What Is A Family
Before the age of one, my parents separated. My father remarried to a woman with a son a few years older than me and would later have another child with her, while my mother dated. I now had two families. Through marriage, I had gained a step-mother and a step brother, as well as a younger brother partially by blood and sharing the same biological father. My other family however primarily consisted of my mother and I. There were step-father figures and potential step-siblings along the way, but in the end, it was just the two of us. Throughout history and all over the world exists the same situation in addition to many others. However, no matter what the structure or the circumstance, everyone has someone to call family. To come up with a specific definition of a contemporary American family would be merely impossible. “For most people, family means home…” (Garbarino 62). Despite the circumstances, such as marriage, blood relations, or adoption, everyone has one or more persons that they share a home with and a love for. These people share a special connection like no other, and although obstacles arise they endure it all, stick together, and provide for each other, because that is what families do. Over the past six centuries, the image of and the roles in the traditional American family have been altered drastically due to changes in society throughout history, while still maintaining what it means to be a family.
When defining a family, “[i]t is important, first, to stress that there is no such thing as the family, as a single, historically unchanging kind of social unit. There always has been a diversity of familial forms” (Archard 115). Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the common American family included quite a number of people due to slavery and other circumstances. Families often consisted not only of other relatives, but also indentured servants and their families. This meant a lot of people living together connected in several different ways creating what they considered to be their family. In the traditional family of this time, the father was the sole provider for the family while the wife took charge of the household chores such as cooking and cleaning along with caring for her children and husband. Families also consisted of many children who primarily worked in the fields along side the servants on the farms owned and managed by their fathers. Education was of little importance and took a backseat to income during this time. Planned marriages also affected families because daughters were often married off to sons of another family so that the two could benefit each other. However, religion was held in high regard and although they were young, couples for the most part did not produce children prior to marriage. Once married though, these young couples would then start their own family living with the groom’s family until they were old enough to manage their own household.
Needless to say, the abolition of slavery during the 19th century had quite an impact on the family structure. With the loss of indentured servants in the household, the average size of American families decreased along with a change in the definition of a family. Another dramatic change due to industrialization in the 18th century meant that the father’s, who were seen as the primary provider for the family, would move their work away from the farm at home and to factories away from their wives and children. Until this time, they had worked along side them. Through the 1700’s and the 1800’s many such alterations in the United States were made in regards to equality including women’s rights, which greatly affected the roles within and structure of the traditional family during this time as well. In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held which later led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act by congress in 1963. A book published during this time by women activist Betty Friedan, expressed the “dissatisfaction felt by middle-class American housewives with the narrow role imposed on them by society” (Imbornoni par.18). Fed up with the role of housewife that was considered insignificant in society, women began to fight for their rights and were eventually rewarded with equality to men. The Equal Pay Act, stated that no women should ever be paid less than any man for the same job. Since women began working, “the simple division of labor, so clear in the eyes of children that father went out, and mother stayed in, disappeared” (The Contemporary American Family 132).
More drastic changes in society, mainly economically, began to affect the structure and role children played within the American family during the 19th century but were carried into the 20th century. Author Tamara Hareven categorizes the American family as an “active agent” in the changes that occur over time in their environment socially and economically. “In certain regions, women and children were first cast into the roles of ‘industrial’ laborers…the family facilitated the advance of industrialization by releasing the labor force needed for the newly developing factories and by organizing migration to industrial centers” (Hareven 113). Until this time, children stayed around the house with mother and father tending to farm and household chores, but as more factories sprung up throughout he United States children were preferred because they were less difficult to deal with in a business manner and more easily manipulated.
“In the early decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of child laborers in the U.S. peaked” (“Child Labor” par. 2). Finally in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that for the first time set a minimum age for children laborers and a maximum number of hours. After this children were able to be educated and their roles within their families differed incredibly from where they had begun.
Also by this time the number of members in the typical American family had significantly decreased due to the fact that Grandparents were often no longer a part of the household as well as other relatives, and couples were having fewer children or none at all. In today’s society this has decreased even more. Parents no longer hold marriage in high regards as they did many years ago, meaning families are becoming broken up and rejoining with other broken families and couples are also having less children. In addition to these changes, adoption has increasingly gained popularity meaning that a family is no longer defined as being related by blood. Another major change in the United States that has affected family structures is same sex marriages.
Today there exist many diverse images of what a family is. As stated before, the possibilities of combinations considered families are endless and only growing.
Many centuries ago, the traditional American family consisted of a married couple and their children in which, the father went to work and provided for the family while the wife was merely the housekeeper
and both shared responsibility for the children. Now, “[h]owever, there has been a tendency in recent years for wives to share enactment of the provider and husbands the housekeeper and child care roles” (Nye 13). The contemporary American family can range anywhere from a household consisting of many generations, to a single parent and their child, to a grandparent
raising their grandchild, sometimes aunts and uncles are involved as well. For example, a friend lives in a house with her brother, sister, and parents and their parents in the same house they raised their family in, while my family includes only my mother and I. In any case, they are both families and that is the most important thing. There is a shared bond and an unconditional love and in the end a family is whatever it chooses to be.
Archard, David. Children: Rights and Childhood. New York: Routledge Inc., 1993.
“Child Labor Public Education Project”. Ed. Robin Clark-Bennett. University of Iowa Labor Center. 9 Dec. 2007
The Contemporary American Family. Chicago: New York Times Co. 1972
Garbarino, James. Children & Families in the Social Environment. New York: Aldine Publishing Co. 1982.
Hareven, Tamara K. “The History of the Family and the Complexity of Social Change.” The American Historical Review. Vol. 96, No.1 (1991): 95-124. 8 Dec. 2007
Imbornoni, Ann-Marie. “Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement.” Information Please. 2007. 6 Dec. 2007.
McCormick, Kathleen. Reading our Histories, Understanding our Cultures. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2003.
Nye, Ivan F. “Structure and Analysis of the Family.” Vol. 24. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1976.