The Fractured Family

In Silicon Valley, where peach orchards have disappeared and electronics factories have sprouted in their stead, where low-paying jobs have replaced high-paying jobs, where neighbors are new and the singles clubs are full, we meet, in Judith Stacey's recent book, Brave New Families, a woman named Pam Gama. We meet her first as the young bride of a striving drafter and ten years later as a struggling single mother of three (ages eleven, nine, and six) working odd jobs and taking classes on the side. We next meet her one precarious remarriage later, and finally as a post-feminist, reborn Christian at the alter of the Global Ministry's Church where she exchanges vows, again, of lasting love.

Three important recent books, two by sociologists and one by historians, present contrasting responses to an odyssey like Pam's. They all say if s a modern story. They all think it's a sad story. After that, they differ on the central questions: Should we be nostalgic for more stable times? Is the family in permanent decline? Does the greater freedom and power of women inherently weaken it? Can we honor a diversity of types of family and also push for stronger family bonds? If we can, how do we do it?

In his 1963 classic, World Revolution and Family Patterns, William Goode describes a worldwide trend toward urban industrial life on the one hand and independent "conjugal families" on the other. Stripped of ties of authority to a wider kin circle, able to move more easily with shifts in economic opportunity, the conjugal family fit the new industrial order. Sooner in some cultures, later in others, Goode correctly claims, it came to prevail.

But for how long? These three new books show that the conjugal family has grown fragile. All of them lack the reassuring tone of Mary Jo Bane's 1976 Here To Stay, but avoid the shrill alarm of Christopher Lasch's 1977 Haven in a Heartless World, two books which mark the boundaries of the 1970s response to unsettling news on the domestic front. Updating Goode, all three books claim that we've entered a third stage of family history, but they differ on what this stage means for both human happiness and political action.

Stacey argues that the "modern family" (a term she uses to refer more narrowly to a stable marriage between a breadwinner and a homemaker) is giving way to a collection of diverse, often fragile domestic arrangements that comprise the "postmodern family" -- single mothers, blended families, cohabiting couples, lesbian and gay partners, communes, and two-job families. She describes the "modern" family as patriarchal, culturally predominant, and stable, and she describes the "postmodern" one as largely non-patriarchal, diverse, and unstable. She treats these two sets of characteristics as fixed packages. The postmodern family, Stacey says, fits with the postmodern economy and with "postfeminism," the three "posts." Loosely illustrating this thesis are twenty-eight lively oral histories of the mostly white and working-class kin and friends of two women living in Santa Clara County in the 1980s, Dotty Lewison and Pam Gama.

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The history of Dotty Lewison's family is as grim a catalogue as Emile Zola's Germinal of everything that can go wrong with human interaction. Lou Lewison beats his wife, Dotty. When Dotty isn't protecting the children from Lou, she's beating them herself or taking off. One daughter has a child she neglects who is sexually abused. A son drinks and fights and dies driving his car 120 miles an hour after a quarrel with his wife. Another son is arrested with 100 hypodermic needles and PCP. Another daughter attempts suicide when her husband impregnates a new lover. And so it goes.

Dotty and Pam each marry young. Each woman separates from her husband. One divorces and one reunites and each has one child who marries happily and many others who pretty much don't. In each generation, mid-life women try to heal the hurts of ex-spouses, children, and the original kin and friends, and to add a new spouse, step-siblings, friends, and kin -- a difficult, miraculous work too blandly called "blending


There are so many stories like this one. I could begin with my family.

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