Family life

There has never been a typical or single traditional family form in the United States. In the early 21st century, the ideal family is a vehicle for self-fulfillment and emotional satisfaction. The family in early America had different functions as producers of food, clothing, and shelter. There has always been a gap between the ideal family and the more complicated reality of family relationships. While Americans value their families and resent outside interference, they have also been willing to intervene in the family lives of those who seem outside the American ideal.

Native Americans had a variety of family organizations, including the nuclear family (two adults and their children), extended households with near relatives, clans, and other forms of kinship. Family organizations might be matrilineal, where ancestry is traced through the mother’s line, or patrilineal, where ancestry is traced through the father’s line. In general, Native Americans had a great deal of freedom in sexuality, in choosing marriage partners, and in remaining married. After conversion to Christianity, some of the variety in family forms decreased. In the early 20th century, the United States government broke up many Native American families and sent the children to boarding schools to become Americanized, a policy that was disastrous for those involved and was largely abandoned by the middle of the 20th century.

Colonial Families

During the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, when Americans from European backgrounds spoke about family, they often referred to what we would call households—people who happen to be living together. In addition to the husband, wife, and children, this could include servants, apprentices, and sometimes slaves. These earliest families were productive units, not sentimental, affectionate groupings. The family performed a number of functions that larger institutions now provide. The father, as head of the family, educated his sons, servants and apprentices. Women instructed their daughters in how to run a household. Both husband and wife were responsible for the religious development of the their household members. Primary responsibility for the order of society fell to the family, including supervising individuals, punishing minor offenses, and reporting major offenses to local officials. There was no other police force. Men and women provided basic health care, food, clothing, and entertainment. In order to fill all these roles, it was expected that obedience to the authorities of master, father, mother, church, and state would be maintained. Individualism was not valued. Everyone was expected to pull his or her weight in order for the family to survive.

Marriages were forged primarily for economic reasons, and only secondarily for companionship. Love, if it appeared at all, came after marriage, not before. Husband and wife labored together to sustain the family, but at quite separate tasks. Husbands worked in the fields, tended livestock, worked at a craft, or were merchants. Women often specialized in producing goods, such as dairy products, beer, or sausage, or they provided services like midwifery. They then traded these products or services with other women for their specialties. In the cities, women worked in shops, kept accounts, and assisted their husbands, who practiced a trade or engaged in commerce. Children assisted their parents from an early age. Everywhere, family, business, and social order were combined. Emotional satisfaction was not a function of the family.

While men and women both contributed to the success of the farm or family business, men had full legal authority over their families. Only men could hold positions in government, in the church, or in higher education. Women had no property or marital rights, except those their husbands granted, and fathers had custody of children in the rare cases of separation. Divorce was extremely rare and was illegal in many colonies. Some children, boys and girls, were sent about age 12 to work as servants in other people’s houses to learn farming, a craft, commerce, or housework. Boys might also to go to boarding schools and then to college or to sea, but most girls were not formally educated. The individuality of children was not recognized, and if one died, a later child was sometimes given the same name. The oldest son usually received more of the family's property than his younger brothers. Daughters received even less, and generally only when they married. Life was hard, and caring parents made sure that their children were obedient, hardworking, and responsible.

Life for children in the colonial period could be difficult. Whipping and other forms of physical punishment were commonplace and sometimes mandated by law. Such punishment was considered a sign of parental love, as parents sought to wean their children from their natural tendency toward sin and corruption. Virtually all children saw a sibling die and suffered several bouts of serious illness themselves. From one-third to half of all children experienced the death of a parent, and the cruel stepmother or heartless stepfather was more than a fairy tale for many colonial children. Orphans were shipped out to relatives, or sometimes local authorities gave them to the lowest bidder—the person who promised tax officials to raise the child most cheaply. Even as adults, sons and especially daughters were expected to obey their parents. Sons were given considerable freedom in deciding whom to marry, but often daughters could only choose to turn down an offensive suitor selected by their father.

Life was harsh in the country and for the majority in the city. There were few social services to support the family. Although children were expected to honor their parents, there was no guarantee that adult children would support their elderly parents. Many parents wrote wills linking the children's inheritance to the care the children provided their elderly parents. Servants and apprentices were often subjected to harsh beatings, coarse food, and deprivation. In addition, servants could not marry or leave the premises without their master's permission. Slaves were treated even more harshly. The family was concerned with the maintenance of hierarchies and social order.

