Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category
Book Review: Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone by Ralph Richards Banks
BY: KATHLEEN S. PETERS
Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone provides a historical and sociological analysis of the declining marriage rates in the African American community. The first book by Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks, Is Marriage focuses specifically on middle-class African American women and discusses why, of all Americans, this group is the least likely to marry and the most likely to divorce. Through sociological studies and numerous interviews with professional African American women, Banks narrows down what he sees as the main problems in African American relationships and offers some suggestions for future action to remedy these trends. While he raises some interesting points and seemed to do his homework as far as statistics, Banks sorely lacks a deeper analysis of the issues he discusses, especially with regards to gender.
Banks organizes his book fairly thematically, covering a wide range of topics and their effects on African American marriages and relationships. One such topic is the educational gap within the African American community. Banks discusses how African American women finish high school and college at higher rates than African American men and how this leads to not only different values being placed on education, but also disparities in income between the genders. While in other racial groups men’s income still exceeds that of women, Banks states that on average this is the opposite for African Americans (Banks 40). Banks also points out the horrifically high incarceration rates and mortality rates of Black men, and how this phenomenon not only breaks up African American marriages but decreases the number of available Black men. Another one of Banks’ stronger chapters discusses fears and concerns some Black women have of interracial relationships, particularly with white men. He brings up not only the cultural and family expectations that Black women will date only Black men, but also fears that white men would be dating Black women for the wrong reasons (152).
While Banks’ makes some valid arguments, there are also some major issues with his discussion of African American marriage. First of all, Banks looks at the issue of African American relationships and marriage solely through a heterosexual lens and completely ignores the existence or possibility of LGBT African Americans. Apart from one fleeting (and somewhat offensive) comment one single interviewee made of how “even they [gay couples] can get married,” there is no discussion of LGBT African Americans, the issues they face in the dating scene, or what they want in their romantic lives (16). Another assumption is that Banks does not discuss or question the necessity of marriage in the first place. He states that in Europe it is much more common for “couples to maintain long-term stable relationships without being married.” Citing an unidentified study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Banks states that 91% of cohabiting couples in the United States either separate or marry within a few years (24-25). That statistic and others used throughout the book could be given more context than Banks provides. Overall, Banks assumes that marriage is the goal of all the individuals that he interviews, and that the women who state otherwise are few and far between (14). Banks also frequently uses the desire of African Americans wanting to get married as evidence against claims that declining Black marriage rates are due to “deviant values” within the community (70). While Banks is correct in countering these Moynihan-esque* arguments, he does so by othering those who do not want to get married.
My largest problem with this book, however, is the lack of a gender analysis. The majority of Banks’ information comes from interviews with African American middle class women. Banks uses several quotes from his interviewees, which often perpetuate gender stereotypes of a woman feeling incomplete without a husband/nuclear family. This may have been the true feelings of the women Banks interviewed, thus I cannot judge their experiences or the reasons for their comments. However Banks could have provided greater context for why these stereotypes still exist and the way U.S. society fosters these beliefs. The need for deeper analysis of these interviews is most apparent when issues of gender and class overlap. Banks describes many middle class women saying that when they were pregnant, they often made a point to always wear their wedding ring out in public so as not to appear like the “[poor], unwed black mother, immoral, promiscuous, irresponsible.” They wanted to be “the antithesis of that portrayal of black women” (72-73). While it may be true that there are active efforts to counter stereotypes put forth by a white-dominated, patriarchal U.S. society, for Banks to leave these quotes unexamined is irresponsible and helps to validate these stereotypes.
Another example of unexamined gender stereotypes is in his sixth chapter, “Power Wives.” Banks states that because there is an education and income gap between Black men and women, Black couples often have switched traditional gender roles with the wives being the breadwinners. Banks states that this gender imbalance puts “understandable pressure” on the husband, makes him “feel less of a man,” and “reminds [him] in a humiliating fashion of his own failure to fulfill the role of the husband” (95). Banks often writes, almost nostalgically, of how previous generations did not have to deal with such challenges to gender roles, and ultimately implies that these traditional roles made marriages simpler and easier. Banks states that his book is going to counter the idea that Black women are too picky and demanding in relationships, however this is just one example of how he in fact perpetuates that image.
