Monday, October 19, 2009

Update to Sharing the Kids Equally

One of America's more interesting and less predictable feminist public intellectual voices, Arlie Hochschild, has a few things to say about the general topic of family life and child care in a consumer capitalist world (hat tip: Laura McKenna):

Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed a profound shift in the American family, one that bears the deep footprints of a disappearing economic sector and a transformed culture....In survey after survey, Americans show up as valuing marriage more than people almost anywhere else. Yet at the same time we have the highest divorce--and romantic breakup--rate in the world, Andrew J. Cherlin observes in his highly insightful book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. We step into and out of romantic relationships faster than couples in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. By age 35, 10 percent of American women have lived with three or more husbands or domestic partners--a higher proportion than in any of these countries. Children born of married parents in America face a higher risk of seeing them break up than children born of unmarried parents in Sweden.

Why are Americans on this marriage-go-round? Is it the "restless temper" Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago? It is true, Cherlin observes, that more than people elsewhere, we move from job to job, city to city, and even church to church. Could this be linked to a missing government safety net and ­family-protective policies? Cherlin gives little credence to this idea, but he leaves us with another useful notion--that more than we realize, we’ve become accustomed to a move-along life-go-round world.

If Americans came to this country as restless seekers in search of a new and better life, capitalism made superb use of that impulse. We believe in the new....The culprit is not the absence of family values, I believe, but a continual state of unconscious immersion in a market turnover culture. It is this that sets us apart from a more stable Europe. For some adults, the search for a new partner leads to a better life. But not so for many children. Reporting on his research about the nation’s teenagers, Cherlin says: "For each partner who entered or left the household of a single parent, the odds that the adolescent had stolen something, skipped school, gotten drunk or done something similar rose by 12 percent."

Working-class families, where breakups come faster, have suffered a one-two punch. They have absorbed the decline of the industrial sector. They have also been exposed, like the rest of America, to a curiously consumerist approach to love. Paradoxically, those who call for family values also tout the wonders of an unregulated market without observing the subtle cultural links between the family they seek to regulate and the market they hold free....

So what can we do? In response to our fast-food culture, a "slow food" movement appeared. Out of hurried parenthood, a move toward slow parenting could be growing. With vital government supports for state-of-the-art public child care and paid parental leave, maybe we would be ready to try slow love and marriage.


There is much in Hochschild's piece worth pondering (her criticisms of social conservatives wisely alert to cultural threats to family life, but unwilling to pay for the social programs they recommend in response to such in particular); so really, read the whole thing. But I do think she would have been well-served if she was somewhat more aware of the strong arguments which have taken place online, here and elsewhere, about being "slacker" parents. Meaning, not slacking off on one's responsibilities to one's spouse and one's children, but rather, refusing to let an individualistic culture and the capitalist order which sustains it (complete with demands about how work around the house is going to be divided) dictate how a family will operate. The bosses are insisting you put in longer hours at work? The neighbors' kids are embarrassing yours because of the electronic toys they lack? Rising mortgages or the expectation of owning multiple cars is turning your family into a frazzled two-income one? Slack off! Or, at least, aim to get to a situation where you can.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

If financial strains are one of the leading causes of marital discord and divorce, is "slacking" really wise?

Russell Arben Fox said...

If the financial strains in question are caused by a genuinely insufficient income for basic wants and needs, then no. But if the financial strains are caused by an inability to pay for all the day-care/kids-lessons/insurance-on-the-third-car/etc. which one's lifestyle demands, then a little re-assessment may be in order.

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