In the 1950’s the normative American family consisted of a breadwinner father, homemaker mother, and several children, all living in homes in the suburbs on the outskirts of a larger city. It was a narrow view of a model family, yet it pervaded the media and was widely accepted as the ideal and most normal. My own family of origin followed that model very closely, so it was certainly normal to me. My present family including of my husband of 28 years and our three children also fit that model very closely, but in the 1990s we are in the minority. Today there is not the same consensus of family structure and lifestyles that existed in the 1950s when “nearly everyone conformed to a pattern of early marriage and several children”1 like my parents and I did.
In the 1990s there are still families with parents and children, but the definition of a family has broadened considerably. Children are raised by many varieties of caring adults: single parents, grandparents, kin-networks, homosexual couples, and others. Even traditional appearing families are often blended families of children from different biological parents.
Statistics showing that birthrates are down, divorce rates are up, the age at marriage is up, and the marriage rate is down all point away from the 1950s model family and toward a large array of family arrangements.
The strict gender roles have broken down considerably in the 1990’s. Young women assume that they will be working outside the home, and their choices are far greater than my choices of traditional female occupations of nurse, teacher, or secretarial work.
In addition to softening of strict gender roles, rigid racial separateness is also changing. Interracial marriage was almost unheard of 50 years ago. But now the many mixed-race Americans are pressing for a “multi-cultural” classification on the upcoming census in 2000. In the 1950s sexual expression was supposed to be restricted to marriage, and premarital sex was taboo.
The most significant change seems to me to be the role of women in the family and in society. In the 1950s women stayed home to be wives, mothers and homemakers, and today women are still mothers, but few of them stay home full time to take care of the house and children. They usually work outside the home but are still also the primary homemakers creating a difficult double duty. In the 1950s women often had too little to do and were frustrated and unfulfilled, and in the 1990s women often have too much to do.
Men’s traditional roles have changed too. With working wives they are released from the burden of sole responsibility for supporting the family, and many fathers are gaining an emotional connection with their children that was previously part of a mother’s realm. While wives and mothers are getting out into the workplace and no longer confined to the house, they are still primarily responsible for most of the housework and men are still the primary breadwinners.
Sexual containment to marriage has changed to accept premarital sex and sex between unmarried people, yet fidelity to one’s spouse is still the norm. Infidelity was and is taboo. Although there are more divorces, the frequency of remarriage shows that people want to have a stable, fulfilling family lifestyle and are even willing to suffer through divorce in order to be in a better marriage. Problems and pressures caused by rigid family expectations in the 1950s created changes with new problems and pressures in the years in between then and now. Society is changing rapidly now, much faster than in previous decades and centuries.
The “family values” movement is being encouraged by congressional conservatives and others trying to “conserve” what they see as good about the past in the light of the problems that the changes in the family structure have created. Their solution is to go backwards to 1950s values, but that is unlikely to happen. While change is not always seen as forward progress by all, rarely do patterns revert back to an earlier period despite glorification by conservatives of the “good old days.”