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The Madness of the American Family

Tuesday, September 1, 1998

In a recent talk, author and social critic Midge Decter asked why the wealthiest and healthiest country on earth has such nutty ideas about the family

The idea of talking about the subject called "family" always puts me in mind of a line from the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. "Whom the Gods would destroy," he said, "they first make mad." Now, to be sure, there are no gods—there is only God—and even if there were, you would have to think that, far from destroying us, they are busily arranging things very nicely for us. Nor do I think that American society has gone mad, exactly. Look around you at this magnificent country: You would have to say that somebody is surely doing something right.

Nevertheless, the ghost of that ancient Greek keeps whispering his words of ageless experience in my ear. If we Americans cannot be said to have gone mad, we have certainly been getting nuttier by the day.

Take one example of our nuttiness. We are healthier than people have ever been in all of human history. Just to list the possibly debilitating diseases that American children need never again experience—measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever, polio—is to understand why we have begun to confront the issue of how to provide proper amenities to the fast-growing number of people who are being blessed with a vigorous old age.

And yet, as it seems, from morning until night we think of nothing but

our health and all the potential threats to it. We measure and count and think about everything we put into our mouths. While we are speculating about which of the many beautiful places there will be for us to retire to, we are at the same time obsessed with all the substances and foodstuffs that are lying in wait to kill us, and try out each new magical prescription for the diet that will keep us ever young and beautiful. This has gone so far that, for example, not long ago a group of pediatricians had to issue a warning to new mothers that, far from beneficial, a low-fat diet was in fact quite injurious to infants and toddlers.

And as if an obsession with nutrition were not enough, every day millions upon millions of us whom life has seen fit to save from hard labor find ourselves instead, like so many blinded horses of olden times, daily enchained to our exercise treadmills.

So we treat our health as if it were a disease and the benign conditions of our lives as if they were so many obstacles to our well-being.

And if that is nutty, what shall we say about finding ourselves engaged in discussing something called the family? How on earth, if the gods are not out to destroy us, have we got ourselves into this fix? Talking about the family should be like talking about the earth itself: interesting to observe in all its various details—after all, what else are many if not most great novels about?—but hardly up for debate. And yet people just like you and me nowadays find themselves doing precisely that: Is it good for you? Is it necessary, especially for children? And—craziest of all—what is it?

In our everyday private lives, of course, we drive around in, or fly around in, and otherwise make household use of the products of various technologies of a complexity that is positively mind-boggling without giving it a second thought. Yet at the same time, millions among us who have attended, or who now attend, universities find it useful to take formal courses in something called "family relations," as if this were a subject requiring the most expert kind of technical training. And in our lives as a national community we call conferences, engage in public programs, create new organizations, and beyond that publish and read several libraries of books devoted entirely to questions about the family—not to speak of the fact that here I am as well this evening, offering you some further conversation on the subject.

I look around this room and wonder, how on earth have we come to this place, you and I? How did the wealthiest, healthiest, and luckiest people who have ever lived get to such a point? It is as if, in payment for our good fortune, we had been struck by some kind of slow-acting but in the long run lethal plague. This plague is a malady we must diagnose and put a name to if we are ever as a nation to return to our God-given senses.

Where did the idea that the family might somehow be an object of debate and choice come from? It is never easy, as epidemiologists will tell you, to trace the exact origin of a plague. Who exactly is our Typhoid Mary?

I can’t say I know, precisely, but I knew we were in trouble back in the late 1950s when I picked up Esquire magazine one day and read an essay about his generation written by a young man still in university. The writer concluded with the impassioned assertion that if he thought he might end up some day like his own father, working hard every day to make a nice home for the wife and kids, he would slit his throat. Slit his throat. Those were his exact words.

Now, I might not have paid close attention to the sentiment expressed by this obviously spoiled and objectionable brat were it not for two things: First, we were in those days hearing a lot from their teachers about just how brilliant and marvelous was the new generation of students in the universities, and second, Esquire was in those days known for its claim to have its finger on the cultural pulse. Thus, this was a young man whose mountainous ingratitude was worth paying a little attention to.

And sure enough, not too much later, what we know as the 1960s began to happen. Enough said. Should it, then, have come as a surprise that in short order that young author’s female counterparts began in their own way to declare that throat-cutting would be the proper response to the prospect of ending up like their mothers? Well, surprise or no, the plague was now upon us for fair.