Banks’ ultimate conclusion to the declining rates of African American marriage is for Black women to be as open to marrying “out” of their race as they are to marrying “down” from their class. He states that if Black women opened themselves up to dating men of other races that they would be more marriage possibilities and that this could solve some key issues within the Black community. “Recall that relationships are negotiations and that, as in any negotiation, which party prevails depends on the power that that person can bring to bear…the better one’s options outside of the relationship, the more power one has within it” (180). Thus while as of now Black men have more power in relationships because of the disproportionate gender ratio, if Black women opened themselves up to more dating options then Black women would get married more frequently, Black men’s leverage would decrease, and Black women would gain more bargaining power in their relationships.
While this solution may be Banks’ attempt to make the best out of the current situation, this conclusion is flawed because it not only places the blame on Black women, but it ignores many of the societal factors Banks refers to throughout his book. Not least of these factors is the huge (and I mean huge) percentages of Black men in prison and the way the U.S. education system handles Black male youth. Instead of Banks’ focusing on what Black women can do to better the rates of Black marriage, why not address the prison industrial complex and the reasons there are these disproportionate incarceration rates in the first place? Why not discuss how our education system could be improved and truly address the achievement gap? That would be much harder than simply telling Black women to date “out,” but it might get more to the heart of the real issue.
*For more info on The Moynihan Report read our review of Freedom Is Not Enough.
Book Review: Unhitched by Judith Stacey
BY: STEPHANIE S.
For those of whom “ethnography” is a scary word (as a former student of anthropology myself, it at once is and isn’t), consider Judith Stacey’s new Unhitched instead, a series of poignant, insightful, funny and sometimes instructive stories.
I have longed for a reference book that can help me confidently answer the ubiquitous claim that monogamous marriage between one man and one woman is, always has been, and always will be the bedrock of society. Unhitched is that book.
Stacey guides us through family structures largely unfamiliar to mainstream America (gay parenting arrangements in LA, or “El Gay” as she dubs it), as well as through structures in faraway lands about which Westerners purport to know much. She then transports us to remote territory in southwest China, where we find a poignant refutation of the “bedrock of society” claim among Mosuo people who, as Stacey puts it:
Directly contradict the three basic contemporary convictions about marriage, parenting and family life that I identified in the introduction to this book: (1) marriage is a universal institution; (2) the ideal family structure for raising children is an “intact” family consisting of a married heterosexual couple and their biological children; (3) children generally, and boys especially, need and yearn to know their biological fathers.
Before venturing to China, she looks to South Africa for an example that may have more immediate resonance with a Western audience. She uses the simultaneously acceptable practice of polygamy and the constitutionally legal, but socially scorned gay partnerships in South Africa to reject the “slippery slope” argument often espoused by the Global Religious Right. This is the idea that conferring legal recognition on gay partnerships will lead to a host of (other) social ills . . . polygamy, bestiality, the end of the world via violent, global earthquakes on a certain date, what have you.
However, she fails to elucidate why the slippery slope argument is a problem. Is it a problem? Is she perhaps nudging us to come to our own conclusions here? She can’t do ALL the work for us, after all. I found myself wondering: Just what is wrong with the legal acceptance of one non-normative practice leading to acceptance of another practice? In not fully teasing this out, she tries to distance herself and us from the slippery slope argument.
Something that is slippery, however, is the language used throughout Unhitched. From using “feminine” in quotes to describe a preference for sexual exclusivity (using it in quotes doesn’t get you off the hook for unpacking loaded terms), to drawing an unusual distinction between “predestined” and “situational” gay male parents in LA, to pinning polygamy as a “sexual behavior” (I am not making the argument that polygamy is anything more or less than a behavior, instead, I am illuminating that Stacey uses this term without recognizing the implications and parallels between her terminology and how homophobic leaders have denigrated queer sexuality by rendering it as nothing more than a “behavior),” a careful read of Stacey’s work will leave the reader questioning just whose definition of terms are being employed and the extent to which we can successfully reclaim, rebrand and reinvent words to our own, progressive ends.
One of the charming aspects of this ethnography is that at times it reads like a relationship guidebook. For example, as she unearths the ways in which the people she investigates negotiate complex familial decisions, she explains “the two . . . spent the next two years carefully discussing their familial visions, values, expectations, anxieties, and limits” (Stacey 75). That sounds like a good starting point for any decision made in the context of a relationship!
Unhitched is punctuated by statistics (albeit sometimes flimsy ones, such as a survey of just 94 gay men in LA on their views on parenting that is used to support the claim that “most gay men seem to be able to forego parenthood without serious regrets” [Stacey 80]). Despite this limitation, she has a well grounded historical perspective and much insight to offer from her extensive field work.
