An authoritative report on the American way of partnering and raising children.
Cherlin (Public Policy and Sociology/Johns Hopkins Univ.; Public and Private Families, 2005) offers an accessible analysis of the “great turbulence” in U.S. family life and the ingrained, often contradictory impulses that fuel it. Unlike people in other Western nations, he writes, Americans strongly value both marriage and personal fulfillment. We crave the security of marriages—and the right of unhappy individuals to end them. As a result, we “partner, unpartner, and repartner” frequently, creating stressful transitions that have long-lasting negative affects on children. Tracing the history of family life from colonial times, the author examines the pervasive pro-marriage influence of religion; the pre–20th century belief that marrying for romantic love was a risky proposition; the breadwinner-homemaker family dynamic of the 1950s; and how events of the ’60s—the invention of the birth-control pill, married women’s entry into the workforce, changes in family and divorce law—gave rise to the quest for personal fulfillment. By the early ’90s, notes Cherlin, more than half of new marriages in the United States began as co-habiting relationships. The author’s comparative analysis demonstrates that Americans partner earlier, turn partnerships into marriages more quickly and break up more often than Europeans. Cohabitation is far more common in France and Scandinavia than in the United States, and the U.S. government is the only one to provide funds for promoting marriage. Cherlin considers at length—and dismisses—the widespread notion that American “restlessness” causes frequent partner changes. He urges U.S. policymakers to find ways to slow hasty remarriages—through cash assistance to low-income families, for example—to assure stable ongoing care for the nation’s children.
A rewarding sociological study.