The End of Responsibility

Am I trying to suggest that the only course of social health is to live exactly as one’s parents did? Of course not. The United States is a country whose character and achievements have depended precisely on people’s striking out for new territories—actual territories and territories of the mind as well. We have not lived as our parents did, and we do not expect our children—or, anyway, our grandchildren—to live as we do.

Several years ago I was privileged to attend my grandfather’s hundredth birthday party. When we asked him what, looking back, was the most important thing that had ever happened to him, without a moment’s hesitation he astonished us by answering that the most important thing that ever happened to him was being privileged to witness the introduction of the use of electricity into people’s homes. And now I see my own grandchildren, even the youngest of them, sitting hunched over their keyboards, fingers flying, communing with unseen new-found friends in far-flung places and giving this new possibility not a second thought.

In the 1960s, young men began
to cut out their responsibilities,
while young women began to fall
under the influence of a movement
that was equating marriage
with chattel slavery.

So of course we do not live as our parents lived, but that young man writing in Esquire was saying something else: Underneath the posturing, he was saying that he did not wish ever to become a husband and father. And the raging young women who came along soon after him were saying they, for their part, would be all too happy to be getting along without him.

And what, finally, when the dust of all these newfound declarations of independence began to settle, was the result of this new turmoil? The young men began to cut out—cut out of responsibility, cut out of service to their country, and cut out of the terms of everyday, ordinary life. They said they were against something they called "the system." But what, in the end, did they mean by that? Insofar as the system was represented by business and professional life, most of them after a brief fling as make-believe outcasts cut back into that aspect of the system very nicely; but insofar as it meant accepting the terms of ordinary daily life, of building and supporting a home and family, they may no longer have been prepared to slit their throats, but they would for a long time prove to be at best pretty skittish about this last act of becoming grown men.

And their girlfriends and lovers? They, on their side, were falling under the influence of a movement that was equating marriage and motherhood with chattel slavery. "We want," said Gloria Steinem, one of this movement’s most celebrated spokeswomen ("a saint" is what Newsweek magazine once called her), "to be the husbands we used to marry."

Let us ponder that remark for a moment: "We want to be the husbands we used to marry." Underlying the real ideology of the women’s movement, sometimes couched in softer language and sometimes in uglier, is the proposition that the differences between men and women are merely culturally imposed—culturally imposed, moreover, for nefarious purposes. That single proposition underlies what claims to be no more than the movement’s demands for equal treatment, and it constitutes the gravamen of the teaching of women’s studies in all our universities.

And need I say that it has been consequential throughout our society? I don’t, I think, have to go through the whole litany of the women’s complaints. Nor do I have to go into detail about their huge political success in convincing the powers that be that they represented half the country’s population, and thus obtaining many truly disruptive legislative remedies for their would-be sorrows.

Among the remedies that follow from the proposition that the differences between men and women are merely culturally imposed has been that of letting women in on the strong-man action. Why, it was successfully argued, should they not be firemen, policemen, coal miners, sports reporters—in many ways most significant of all—combat soldiers?

The Soldier and the Baby-Tender

At the outset of the Gulf War, early in that first phase of it called Desert Shield, the New York Post carried on its front page a newsphoto—it may have appeared in many papers, or at least it should have—illustrating a story about the departure for Saudi Arabia of a group of reservists. The picture was of a young woman in full military regalia, including helmet, planting a farewell kiss on the brow of an infant at most three months old being held in the arms of its father. The photo spoke volumes about where this society has allowed itself to get dragged to and was in its way as obscene as anything that has appeared in that cesspool known as Hustler magazine. It should have been framed and placed on the desk of the president, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and every liberal Senator in the United States Congress.

What could be a more radical idea than that there is no natural difference between men and women?

That photo was not about the achievement of women’s equality; it was about the nuttiness—in this case, perhaps the proper word is madness—that has overtaken all too many American families. For the household in which—let’s use the social scientists’ pompous term for it—"the sexual differentiation of roles" has grown so blurry that you can’t tell the soldier from the baby-tender without a scorecard is a place of profound disorder. No wonder we are a country with a low birthrate and a high divorce rate.

We see milder forms of this disorder all over the place, especially in cases where young mothers have decreed that mothers and fathers are to be indistinguishable as to their—my favorite word—roles. Again, you cannot tell—or rather, you are not supposed to be able to tell—the mommy from the daddy. The child, of course, knows who is what. No baby or little kid who is hungry or frightened or hurting ever calls for his daddy in the middle of the night. He might get his daddy, but it is unlikely that that would have been his intention.