African American Families under Slavery

African family traditions, which varied according to national origin and religion, could not be replicated in the New World after Africans were forced into slavery. The slave trade was responsible for breaking up African families, and husbands, wives, and children were liable to be sold separately because U.S. law did not legally recognize their families.

Enslaved Americans were denied a secure family life. Because enslaved men and women were property and could not legally marry, a permanent family could not be a guaranteed part of an African American slave’s life. They had no right to live or stay together, no right to their own children, and it was common for slave parents and children to live apart. Parents could not protect their children from the will of the master, who could separate them at any time. About one-third of slave families suffered permanent separation caused by the sale of family members to distant regions. This might occur to punish some infraction of plantation rules, to make money, to settle an estate after a death in the owner’s family, or to pay back a debt.

For the majority of slaves, who lived on small plantations with only a few other enslaved people, marriage partners had to be found on other farms. Meetings between a husband and a wife could occur only with the permission of the husband’s owner. Children stayed with their mothers. Schooling was not an option for enslaved children, and in most states it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The most common reason for slaves to run away was to see family members, if only briefly, although slave women rarely took to the roads both because it was not safe for women to travel alone and because it was difficult to travel with young children. For enslaved people on large plantations, it might be possible to find a partner owned by the same master, although couples could be assigned to different parcels of land or different areas of the plantation, or even to the vacation or city homes of the owner. The Christmas holiday, the one break from work during the year for slaves, was anticipated with excitement because it allowed separated family members to meet and spend a week together. Despite the fragility of familial bonds under slavery, enslaved men and women considered themselves married, recognized their kin in the names they gave their children, looked after their relatives and friends in cases of separation, and protected each other as much as possible.

Slavery and servitude was virtually abolished between the 1770s and the 1830s in the Northern states. This meant that African Americans could legally establish families in the North. Black churches married couples, baptized their children, and recorded the new surnames that former slaves chose for themselves. Benevolent societies looked out for their members' welfare. Slaves who escaped from slaveholding areas were sheltered and moved to safer locations. Mothers and fathers both worked so their children could become educated. Although African American families in the North faced discrimination and poverty, and worried about being kidnapped by slave catchers, they had hope of maintaining their family ties.

19th-Century Families

Only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries did ideas of affectionate marriages and loving, sentimental relations with children become dominant in American family life. These attitudes first took hold among the urban, educated wealthy and middle classes, and later spread to rural and poorer Americans. This change was due to the growth and increasing sophistication of the economy, which meant that economic issues became less pressing for families and production moved outside the home to specialized shops and factories. With more leisure time and greater physical comfort, people felt that happiness, rather than simple survival, was possible. English philosopher John Locke’s theory that human beings are born good, with their minds as blank slates, contrasted with traditional Christian beliefs that children were sinful by nature. If this blank-slate theory is correct, then goodness can be instilled in children by showering them with kindness and love and by shielding them from the bad things in this world.

Additionally, the psychological theory of sensibility, another 18th-century idea, argued that positive feelings such as friendship, happiness, sympathy, and empathy should be cultivated for a civil life of reason. By the 19th century, romanticism and sentimentality put even more emphasis on emotional attachment and the cultivation of feeling. New ideas about human equality and liberty undermined older notions of hierarchy and order. Americans applied the political ideal of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” espoused in the Declaration of Independence to family life. Husbands were to rule, but with affection and with their wives’ interests at heart. Wives obeyed, not out of force, but out of love. Parents sought the affection of their children, not their economic contributions. This was the new ideal, but old habits died slowly. Authority, inequality, and violence declined but never entirely disappeared.

By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, marriage was undertaken for affection, not for economic reasons. Courtship became more elaborate and couples had more freedom. They attended dances, church socials, picnics, and concerts, and got to know one another well. After the wedding, couples went on honeymoons to have a romantic interlude before settling down to daily life. Raising children became the most important job a wife performed, and children were to be loved and sheltered. Physical punishment of children did not disappear, but it became more moderate and was combined with encouragement and rewards.

