“The Way We Never Were: American Families and The Nostalgia Trap,” by Stephanie Coontz changed not only how I think about my own marriage and experience of parenting but also how I think about marriage and parenting in general. No one wants to be the weirdo who gifts a historical analysis of societal institutions at bridal or baby showers, but I’m pretty sure that’s my destiny now.
All this to say, Coontz is a historian, not a self-help guru. Her book isn’t a light read nor full of save-your-marriage “hacks.” Instead, “The Way We Never Were” is deeply researched and packed with evidence-based zingers. It’s unlikely that Coontz’s insights will be quoted in scripty type on chalkboards or on Instagram, but they’ll certainly get your attention: “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.” Okay!
At several points I wondered: If I had read this book before I got married, would I have approached marriage and raising a family differently or at least framed my expectations in a more forgiving and empathetic way? I, at the very least, would have placed my struggles, worries and assumptions in a much larger context. That’s what history helps us do.
Coontz methodically takes apart cherished myths — the saintly mother, a man’s home as his castle, the supermom — that I didn’t realize I had internalized. My marriage was never strictly “traditional.” For example, I always earned more money than my husband, and we shared household labor and parenting duties. But I think if I had understood the truth behind these tropes, I would have felt less bad about all the ways I had never been a “typical” wife or the “right kind” of mother.
More than anything, this book made me see how fundamentally flawed my expectations for my marriage had always been. It’s sad to me, actually, to think about how I could have relieved some of the pressure if I had reframed my marriage as just one relationship in my life instead of the only or primary adult relationship. I know now that expecting any one relationship to fulfill every emotional, sexual, social and spiritual need is — to use a technical term — nuts.
I’m not saying that my marriage wouldn’t have ended regardless, but as I reflected on Coontz’s work, I thought about how I might have been happier had I discovered it sooner. I think I would have appreciated the aspects of our relationship that worked well instead of focusing on where I found it lacking.
Coontz convincingly demonstrates that there were no good ol’ days: “In nineteenth-century America, the ‘age of consent’ for girls in many states was as low as nine or ten, which rather makes a mockery of the term.” Colonial families were living in a time of high mortality rates where marriages lasted about 12 years and one-third to one-half of all children lost a parent before they turned 21. Middle-class Victorian families depended on the labor of the poor and powerless to keep their lives running smoothly. When politicians hark back to an era of better (male-led) families and marriages it sure is tough to know what they might be referring to.
It’s also important to highlight that the family structures that have historically been the most communal or equal — the powerful community leadership of women in some Native American tribes or the centrality of Black women in their extended-kinship networks to name just two examples — have also been the ones actively broken or denigrated by those in power.
What I continue to turn over in my mind is the degree to which women are blamed for almost every ill that befalls marriage and children. In reality, as Coontz shows, the choices that women have made are typically not the cause of but in reaction to real economic, political and social change. Women’s increasing entrance into the workplace in the 1950s — before the rise of feminism — is just one example. “Government policy encouraged the expansion of married women’s employment, not because the government was dominated by liberals or feminists, but out of a desire to foster industrial expansion — as well as a cold war fear that the Russians would win educational and technological superiority if Americans did not use their ‘womanpower’ more effectively.”
When it comes to parenting, I know I am not the only woman who has felt enraged or devastated by “research-based” headlines about my choices, including work, day care and divorce. But Coontz shows how deeply flawed such research can be. She points out that most studies of the effects of maternal employment on children were suspect since they often “exclude the effects of paternal employment on children.” Even back in 1992 she wrote, “As a historian, I suspect that the truly dysfunctional thing about American parenting is that it is made out to be such a frighteningly pivotal, private, and exclusive job.” (Although a revised and updated edition was published in 2016, the events of the past two years alone beg for another one.)
Coontz goes on to examine how parenting is both harder and easier than experts admit and that, ultimately, so much of how kids turn out isn’t within our control. In fact, “if there is any pattern to be found over the course of history, it is that children do best in societies where child rearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents.” I imagined reading this when my kids were little. Would knowing this have made me more open to creating care networks with friends instead of avoiding “owing” anyone who offered the slightest bit of help? Would I still have believed that to be “good” parents my husband and I had to do absolutely everything on our own? At the very least I would have applied a more critical lens to negative headlines about working mothers and day care, instead of allowing them to cast gloomy shadows in my brain and across my heart.
But perhaps what I needed to hear most is that there never was, and likely never will be, one foolproof blueprint for marriage or parenting. And instead of examining whether my marriage met impossible standards, I should have examined where those standards came from in the first place. It turns out history does have its place, and it’s in the home.
Kimberly Harrington is the author of “But You Seemed So Happy,” a finalist for the Vermont Book Award, and “Amateur Hour.” She’s also a columnist and regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
American Families and the Nostalgia Trap
Basic. 576 pp. Paperback, $22.99
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