Everybody has always known such things: What is a husband, what is a wife; what is a mother, what is a father. How have we come to the place where they are open for debate? "Untune that string," says Shakespeare, "and hark what discord follows."

It is not all that remarkable, for instance, that there should have been the kind of women’s movement that sprang up among us. There have from time to time throughout recorded history been little explosions of radicalism, of refusal to accept the limits of human existence, and what could be a more radical idea than that there is no natural difference between the sexes? Just to say the words is to recognize that what we have here is a rebellion not against a government or a society, but against the very constitution of our beings, we men and women.

The question is, what caused such an idea to reverberate as it did among two generations of the most fortunate women who ever lived? As for their men, what idea lay at the bottom of their response to all this we do not quite know, for they giggled nervously and for the most part remained silent. But it is not difficult to see that if the movement’s ideas represented an assault on the age-old definition of their manhood, it also relieved them of a great burden of responsibility: Seeing that their services as protectors and defenders and breadwinners had been declared no longer essential, they were now free—in some cases literally, in some cases merely emotionally—to head for the hills.

Since the condition of families depends to a considerable degree on the condition of marriages, small wonder, then, that the subject of family has been put up for debate.

Most recently, we are being asked to consider whether two lesbians or two male homosexuals should not also be recognized as a family. Oftentimes the ostensible issue centers on money; that is, spousal benefits for one’s homosexual mate. But actually, as we know, what is being demanded is about far more than money.

Money is easy to think about; that’s why the homosexual-rights movement has placed such emphasis on this particular legislative campaign. But what is really being sought is that society should confer upon homosexual unions the same legitimacy as has always been conferred upon heterosexual ones.

What comes next, of course, is the legal adoption of children. Why not a family with two daddies? After all, some unfortunates among us don’t even have one. (Lesbians, of course, suffer no such complications. All their babies require for a daddy is a syringe. Thus, we have that little classic of children’s literature, to be found in the libraries of the nation’s public schools, entitled Heather Has Two Mommies.)

In other words, when it comes to families, any arrangement is considered as good as any other.

People don’t pick their professions that way; they don’t decide where to live that way; they don’t furnish their lives or their houses that way; they don’t even dress themselves that way . . . but families? Why not? Aren’t they, after all, no more than the result of voluntary agreements between two private individuals? And anyway, don’t people have rights? Who are their fellow citizens to tell them how to live and decide that one thing is good and another is bad?

Such questions explain why it was that in the 1970s a famous White House Conference on the Family, called primarily to discuss the crisis in the inner cities and packed full of so-called family experts and advocates from all over the country, could not even begin to mount a discussion, let alone provide a report, because from the very first day they could not even reach agreement on the definition of the word "family."

You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

The question is, how did we as a society ever come to this disordered place? For one thing, what has encouraged us to imagine that anything is possible if we merely will it to be? And for another, how have we strayed this far from the wisdom so painfully earned by all those who came before us and prepared the earth to receive us? I ask these questions in no polemical spirit, because few of us have not in one way or another been touched by them, if not in our own households, then in the lives of some of those near and dear to us.

What is it, in short, that so many Americans have forgotten, or have never learned, about the nature of human existence?

One thing they have forgotten—or perhaps never learned—is that you can’t fool Mother Nature. If you try to do so, you sicken and die, spiritually speaking—like those little painted turtles that used to be a tourist novelty for children and, because their shells were covered in paint, could never live beyond a few days.

The land of limitless freedom,
as so many among us are now
beginning to discover, turns out to be
nothing more than the deep muck
and mire of Self.

Well, we do not, like those novelty turtles, literally die: On the contrary, as I have said, we have been granted the possibility of adding years to our lives; but far too many of us, especially the young people among us, live what are at bottom unnatural lives. Too many young women, having recovered from their seizure of believing that they were required to become Masters of the Universe, cannot find men to marry them, while the men on their side cannot seem to find women to marry. Both grope around, first bewildered and then made sour by what is happening to them. And there is nothing in the culture around them—that nutty, nutty culture—to offer medicine for their distemper.

What is it Mother Nature knows that so many of us no longer do? It is that marriage and family are not a choice like, say, deciding where to go and whom to befriend and how to make a living. Together, marriage and parenthood are the rock on which human existence stands.

Different societies may organize their families differently—or so, at least, the anthropologists used to take great pleasure in telling us (I myself have my doubts)—and they may have this or that kinship system or live beneath this or that kind of roof. But consider: In societies, whether primitive or advanced, that have no doubt about how to define the word "family," every child is born to two people, one of his own sex and one of the other, to whom his life is as important as their own and who undertake to instruct him in the ways of the world around him.