Servants, apprentices, and others gradually dropped out of the definition of family. Servants no longer slept within the same house as the family, and apprentices rented rooms elsewhere. By the 19th century, the nuclear family, consisting of a father and mother and their dependent children, had become the model. The ideal, loving family could be found in magazines, poems, and religious tracts. Novels promoted romantic courtship and warned readers of insincere fortune hunters or seducers when seeking a husband or wife. Love and sincerity were advocated. Still, economic considerations did not entirely disappear. Wealthy women married wealthy men; poorer men married poorer women.

The economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century brought about further changes in men’s and women's roles. Work was less likely to be done in the home, as fewer and fewer Americans lived on farms, and men left the home to work in offices and factories. Men assumed sole responsibility for the financial support of the family, becoming the breadwinners, a term coined in the early 19th century. Married women were not supposed to work for wages, and were considered too pure and innocent to be out in the working world. Women were supposed to devote themselves to domestic duties, and children were seen as young innocents who needed a mother's protection. Fathers had less and less to do with raising their children.

Although the 19th-century ideal held that married women were not supposed to work, women did contribute to the family’s well-being. Wealthy women planned formal dinners, balls, and other social gatherings that were crucial to their husbands’ political and business success. Middle-class women sewed for what they called pin money, small amounts that frequently balanced the family budget. Married women in the middle and working classes took in boarders, sold hot lunches or pastries to neighbors, and saved money by doing their own baking, brewing, gardening, and other chores. It was also common in middle- and working-class families for sons to be sent to school, while their teenage sisters supported this schooling by working in a factory, teaching in elementary schools, or taking in sewing. Such work was considered acceptable as long as it was either done in the house or by unmarried young women.

Many 19th-century American families did not fit into this nuclear family ideal, as it was expensive. High housing costs meant more people than just the nuclear family often lived under one roof. Extended families, including grandparents and other relatives, were most numerous in the mid-19th century. Immigrants clung to traditional extended-family forms, and poorer families often included grandparents, grandchildren, and sometimes aunts and uncles in order to maximize sources of income and save on rent. Men, women, and children worked long hours for low wages in dirty, cramped surroundings in the sweatshops of major cities. Although the ideal woman was supposed to be pure, innocent, and domestic, most poor women had to work. Taking in boarders, such as young men and women working in local factories, was another way that families earned money, although they gave up family privacy.

Low wages during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, in the first half of the 19th centurymeant that even young children sometimes had to work instead of being sheltered at home. In the poorest families, and particularly among newer immigrants, children younger than 12 often worked in factories or sold newspapers and trinkets on the streets. School was a luxury for some poor families because they needed the children’s income. Because of this, illiteracy rates actually rose during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, even though public schools were more widely available.

When husbands died or abandoned their families, women had no choice but to work, opening a shop if they had the capital or working in a sweatshop if they did not. Wages for women’s work were low, and prostitution, which offered more money, flourished in towns big and small. It was very difficult for a single mother or father to work and raise children, and children of single parents were often left at orphanages or simply abandoned to the streets. This was before Social Security, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, retirement funds, health insurance, and other private and public programs existed to aid families in times of crisis.

American families made a variety of compromises in the face of economic hardship. In many southern and eastern European immigrant families, where it was more important for married women to stay at home, children were withdrawn from school and sent to work so their mother could run the household. Among African Americans living in the North, educating their children was the most important family goal, so wives joined their husbands in the workforce to enable children to stay in school. In some families, men had total control over finances; in others, wives handled the husband’s paycheck. In some families, resources went to the eldest son, so he could make money and later support his parents and siblings. In other families, all boys were treated equally or all boys and girls were equal. Some families valued close ties and insisted that older children settle near their parents, while others sent their sons out West, to the cities, or simply on the road in hopes of a better future.

During the 19th century, the majority of Americans continued to live on farms where everyone in the family worked, even if it was in and around the house. Women on farms still worked as they had during colonial times, although by the 19th century, they were producing butter, eggs, cheese, and other goods to sell in the nearest city rather than to trade to neighbors. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers worked long and hard for only a fraction of their produce. School was out of the question for poor children in these circumstances. In the West, the difficulties of pioneering often meant that all members of the family worked. For most Americans, these alternate family arrangements were less than desirable. Most Americans sought the private, affectionate, comfortable family life with domestic wives, breadwinning husbands, and well-educated children.

