“Like most visions of a “golden age,” the “traditional family” my students describe evaporates on closer examination. It is an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never co-existed in the same time and place. The notion that traditional families fostered intense intimacy between husbands and wives while creating mothers who were totally available to their children, for example, is an idea that combines some characteristics of the white, middle-class family in the mid-nineteenth century and some of a rival family ideal first articulated in the 1920s. The first family revolved emotionally around the mother-child axis, leaving the husband-wife relationship stilted and formal. The second focused on an eroticized couple relationship, demanding that mothers curb emotional “overinvestment” in their children. The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.
Similarly, an extended family in which all members work together under the top-down authority of the household elder operates very differently from a nuclear family in which husband and wife are envisioned as friends who patiently devise ways to let the children learn by trial and error. Children who worked in family enterprises seldom had time for extracurricular activities that Wally and the Beaver recounted to their parents over the dinner table; often, they did not even go to school full-time. Mothers who did home production generally relegated child care to older children or servants; they did not suspend work to savor a baby’s first steps or discuss with their husband how to facilitate a grade-schooler’s “self-esteem.” Such families emphasized formality, obedience to authority, and “the way it’s always been” in their childrearing.
Nuclear families, by contrast, have tended to pride themselves on the “modernity” of parent-child relations, diluting the authoring of grandparents, denigrating “old-fashioned” ideas about childraising, and resisting the “interference” of relatives. It is difficult to imagine the Cleavers or the college-educated title figure of “Father Knows Best” letting grandparents, maiden aunts, or in-laws have a major voice in childrearing decisions. Indeed, the kind of family exemplified by the Cleavers … represented a conscious rejection of the Waltons’ model.”
Excerpt from Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books. [Pp. 9-10. From Chapter 1, The Way We Wish We Were: Defining the Family Crisis, pp. 8-22. Emphasis, links, and pictures added. Italics in original.]