Consider this again for a moment: Every child is born to two people, one of his own sex and one of the other, to whom his life is as important as their own and who undertake to instruct him in the ways of the world around him. Can you name the social reformer who could dream of a better arrangement than that?

The Swamp of Self

Are there, then, no violations of this arrangement? Among the nature-driven families I am talking about are there no cruel fathers or selfish and uncaring mothers? Of course there are. I have said that family is a rock, not the Garden of Eden; and a rock, as we know, can sometimes be a far from comfortable place to be. Off the coast of San Francisco there used to be a prison they called "the rock," and that is not inapt imagery for some families I can think of.

But even in benign families there are, of course, stresses and strains. To cite only one example, it takes a long time, if not forever, for, say, a late-blooming child, or a child troubled or troublesome in some other way, to live down his past with his own family, even should he become the world’s greatest living brain surgeon. Families are always, and often quite unforgivingly, the people Who Knew You When. So, as I said, the rock of family can sometimes have a pretty scratchy surface.

But there is one thing that living on a rock does for you: It keeps you out of the swamps. The most dangerous of these swamps is a place of limitless and willfully defined individual freedom.

The land of limitless freedom, as so many among us are now beginning to discover, turns out to be nothing other than the deep muck and mire of Self. And there is no place more airless, more sunk in black boredom, than the land of Self, and no place more difficult to be extricated from. How many among us these days are stuck there, seeking for phony excitements and emotions, flailing their way from therapy to therapy, from pounding pillows to primal screaming to ingesting drugs to God knows what else, changing their faces and bodies, following the dictates first of this guru and then of that, and all the while sinking deeper and deeper into a depressing feeling of disconnection they cannot give a name to?

The only escape from the swamp of Self is the instinctual and lifelong engagement in the fate of others. Now, busying oneself with politics or charity—both of which are immensely worthy communal undertakings involving the needs and desires of others—cannot provide the escape I am talking about. For both, however outwardly directed, are voluntary. The kind of engagement I mean is the involuntary discovery that there are lives that mean as much to you as your own, and in some cases—I am referring, of course, to your children and their children and their children after them—there are lives that mean more to you than your own. In short, the discovery that comes with being an essential member of a family.

To become a family is to lose
some part of one’s private existence
and to be joined in what was brilliantly
called "the great chain of being."

I do not think it is an exaggeration to use the word "discovery." No matter how ardently a young man and woman believe they wish to spend their lives with one another, and no matter how enthusiastically they greet the knowledge that they are to have a baby, they do not undertake either of these things in full knowledge of the commitment they are undertaking. They nod gravely at the words "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health," but they do not know—not really, not deep down—that they are embarked upon a long, long, and sometimes arduous and even unpleasant journey.

I think this may be truer of women than of men. A woman holding her first-born in her arms, for instance, is someone who for the first time can truly understand her own mother and the meaning of the fact that she herself had been given life. This is not necessarily an easy experience, especially if her relations with her mother have been in some way painful to her; but even if they have not, this simple recognition can sometimes be quite overwhelming. That, in my opinion, is why so many first-time mothers become temporarily unbalanced.

I cannot, of course, speak for the inner life of her husband; his experience is bound to be a different one. But the panic that so often and so famously overtakes a first-time expectant father is surely related to it. To become a family is to lose some part of one’s private existence and to be joined in what was so brilliantly called "the great chain of being."

In short, being the member of a family does not make you happy; it makes you human.

One Choice Among Many?

All this should be a very simple matter; God knows, it’s been going on long enough. So why have we fallen into such a state of confusion?

The answer, I think, lies in the question. By which I mean that we Americans living in the second half of the 20th century are living as none others have lived before. Even the poor among us enjoy amenities that were once not available to kings. We live with the expectation that the babies born to us will survive. The death of an infant or a child is an unbearable experience. Yet go visit a colonial graveyard and read the gravestones: Our forefathers upon this land lived with the experience, year after year after year, of burying an infant—lived two weeks, lived four months, lived a year. How many burials did it take to be granted a surviving offspring?

I am not speaking of prehistoric times, but of 200 years ago. Two hundred years, my friends, is but a blink of history’s eye. Could any of us survive such an experience? I doubt it.

