lives reflected back at them,”
Coontz writes in her new book. “They watched them to see how families were
supposed to live, and also to get a little reassurance that they were
headed in the right direction.”
Coontz organizes her chapters based on popular myths about the
family. Within each chapter, she challenges the myth and proves it false
by numerous examples from past family structures and gender roles. She
uses the history of the family to contradict the modern idealization of
families in the past. She states, “the actual complexity of our history .

. . gets buried under the weight of an idealized image.” (p. 1) She
methodically proves the images false. She asserts that “families have
always been in crisis; they have never lived up to the nostalgic notions
about ‘the way things used to be’.” (p. 2)
Through her look at the various myths about the family, she addresses many
of the complaints and problems facing today’s society. She looks at many
issues being debated today, such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child
abuse, poverty, working women, childcare, government intrusion into family
life and the plight of minorities. Coontz shows that these problems have
always existed and have been caused by varying factors and handled
differently with each generation. She points out through historical
example that these problems are not new, and the yearning for the “old
days” is a misleading desire because some of the times longed for in
reality were just as bad, if not worse, than today.

She uses the 1950s family as an example of how the myth was different
than the reality. She argues that “not only was the 1950s family a new
invention; it was also a historical fluke, based on a unique and temporary
conjuncture of economic, social and political factors.”(p. 28) While the
1950s middle class white family was better off than ever before, the image
presented ignores the fact that at the same time “twenty-five percent of
Americans were poor” and “minorities were almost entirely excluded from the
gains and privileges accorded white middle class families.” (p. 30) She
also asserts that both men and women were forced into more domestic family
roles during this time. Women who had worked during the war found
theirselves forced out of the workplace to make room for returning men and
at the same time bachelorhood took on negative connotations.Underneath
the facade of the “ideal” family of the 1950s lay the fact that there was
widespread child, spousal and sexual abuse and marital unhappiness.

Coontz also devotes a chapter to the myth of the deteriorating black
family. While she acknowledges that poor black families have shown
negative trends in the last twenty years, she asserts that the black family
historically has been strong despite the discrimination and segregation
against it.She states “despite these unique difficulties, the tremendous
commitment of African Americans to family ties meant that the history of
black family life was never as different from that of whites as some
observers have claimed.” (p. 239) Coontz also cites studies that have shown
that African American families in the nineteenth and twentieth century
“maintained tighter and more supportive kin ties than did other urban
families.” (p. 241) The idea of community in the black family made it
stronger, even though this family structure diverged from the popular
movement towards the “nuclear” family that white middle class Americans
supported.Coontz argues that educators and therapists need to take into
consideration the strengths of the black family instead of berating it for
not conforming to the “idealized white model”. (p. 242)
The author’s strength lies in her ability to provide vivid examples
from the past to contradict present misconceptions. Along the way, she
lays out a good history of the family from the 1800s to the 1990s. The
reader learns interesting and surprising information about past family and
societal values and practices, such as the true origins of Mother’s Day.

One of her weaknesses seems to be that she sometimes provides too much
information, mainly statistics, which cause the reader to get bogged down
in detail and lose the overall point of a chapter. Another weakness is the
over-use over large, unnecessary words which makes the book sometimes hard
to follow and not easy to absorb.

At the end, Coontz discusses the crisis of the family. She offers
her opinions and advice on how to address today’s societal ills by studying
the past. She asserts, “The ‘crisis of the family’ became the key to
explaining the paradox of poverty amid plenty, alienation in the midst of
abundance.” (p. 256) She argues “historically Americans have tended to
discover crisis in family structure and standards whenever they are in the
midst of major changes in socioeconomic structure and standards.” (p. 257)
The idea that economic problems cause family problems is an argument that
runs throughout the book. In both prosperity and depression, families tend
to have structural problems because of economic conditions. When leaders
focus on trying to return to the mythical traditional family, Coontz argues
that they fail to look at or try to solve the real economic and social
issues that cause family problems. In this way, nostalgia “prevents us
from drawing useful lessons from the past and making effective innovations
for our families’ future.” (p. 281) Coontz ends her book on a note of hope
for families. She encourages us to become active in our communities. She
believes that by helping others we will help our own families.

Overall, this is a very interesting and informative book that
provides a fascinating look at family life. Coontz offers good arguments
and examples to support them, even though at times she steps onto a
soapbox. The reader gains insight and knowledge regarding families of the
past and present.