The dominance of the family ideal is only one aspect of life in the 19th century. The constant emphasis on family, domesticity, and children could be confining, so men and women developed interests outside of the home. The 19th century was a great age of organizations only for men, and fraternal groups thrived. Taverns and barrooms provided a space for men to make political deals, secure jobs, and be entertained. Men formed literary and scientific societies, labor organizations, reform groups, Bible study groups, and sports leagues.

The 19th century was also a period of change for women. Married women in the 19th century, who had more education and fewer children than their predecessors, founded reform groups, debating societies, and literary associations. They involved themselves in school reform, health issues, women’s rights, temperance, child labor, and other public-policy issues. A few states in the West granted women full political rights. A women’s movement demanding equal rights, including the vote, gained strength after 1848. In the first half of the century, public education extended basic literacy to many poorer Americans, and in the second half of the century women's high schools and colleges were founded, along with coeducational colleges in the Midwest and West. Women’s occupational choices began to expand into the new fields of nursing, secretarial work, department store clerking, and more, although work was something a young woman did only until she married. Women who wanted a career had to forgo marriage.

By the middle of the 19th century, many states had passed laws allowing women control over their possessions and wages. A few states allowed divorce on the grounds of physical abuse. New stereotypes appeared at the same time. In child custody cases, women, rather than fathers, were now given control of their children because women were considered natural child rearers. This practice would persist until the late 20th century, when shared custody arrangements became common.

The rise of labor unions during the 19th century was instrumental in changing the nature of work and the shape of families in America. By the end of the century unions were demanding higher wages for men, so that they could provide the sole support for their families. The unions argued that women and children should refrain from paid labor rather than become unionized and press for higher wages. Behind these demands was the ideal of the breadwinner husband and the domestic wife. Unions also sought shorter workweeks to allow men to spend more time with their families.

20th-Century Families

The Progressive movement supported changes in social policy that would create more nuclear families. Progressives and trade unionists sought to limit women’s work and to outlaw child labor. They did this by attempting to close unhealthy sweatshops. They also promoted better housing so that families could have comfortable surroundings. The unions and Progressives were generally successful in gaining bans on child labor in Northern states, although many poor parents and businesses opposed these laws. Some of the poor and traditionalists resisted restrictions on child labor because they believed children needed work experience, not an education.

Rising wages for male workers, the absence of union protection for women workers, and mandatory education laws allowed, or forced, more Americans to realize the domestic ideal. These changes came later to the South, which was poorer and less industrialized. Retirement funds, savings banks, and pension plans meant that older Americans were less dependent on their children’s wages. The gradual development of workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance allowed families to survive even with the loss of the breadwinner’s income. Working-class and middle-class families began to look more alike in the early 20th century. Men went to work, while women stayed at home, and children attended school.

The Progressive movement also brought about the modern social work movement. Trained social workers intervened in families experiencing problems that threatened the well-being of family members and affected the community: physical abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, neglect, or abandonment. Social workers were often successful in protecting the family, although social workers were sometimes influenced by the common prejudices of the time. Married women in the early 20th century were discouraged from leaving abusive husbands because the prevailing belief was that a wife’s place was in the home.

Racism and prejudice also played a part in social policy. Single white girls who became pregnant were secretly sent to special homes and required to give up their babies for adoption so that they could return to their “real” lives. Black girls in the same circumstances were considered immoral and examples of the supposed inferiority of African Americans. They were sent home to rear their children by themselves; a few were forcibly sterilized.

The Great Depression and World War II brought a temporary shift in family structure. During the hard times of the 1930s, children once again had to work. Some were abandoned and wandered looking for work. Families doubled up to save on rent, and women took in boarders, worked as servants, ran hairdressing salons, baked goods, or sewed for extra money. Men, too, took to the roads to look for work, hoping their families would join them once they had obtained a steady paycheck. The domestic life was impossible for many, first because of economic hardship and later because of the war. Marriage and children were delayed, and buying a home was out of the question.

