January 24, 2011
An Excerpt from “Freer, Messier, Happier” —Yes! Magazine, Winter 2011
Mothering contributer Jeremy Adam Smith speaks to the fluidity and diversity of today’s family unit in YES! Magazine’s Winter 2011 issue.
Read an excerpt below and then head over to Yes! Magazine’s site for an exclusive price on subscribing to Yes! Magazine–just for Mothering readers!
From Yes! Magazine:
Marriage and family values are among America’s most polarizing political issues. But when we get down to the personal, we find that real family is mostly about taking care of each other, despite our differences. This issue of YES! Magazine takes an honest look at family and celebrates the values and choices that help us support and look after each other.
It’s a big claim to offer you “What Happy Families Know” but the stories inside the issue speak for themselves. There are personal journeys of joy, recovery, loss, and negotiation. Experts reveal years of research on what makes a happy couple (gay or straight). And, in our lead article, by Mothering contributer Jeremy Adam Smith, a stay-at-home dad tells us how fathers, mothers, gay couples, grandparents, neighbors, and multiethnic families are remaking America.
An excerpt from “Freer, Messier, Happier” by Jeremy Adam Smith in the Winter 2011 issue of Yes! Magazine:
In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a Massachusetts quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”
By the time my mother and father met in Dracut High School in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.
By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.
For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited San Francisco’s playgrounds, I met other stay-at-home dads, gay and lesbian parents, single mothers and fathers, and multiracial and immigrant families. I watched these disparate kinds of families manage to knit themselves into a community.
The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.
These day-to-day challenges can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. We tend to see decades of battles over divorce, single moms, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and even immigration as isolated “issues.” In fact, each of these issues is a frontline in a wider conflict over family ideals.
Each is part of a larger debate about what kind of society we want to be: one rooted in solidarity, cooperation, nurturance, and inclusiveness, the other in ideals now being most forcefully articulated by the Tea Party movement.
Today’s parents are pioneering new relationships among moms, dads, neighbors, relatives, and community, largely in response to challenging economic conditions—and they’re doing it with little or no support from marriage, divorce, and medical leave policies designed to support married, heterosexual, nuclear families. Those policies need to change, and we’re the ones who are going to have to change them.