When capturing the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era, no one does it better than Norman Rockwell, especially in the hazy reality of memory aided by the memorabilia of The Saturday Evening Post. How did Rockwell, as Jack Perkins of Biography put it, “become for 60 years the keeper of the national spirit?.... How did the word ‘Rockwellian’ come to symbolize the best of that era when American seemed to have a single shining patriotic vision—a time when God, family, country and goodness meant, not just something, but everything?” (Perkins, Biography). Much has changed since the 1950s, and in this post-modern age, one thing is certain: If Rockwell were alive to document the many iterations of family now, he would have fodder for decades.
“In America, family is at once about home and the next great frontier,” says New York Times reporter Natalie Angier. In "The Changing American Family," in a special issue of Science Times, Angier explores seven post-modern families, as well as the under-studied population of incarcerated parents and their children. What she explores is first the fact that there is no “typical” American family anymore, that the “traditional” American family that is epitomized by the glamour of the 1950s is mainly only replicated in Asian and South Asian immigrant populations and gay dads in contemporary U.S. Also discussed is the rate of single parenthood, voluntary kinship, the rising age of marriage, the phenomena of rapidly shifting family formation that social science researchers are observing, and the family’s evolution from Colonial days through the Industrial Age, and on through this current post-modern day. Finally, what does economics have to do with any of this? A lot. So what does the face of family look like in the United States, and how did the U.S. family get so far from the Rockwell “norm”?
The history of family in the United States, beginning in the Colonial era, is one based on camaraderie, industry, and villages comprised of kinship and clans. Marriages and households were formed primarily to be an entire community in one small setting—blacksmithing, teaching, keeping social order, caretaking children (who would be working for the good of the village or community by late toddler-to-early childhood), educating children, and maintaining social order by caretaking wayward relatives suffering from social misconduct or mental illness. (Tuonimen, Lecture 2-1).
The Public Family
Family was defined mainly in economic terms and children were a public good, or workers who would benefit the wider community. Over a relatively short period of time (<300 years), the family went from being mainly a public affair to a private, nuclear affair—the size diminished and its raîson d’être shifted from one of utilitarianism and economics to aesthetic and personal gratification (Cherlin, 47). Once the Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s and men left the nucleus of the home to work for wages, the face of the public family began to shift, as did roles and rules within the family.
Another thing of note happened during that time: marrying for common interests and love became de rigeur, and the family as a private, nuclear affair began to emerge. It is also interesting to note that while informal marriages were common among poorer classes during the Colonial period, these marriages were still designed to promote the family as a public good, one that provided on a micro level all the things a social institution would provide, for the family was the social institution. While couples of a variety of educational levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, and racial make-up may cohabitate, class seems to have the most to do with the success rate of modern-day marriages and declining divorce rates. Unlike now, the family during the Colonial and Industrial eras provided social outlet and community or connection (in fact, there was really zero privacy during Colonial times, within households and within the broader community).
The pre-modern family also provided the pathway to teach the rules, educate children, was the institution through which person manufacturing was conducted (reproduction, and marriage was for reproduction in order to have enough manual laborers for tasks the institution needed filled (and to counteract the high mortality rate of infants and children) until the Industrial age, when birthrates declined, as well as for protection and strength, and the economic, religious, and political systems. Even after fathers left to work for wages, the continuation of the expectation of moral development and family formation was in large part expected within the confines of the family, and during and after the Industrial Revolution, this task fell to women (Tuonimen, Lecture 1-2; Cherlin).
Since that time, after the dearth of childbearing from 1930 – 1945 left a workforce undersupplied and white men were able to go to work for wages that sustained a whole family of six while women stayed home—a division of labor that put house and children in the domain of women and wages and external worlds in the realm of the masculine (returning to the postIndustrial calling of “true womanhood” wherein women maintained piety, purity, and the souls and education of the children, but being socially isolated and increasingly disgruntled)—the backlash that began in the 1960s and 1970s began the very fast pace of the changing face of family systems and identities (Cherlin).
Race & Socio-Economics of the Post-Modern Family
Angier breaks down and spotlights several forms of the post-modern family in “The Changing American Family” with specific attention to race/ethnicity and special attention on socio-economic class. She explores the marriage merry-go-round that many couples find themselves on—that easy fix for expressive individualism when one’s partner just isn’t making them feel good about being with them anymore, so they leave (teaching children that a good way to solve problems is to simply walk away, and leaving them prone at an incredibly high rate of having zero relational skills in their own adulthood, leading to either fewer marriage rates or higher divorce rates) (Cherlin, 397). She covers the birthrates of women and finds that it isn’t as high in unwed teens, but in single women in their 20s and 30s, which is what both Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas find in their article, “Unmarried With Children,” and also what Stefanie Mollborn finds in “Mixed Messages About Teen Sex.” She also demonstrates a deep understanding of the levels of reproduction amongst single women, depending on age, race, and education, and underscores the importance of marriage, not as an optimistic stepping stone when couples are just starting out, but as a capstone of achievement, once education, finances, and home level goals are accomplished. The Harlem couple she features, an interracial man and woman who are working hard to this end, demonstrate probably the widest variety of social theories presented by Andrew Cherlin and Stephanie Coontz.