During World War II, for the first time, large numbers of married women took jobs. Because of the war effort and the number of men sent overseas, women were hired to perform jobs traditionally done by men. The popular image of Rosie the Riveter captures the novelty of women dressed in work clothes, engaging in skilled, industrial labor. Factories set up day-care centers to attract married women workers. Women drove cabs, moved into positions with more responsibility, and provided support services for all the major branches of the armed forces. Although women earned lower wages, received fewer promotions, and were among the first laid off, the domestic image of women created in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had changed. Married women were out of the house and earning their own money.

The year after World War II ended, both the marriage rate and the divorce rate soared. The marriage rate went from 12.2 per 1,000 people in 1945 to 16.4 in 1946. The divorce rate, which had been slowly increasing during the century, leaped from 3.5 to 4.3 per 1,000 people. One reason for the extraordinarily large number of divorces in 1946 was that couples who had married in haste before they were shipped overseas for the war found that they had little in common after three to five years apart. The divorce rate slowed after 1946, but by the 1950s was steadily increasing. While divorce was not uncommon before the war, most divorces were sought by recently married couples without children or by older couples with grown children. Once children arrived, couples felt obliged to stay together for the sake of the children, no matter how uncomfortable or violent the marriage. Increasingly after World War II, and especially by the 1960s, the presence of children did not hinder divorce. Parents came to believe that it was better to rear children in a less-stressful setting than to maintain the fiction of marital success. Child custody became a divisive issue in divorces, adversely affecting parents and children.

The end of the war also rapidly reduced the number of married women employed outside the home, as returning veterans sought work. Many of these women gradually returned to work, either because they had enjoyed working or because the family wanted the second income to buy a new home in the suburbs, a second automobile, a new television set, or other consumer goods that were now available. Some veterans took advantage of their military benefits to attend college while their wives worked.

More and more young women graduated from high school and went to college, instead of working to help support their families or to subsidize a brother’s education. As young men and women delayed work and substantial responsibility, a youth culture developed during and after World War II. High school students embraced separate fashions from their parents, new forms of music and dance, slang expressions, and sometimes freer attitudes toward sexuality, smoking, or drug use that created a generation gap between parents and children. Yet parents were anxious to provide their children with advantages that had not existed during the depression and war years.

The 1950s and 1960s produced a period of unparalleled prosperity in the United States. Factories were kept busy filling orders from a war-devastated world. White-collar jobs expanded, wages were high, mortgage and tuition money was available thanks to federal support, and goods were relatively cheap. This economic prosperity allowed more Americans to become more middle class. The ideal middle-class family was epitomized in the new medium of television through shows such as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, in which fathers arrived home from work ready to solve any minor problem, mothers were always cheerful and loving, and children were socially and academically successful. These shows reflected the fact that a majority of Americans now owned their own home, a car, and a television, and were marrying earlier and having more children than earlier generations.

This idealized middle-class American family began to show cracks during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In response to the demands on men to create and support expensive domestic paradises, a mythical world of adventure and freedom eventually arose in popular culture. Movies about secret agents and Western gunslingers contrasted with the regimented suburban, corporate lifestyle of many men. The demands on women to be all things to all people—a sexy wife, a caring, selfless mother, a budget-minded shopper, a creative cook, and a neighborhood volunteer—and to find satisfaction in a shining kitchen floor often produced anxious feelings of dissatisfaction.

Concern grew over teenage delinquency and high pregnancy rates, as well as the perceived immorality of rock and roll, all of which were blamed on inadequate parenting, not on the difficulties inherent in the current standards of family life. The ideal suburban life was capable of providing comfort and being emotionally fulfilling for parents and children. It could also be a place where young adults had too little to do, married women became isolated and self-sacrificing, and men were harried by the pressure of providing the consumer products of the “good life.” Children, who were pressured to succeed and to conform to middle-class ideals, became rebellious and created alternative cultures.

The emergence of Beat culture, the civil rights movement, and the antinuclear movement in the 1950s signaled a more organized and intellectually grounded rebelliousness that would bloom in the 1960s. The 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence and expansion of movements dealing with black power, students’ rights, women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, Native American rights, and environmental protection. Men and women also began experimenting with new gender roles that blurred traditional boundaries between masculine and feminine behaviors. In 1963 author Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, articulated women’s frustration with being only wives and mothers. The book helped revive the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Men took more interest in child rearing. Some men cultivated supposedly feminine attributes, such as nonviolence and noncompetitiveness. Women sought work, not just to earn money but to have careers. There were attempts to equalize the roles of husbands and wives, or to eliminate traditional marriage vows in favor of personal and/or sexual freedom. By the 1970s, gay and lesbian individuals publicly asserted their right to engage in same-sex unions. These unions were sometimes based on traditional marriage models, including marriage vows and children, and sometimes on newer models that involved more autonomy. Communal alternatives to traditional marriage, as well as open marriages and same-sex partnerships and families, challenged the ideals of the 1950s by rejecting the materialism of suburban lifestyles and by experimenting with nonnuclear family forms.