Even a hundred years ago—half a blink of history’s eye—people lived with kinds of hardship only rarely known among us now. Read the letters of the Victorians (fortunately for our instruction in life, people used to write a lot of letters; those who come after us, with our phone calls and e-mail, will know so little about us). They were sick all the time. Or take a more pleasant example, provided by my husband, the music nut: We can sit down in the comfort of home every afternoon and listen to works of music their own composers may never have heard performed and that not so long ago people would travel across Europe to hear a single performance of.

So we live as no others who came before us were privileged to do. We live with the bounties of the universe that have been unlocked by the scientists and engineers and then put to use by those old swashbucklers with names like Carnegie and Edison and Ford—and, yes, Gates—who were seeking their own fortunes and in the process made ours as well. Moreover, not long from now, we are told, there will be nearly one million Americans one hundred years old or more.

We live, too—and should not permit ourselves to forget it—with another kind of bounty: We are the heirs of a political system that, despite a number of threatened losses of poise and balance, has remained the most benign and just, and even the most stable, in the world.

The truth is that precisely because we are living under an endless shower of goodies, we are as a people having a profoundly difficult time staying in touch with the sources of our being. That is why so many young women were so easily hoodwinked into believing that marriage and motherhood were what they liked to call "options," just one choice among many. That is why so many young men were so easily convinced to settle for the sudden attack of distemper afflicting the women whom fate intended for them. That is why so many people of good will find it difficult to argue with the idea that homosexual mating is no different from their own—everybody to his own taste, and who’s to say, especially when it comes to sex, that anything is truer, or better, or more natural than anything else?

In short, because God has permitted us to unlock so many secrets of His universe, we are in constant danger of fancying that any limits upon us are purely arbitrary and we have the power to lift them. In the past half-century, what has not been tried out, by at least some group or other in our midst, in the way of belief and ritual or—horrible word—lifestyle? We have watched the unfolding of catalogues-full of ancient and newly made-up superstitions, the spread of fad medicines and "designer" drugs (each year, it seems, produces a new one of these). Lately we have seen beautiful young children, children living in the most advanced civilization on earth, painfully and hideously mutilating their bodies in the name, they will tell you, of fashion.

All this, I believe, stems from the same profound muddle that has left us as a society groping for a definition of the word "family." Maybe people are just not constituted to be able to live with the ease and wealth and health that have been granted to us.

But this would be a terrible thing to have to believe, and I do not believe it, and neither do you, or you would not be here this evening. As Albert Einstein once said, the Lord God can be subtle, but He is not malicious. What does seem to be a fair proposition, however, is that given the whole preceding history of mankind, to live as we do takes more than a bit of getting used to. It takes, indeed, some serious spiritual discipline.

Wisdom and Gratitude

I believe that two things will help us to be restored from our current nuttiness. The first is for us, as a people and a culture, to recapture our respect for the wisdom of our forbears. That wisdom was earned in suffering and trial; we throw it away—and many of us have thrown it away—at their and our very great peril. The second is a strong and unending dose of gratitude: the kind of gratitude that people ought to feel for the experience of living in freedom; the kind of gratitude the mother of a newborn feels as she counts the fingers and toes of the tiny creature who has been handed to her; the kind of gratitude we feel when someone we care about has passed through some danger; the kind of gratitude we experience as we walk out into the sunshine of a beautiful day, which is in fact none other than gratitude for the gift of being alive.

All around us these days, especially and most fatefully among the young women in our midst, there are signs of a surrender to nature and the common sense that goes with it. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead—a woman who in her own time managed to do quite a good deal of damage to the national ethos—did once say something very wise and prophetic. She said that the real crimp in a woman’s plans for the future came not from the cries but from the smiles of her baby.

Being a member of a family
does not make you happy;
it makes you human.

How many young women lawyers and executives have been surprised to discover, first, that they could not bear to remain childless, and second, that they actually preferred hanging around with their babies to preparing a brief or attending a high-level meeting? One could weep for the difficulty they had in discovering the true longings of their hearts. Next—who knows—they may even begin to discover that having a real husband and being a real wife in return may help to wash away all that bogus posturing rage that has been making them so miserable to themselves and others.

When that happens, we may be through debating and discussing and defining and redefining the term "family" and begin to relearn the very, very old lesson that life has limits and that only by escaping Self and becoming part of the onrushing tide of generations can we ordinary humans give our lives their intended full meaning. We have been endowed by our Creator not only with unalienable rights but with the knowledge that is etched into our very bones.

All we have to do is listen. And say thank you. And pray.