The Way We Never Were

Mass Media

The Way We Never Were

American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

If one believes what one sees on television re-runs of classic shows from the 1950s, then the traditional American family has two kids, a stay at home mom, who vacuums in pearls, and a Dad who works hard but always has time for his children. The problem with the image presented in those old television shows is that the traditional family depicted is a myth. Unfortunately, too many people frustrated with today\'s societal problems believe the myth of the traditional family and propose that a return to “the way things used to be” will solve all of society\'s ills. In her book The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz presents a historical look at the family and how it has changed over time. She argues that the family of the 1950s was an aberration and there has never been a “traditional” family as people define it today.

Coontz has spent much of her career studying the ‘50s. Were the ‘50s really that special? Yes, though not necessarily for the reasons we may think, believes Coontz. After two decades of economic depression, wages grew more in any single year of the ‘50s than in the entire decade of the 1980s. Income inequality between the rich and poor actually shrank. The ‘50s was the last decade that someone with only a high school diploma “could reasonably expect to earn a comfortable living,” Coontz said. The 1950s also saw the nuclear family emerge as the preferred model.

While the post-WWII generations came to believe that a dad, a stay-at-home mom and a couple of children were the norm, this stripped-down version was largely a creation of the ‘50s, an experiment permitted by rising affluence that allowed many families the luxury of having one spouse, the mother, stay home full-time. “Until the 1950s, exclusive maternal child care was very, very rare,” Coontz said. And for the first time, “you were told the nuclear family was absolutely everything, and that extended families were a threat to that marital and family solidarity.” This experiment was memorialized on that new electronic wonder, television, in shows that still define the era for many Americans. Coontz has pored over these sacred texts of the 1950s: the scripts of TV classics such as “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” While Americans today view them as true representations of society, that\'s not why the original viewers tuned in. They watched, she says, to learn. “People didn\'t watch those shows to see their own lives reflected back at them,” Coontz writes in her new book. “They watched them to see how families were supposed to live, and also to get a little reassurance that they were headed in the right direction.”

Coontz organizes her chapters based on popular myths about the family. Within each chapter, she challenges the myth and proves it false by numerous examples from past family structures and gender roles. She uses the history of the family to contradict the modern idealization of families in the past. She states, "the actual complexity of our history . . . gets buried under the weight of an idealized image." (p. 1) She methodically proves the images false. She asserts that "families have always been in crisis; they have never lived up to the nostalgic notions about ‘the way things used to be\'." (p. 2)
Through her look at the various myths about the family, she addresses many of the complaints and problems facing today\'s society. She looks at many issues being debated today, such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child abuse, poverty, working women, childcare, government intrusion into family life and the plight of minorities. Coontz shows that these problems have always existed and have been caused by varying factors and handled differently with each generation. She points out through historical example that these problems are not new, and the yearning for the "old days" is a misleading desire because some of the times longed for in reality were just as bad, if not worse, than today.

She uses the 1950s family as an example of how the myth was different than the reality. She argues that