Throughout the 1970s the buoyant economic basis of the 1950s middle-class family gradually eroded. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 reduced the military spending that had kept employment and wage levels high. Women moved into the job market in unprecedented numbers to pursue careers and to maintain the family’s standard of living when the husband’s income failed to keep up with inflation. As more women entered the labor force, they began removing some of the barriers to advancement through court cases and concerted pressure on institutions and businesses. Some women undertook careers in medicine, law, politics, management, and higher education that had been dominated by men. Traditionally female jobs were sometimes reconfigured so that, for example, some secretaries became administrative assistants, and some nurses became nurse practitioners, midwives, or other specialists.

These changes sometimes shifted the balance of power within families. Some husbands felt inadequate because they could no longer maintain the role of sole breadwinner for their families. Some wives felt that they had to be supermoms, continuing to cook, clean, and volunteer for local activities, while holding down a full-time job. These stresses contributed to rising divorce rates and may have discouraged some couples from seeking permanent unions. Non-marital unions (couples living together but not married) and out-of-wedlock births soared, particularly among the most financially pressured Americans, although movie and music stars were the most visible of those rejecting traditional marriages and childrearing arrangements.

The nuclear family felt even more pressure as companies fled older cities, factories shut and moved overseas, and service work replaced highly paid, unionized, skilled factory jobs. Young Americans of marriageable age could not count on secure, well-paid employment in the future and became reluctant to make permanent plans. Education became more essential, but fewer students could count on the GI bill to underwrite expenses. Many high school and college students began working after classes, reducing the amount of time spent reading and studying. This contributed to declines in educational achievement. At the same time, religious conservatives began calling for a return to traditional values of earlier times—families with a strong father figure, a domestic mother, and obedient children. These calls did not change many lives.

Current Trends in Family Life

In 1998 there were 2,256,000 marriages in the United States, a marriage rate of 8.4 per 1,000 people. This rate was down from 10.6 per 1,000 in 1980. The year 1998 also saw 1,135,000 divorces in the United States, a rate of 4.2 per thousand people. One estimate is that 50.3 percent of marriages will end in divorce. Divorce rates have been rising since 1920, when records were first kept and when the divorce rate was about a third of the 1995 rate. Although the divorce rate has been declining since it peaked in the early 1980s, America still has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. The majority of divorced people eventually remarry.

The economy at the end of the 20th century offered most workers less security and more competition, a situation that does not favor investment in marriage, particularly among the young. People, on average, are delaying marriage. The middle class peaked in the economic prosperity lasting from 1947 to 1973. Afterwards, the majority of Americans faced shrinking paychecks. Housing, utilities, and health care ate up 35 percent of the average family’s paycheck in 1984, compared to 38 percent in 2000. In 2000, 41 percent of people under age 35 owned their own homes, compared to 44 percent in 1980.

Increased educational requirements and job training, economic insecurity, difficulties finding the “perfect mate,” and the attractions of a carefree life are among the reasons for delaying marriage. In 2000, the average age at which Americans married was 26.8 for men and 25.1 for women, matching the marriage age for men and surpassing the marriage age for women in the 19th century. Virtually all people eventually marry—by age 65, about 95 percent of men and women are married. Americans delay marriage, seek divorces, and remarry because they expect marriage to be loving, supportive, and equitable. If a marriage is disappointing, they often seek the perfect partner in another relationship.

The strict gender roles that once confined men and women to certain activities are disappearing. Many women work and control their own wages, sources of credit, savings, and investments. Many men are enjoying closer relationships with their children as well as with their wives. The amount of time that men contribute to housework has been increasing for decades, although married women remain more heavily engaged in housework and child care.

