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The Way We Really Are:
Once again, as in her groundbreaking study on the American family, The Way We Never Were, Coontz cuts through mind-numbing nostalgia and rigid righteousness that has made the debates about the American family's decline even more volatile. Coontz asks if we can learn from history. Never one to disavow the complexity of today's socioeconomic issues and their impact on families, she tackles a gamut; a few of them are: working mothers, the future of marriage, the well being of children in gay and lesbian families, the strengths and weaknesses of single-parent households, and the significant lag between our new social realities and the values, behavior, and institutions struggling to adjust. Coontz calls not for oversimplified analyses or tweaked consensus, but the sensitive assessments of problems unique to the day.
Stressing the importance of using history and sociology as tools to generate solutions to today's problems, she reframes our perception of certain crises. In a discussion, for example, of the classic clash between teens and adults, she isolates the adolescent's lack of role and purpose in society as the major culprit. Finding themselves in a myriad of double binds, "what we often call the youth culture is actually adult marketers seeking to commercially exploit youthful energy and rebellion." What's the point of framing problems in the larger historical context? A larger view diffuses tensions and can place blame in its appropriate baskets. Ultimately, it leads to a kinder way of judging one's circumstances. And it is less lonely.
The Way We Really Are grew out of the discussions, speaking engagements, talk-show gigs and interviews that followed the publication of The Way We Never Were. What do people miss about the '50s, our favorite decade? "Nostalgia for the 1950s is real and deserves to be taken seriously," Coontz writes, "but it usually shouldn't be taken literally." Families seemed more cohesive then; indeed, family life seemed easier to shape and hold. Coontz reviews the evolution toward this unprecedented ear of privilege that was the '50s from post-World War II through the end of the "fifties experiment."
Perhaps not as innovative as The Way We Never Were, this volume is nonetheless thoughtful, somber, and realistic. It's impossible not to agree that grieving for a misremembered past dulls our wits and incapacitates our imaginations. Coontz asks us to quit kvetching and face the music. "With 50 percent of American children living in something other than a married-couple family with both biological parents present, and with the tremendous variety of male and female responsibilities in today's different families, the time for abstract pronouncements about good or bad family structures and correct or incorrect parental roles is past." A viable future for the American family can be generated based on accepting the truth of where we are today. --Hollis Giammatteo [via]