If you read the newspaper headlines or listen to the TV talk shows, you get the impression that the American family is about washed up. Women's Liberation, divorce, people living together out of wedlock, couples not wanting children, everyone's desire to do his own thing - all these rising tends are doing the family in. Or so you would gather from the daily news.
But is not true - according to the latest census reports on the family. The reports acknowledge these tends; they even suggest that some of the trends may grow. But the most important conclusion of the most recent statistics is that the family is still a very strong institution in this country, the embodiment still of everybody's need for stability, continuity and affection.
Eighty-four per cent of all American families are still husband-wife families - that is, unbroken by separation or divorce; and seven out of eight of these families are one-marriage families. Only a fraction of 1 per cent of American families consists of couples living together out of wedlock.
Although divorce is still on the rise, the rise appears to be slowing; and even if divorce eventually dissolves a third of all marriages, which is what the Census Bureau expects, two-thirds of divorced women and five-sixths of divorced men will eventually remarry. A majority of these remarriages stick.
In other respects, too, the statistics seem to show that there has not been so much change in the American family as there has been talk about change. The median age at first marriage is still about 21 years, which was about what it was 80 years ago. The average married woman expects to have two children, while her mother expected to have three. And although 18 million American children have mothers who go to work outside the home every day, more than half of the children are cared for in their homes by the father and half of the remainder are cared for in their homes by some member of the family.
This not to say that America's basic unit is not changing. For example, children are leaving home earlier than they did a generation ago. The average age of departure is now 19.
Parents are having their last child at an earlier age (30) than ever before and, partly as a result, the "empty nest" period in family life is lengthening rapidly. Eighty years ago an American couple could expect a period of only about two years to elapse between the time when their last child got married and the time when one of the parents died, thus wiping out the original family.
Today the period in which a couple may expect to go on living together after the last child has left the house is about 16 years, which means that all of us ought to be thinking about what marriage will be like when there are no children to "hold it together," as our grandparetns used to say.
In short, according to the Bureau of the Census, marriage and the raising of a family is still the dominant way of life in this country as it was 80 years ago. The only really major change is in the number of children per family - it was nearly four in 1900 and is only 2.5 today. That, and the fact that lifetime commitment to one marital partner is lessening, with implications for children that are as yet unknown.