Ana Perez and Julian Hill are a driven Puerto Rican woman and black male, a cohabiting couple. Ana had two children with a man she threatened with a knife when his affairs became intolerable. She was only 19 when she had their first son, but like many of the young unmarried women featured in “Unmarried With Children,” especially women of color, Ana says her sons saved her—they gave her an impetus to want to do well—and shifted her focus. Julian is raising her two sons as a loving father figure, is home every night, is warm and encouraging, and he is the father of Ana’s third child, a girl. The boys’ father visits as a “friend figure.” Julian and Ana are constantly brainstorming about how to make more money, how to motivate their children, and what their wedding will look like. Ana wants to simply go to City Hall when they have “made it,” but to Julian, marriage represents the capstone to the project the two of them are creating—their post-modern family and financial freedom—and he wants to celebrate their family and their accomplishments, both fiscal and relationally, with a wedding with all the trimmings.
Angiers also explores the world of Asian immigrants—the most like that traditional Rockwell painting and romantic nostalgia of the American dream and family than any other face of contemporary family life—and demonstrates the low rate of divorce, the high rate of commitment, and the factors that may affect the success of immigrant couplings and reproduction, including similarities in background, family involvement and support, and a cultural mindset of the collective rather than the individual—pointing again to Cherlin’s assessment of individualism interfering with the successful unions within marriage and couplings. (Cherlin, 398) She also follows a married homosexual male couple in Los Angeles and their six adopted children of mixed-race ethnicity, a family that Angiers refers to as “a blend of midcentury traditional and postmodern cool” (Angiers, 8).
Institutions that Affect the Family: Prison
One of the most interesting aspects of Angiers’ research is looking at the sheer volume of families torn apart by incarceration for largely non-violent crimes. It is both critical and historically relevant to have fathers involved in their children’s daily lives, moral development, and behavioral guidance (Tuominen). She intimates that a society that is “hard on drugs” but places prisoners 1,000 miles away from children is both a system that is racist and anti-family, as most of those incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses are losing their children’s entire childhoods and are mostly black men (Angiers). Ultimately, what Angiers explores is very much relevant to the sociological study of family, and cites Stephanie Coontz, an Evergreen College professor, in noting that ““There are not just more types of families and living arrangements than there used to be. Most people will move through several different types over the course of their lives” (Angiers, 4).
Angiers handles this deftly and fluidly, never heavy-handedly, as she shows that while the typical family reminiscent of those Evening Post covers illustrated by Rockwell favored the white, heterosexual, decidedly middle class, coupled with children America, this post-modern definition of family limits the sociological idea of family as an evolving structure, “one that may be formed in multiple ways,” according to Professor Tuominen. Defining family by nostalgia-ridden ideas and ideals excludes the kinds of rich variety that have become normed over the past 40 years, and plays a role in the debate over the decline of the family. “We may see ‘family decline’ if the family forms we are observing diverge from those we are used to seeing…or counting,” according to Tuominen.
There is no Spoon: Rockwell's Non-Existence in American Family Life
In short, family in the United States can look like almost anything conceived. Cherlin states that “this churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships is creating complex families on a scale we’ve not seen before; it’s a mistake to think this is the endpoint of enormous change. We are still very much in the midst of it” (Angiers, 3). It would be of particular interest to me to have more in-depth experiments that would explore the relative ease of obtaining divorce, the revelation of expressive individualism as a two-edged sword that has highly negative effects on children, and whether families supported by a stronger social structure would shift the rate of divorce among lower educated and lower-income families. It would also be interesting to see whether prison and inmate reforms might make a difference in keeping families with incarcerated parents more strongly together, for even the men in Angiers’ article longed to maintain emotional and parental guidance bonds with their offspring. It could be argued, especially as Cherlin looks at the rate of detrimental effect on children that divorce brings, that a system that not only supports the new “norm” of family form, should also provide social supports that bolster family in whatever form they take, because the point of family, even in this postmodern age of the family as a private endeavor, is still a public good—it’s just deeply underground due to the rise of the individual.
Angier, N. (2013, November 25). The Changing American Family. Retrieved February 29, 2016,
from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/health/families.html. The New York Times: Science Times.
Cherlin, Andrew J. (2013). Public and Private Families. McGraw-Hill: New York. Print.
Edin, Kathryn and Maria Kefalas. “Unmarried With Children.” Contexts, Vol. 4, Issue 2. 2005: p. 16-22.
Horan, D. (Director). (1994). Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait [Motion picture on Produced by Sammy Jackson, in Biography (New York, NY: A&E Television Networks, 1994), 46 mins]. US: Lou Reda Productions, Inc.
Mollborn, Stefanie. “Mixed Messages About Teen Sex.” Contexts. Winter 2015: 14:1, 44-49.
Norman Rockwell Museum - The Home for American Illustration. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.nrm.org/
Norman Rockwell. (1894-1978). Retrieved March 19, 2016, from www.biography.com/people/norman-rockwell37249
Rockwell, Norman. Triple Self-Portrait Painting Rockwell, Norman (B.1894, D.1978) 1960. 2016. Print.
Tuominen, A. (2016, March 14). Lecture 1-1: What Is Family? presented in Seattle, Washington. Tuominen, A. (2016, March 14). Lecture 1-2: Family as a Social Institution presented in WA, Seattle. Tuominen, A. (2016, March 14). Lecture 4-1: Paths to Family Formation presented in WA, Seattle.