Families are having fewer children than ever, but children are often staying home longer. The high cost of college education keeps many older children at home. Census takers at the end of the century have noticed what they call a boomerang effect, where adult children leave home but then later return. High rents and low entry-level wages, divorce, single parenthood, and their parents’ higher standard of living are among the factors encouraging adults to return home. Parents often welcome the companionship and assistance of their grown children.

Americans are responsive to the phrase “family values” because they appreciate the ties of kinship and the continuity of family tradition in a society that is rapidly changing and often isolating. Shared activities and shared memories are important in the late 20th century. The very architecture of new housing reflects the levels of family cooperation by enlarging the kitchen to accommodate the activities of husbands, wives, and children and by having the family room a part of, or nearby, the kitchen. The decoration of houses and apartments often makes the main room a shrine of family portraits and family souvenirs.

Women are having fewer children, yet many children are being born outside of marriage. In 2000 that amounted to 1,345,000 children. The number of children under 18 years of age living with two parents has decreased from 88 percent in 1960 to 68 percent in 1997, and child poverty rates have risen. By 2000, some 20 percent of children were living in poverty. In 1997, 24 percent of all children lived with their mothers only. This is substantially higher than the 8 percent who did in 1960, and reflects both the increases in single motherhood and the rising divorce rate. Because working women still earn substantially less than their male counterparts, and are less likely to be promoted, a rise in female-headed households means that more children are being raised in poverty. A minority of children lived with their fathers only, but again this rate has substantially increased. In 1960, 1 percent of children lived with their fathers only, 37 years later this quadrupled to 4 percent. Another 4 percent lived elsewhere, either with grandparents or other relatives. Large numbers of American children, 815,000, lived with nonrelatives in 1997, mostly in foster care. In 2000, 83 percent of children living with a single parent lived with their mothers and 17 percent with their fathers. While the majority of children live with two parents, that percentage has been shrinking.

Since the late 18th century, families have become more child centered. This trend peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. In the last decades of the 20th century, adults reported high levels of satisfaction with their family relationships, but children sometimes received too little attention and too little of a wealthy nation’s resources. There is evidence of anxiety, depression, and anger as some children are shuffled from place to place and from relationship to relationship, fought over in custody battles, and left on their own while their parents work. The problems that some children experience at home are brought to school and affect the quality of education. Social work and psychological counseling are now necessary adjuncts to schools from the preschool level through college. Violence is a problem in the schools as well as on the streets, and this level of violence is peculiar to the United States among industrialized countries.

The safety net for families and community support for parents and children have been rolled back at the end of the 20th century. The United States lags behind other developed nations in educational standards, social welfare programs, infant mortality rates, marriage rates, legitimacy rates, public safety, and other measures of family well-being. Crime, violence, drug abuse, and homelessness are problems that arise from these situations and also weaken existing families. Some of the problems with family life come not from a rejection of the family or from stresses on the family, but from the high and idealistic expectations that Americans place on their marriages, sexual relationships, and parent-child relationships. Many Americans hope for a perfect spouse and a perfect family and will experiment until they find satisfying lives for themselves. The cost may be tenuous relationships.

These tenuous family relationships are not entirely new. In the 17th and 18th centuries, families were similarly unstable, because of high death rates rather than divorce, and children were raised in as wide a variety of situations then as now. Marriages are more fragile, but some family relationships have strengthened over time. Mothers have assumed more responsibility for the economic as well as domestic care of their children. Some fathers are rearing their children. Grown men and women can often count on parental support, and grandparents step up to raise their grandchildren. Surveys show that the majority of adults are happy with the choices they have made and do not regret single parenthood or nonmarital unions. Many children reared by single parents, grandparents, foster parents, or adoptive parents thrive; others suffer from a lack of adult attention and supervision, from the instability of their home lives, and from feelings of rejection.

Although there is concern about these social changes, few would want to return to the days when women were expected to stay in abusive marriages or fathers were routinely denied custody of their children. The majority of Americans accept new attitudes on sexual expression, birth control, abortion, divorce, and child custody, although many personally view homosexuality as immoral, have mixed feelings about abortion, and want to make divorce more difficult to obtain. Both liberals and conservatives agree there are hopeful and troubling aspects of the American family at the end of the 20th century. The family is not dead, but it exhibits the plurality of interests, hopes, and troubles that the American people face at the end of the century.