Unhitched reflects a deep understanding of and appreciation for the complexities of parenting, partnering, and living on the margins of society. I hope that you pick up a copy of Unhitched and feel as challenged, inspired and satisfied as I did!
Stephanie S. is a volunteer with AtMP and works in the reproductive rights movement in the mid-Atlantic.
Book Review: Touching the Trees by Jennifer McBride
BY: KATHLEEN S. PETERS
In Jennifer McBride’s first novel, Touching the Trees, she recounts numerous moments in her life that led to reflection, fear, pain, love, transition, or peace. Written as a series of loosely connected memories and short stories, McBride takes the reader through the early years with her eventual husband, as well as the long and emotional divorce that ended her marriage. She also writes about her grandmothers and her admiration for them as strong, independent women who both left their marriages for different reasons. She talks about her children and how she hopes will not need to make the same mistakes she did to finally become happy and satisfied with their lives. Touching the Trees moves slowly and will undoubtedly strike each reader differently based on their individual experiences, but there are some gems of advice and hope that keeps pulling the reader back in.
This book is written for those who are in struggle, on the verge of a transition, or perhaps just experienced a major life change. In her introduction, McBride states that she hopes “this book will boost your strength to start or continue on your journey. Better yet, maybe it will inspire you to look and listen for lessons in your particular circumstances.” However if you are not in a position of drastic change or shifting self-reflection, this book may come across as slightly self-absorbed or leave you wondering why you should care about these stories. I had these thoughts often throughout the book, especially when the chapters did not relate to one another or it was a seemingly random story that did not have a broader message attached to it.
Yet then there are chapters such as “Abortion and the Egg Farmer’s Daughter,” which describes the abortion McBride and her now ex-husband had when they were younger and not ready for children. She puts a new spin on the term “pro-life” and tells how the abortion made her appreciate life more and pushed her to live it to the fullest to make meaning out of the abortion. “Walls and Bridges” is another great chapter that discusses the different ways people relate to one another and the opportunities for connection each type of relationship allows. McBride asks: are you putting up walls between you and others to forgo uncomfortable conversations, or are you building bridges to allow for vulnerability and trust? “Superfamily” is also a beautiful chapter, and perhaps the one that relates most to Alternatives to Marriage. This chapter goes over the different definitions of family and how sometimes your closest relationships are with those with neither blood nor legal relation. One chapter shortly after this describes how she and her current partner are committed to spending their lives together and becoming a family, yet not wanting marriage or any other labels attached to their relationship. McBride describes the peace that comes from making this decision, yet also the difficulties with having to explain it in a society that still lives in a world of boxes and classifications.
While these and other chapters carry strong and heartfelt messages about love, strength, resilience, and relationships, others lose the book’s momentum and make you wonder why you are reading it in the first place. Yet once again, this may not be the impression everyone gets depending on where they are in their lives. Regardless of your impression, McBride opens herself up to share deeply personal and emotional experiences with the reader, and she takes you through her transitions to the life she is in now.
We’re looking forward to the release of Dr. Bella DePaulo’s next book by Double Door, Singlism: What it Is, Why it Matters, and How to Stop It, a collection of writings on singlism. The essays are intended to both inspire readers and instruct how to tackle this all too common form of prejudice.
One of the contributors is a long-time, devoted member of AtMP, Jaclyn Geller, who wrote an essay titled, “Why the History of Marriage Matters.” In this essay, Geller explores some of the problematic aspects of the history of Western marriage and explains why AtMP’s formation was so decisive and important. Here’s a sneak peek of the first two pages:
In Book Nine of Homer’s epic, The Iliad, the Greek warrior Agamemnon regrets his dispute with fellow soldier, Achilles. It is nine years into the Trojan War; the Achaeans are a superior force, and Troy is destined to fall. But a quarrel between the two most formidable Greek soldiers, Agamemnon and Achilles, has weakened their army. Achilles has withdrawn from the battlefield, giving Trojan fighters the upper hand. Agamemnon decides to repair the rift with his comrade by allowing Achilles first dibs once Troy has been conquered:
if the gods grant that we sack the city of Priam, let him be there when we are dividing the spoil; he shall load his vessel with piles of gold and bronze, and choose for himself twenty Trojan women, the most beautiful after Helen. Then, if we return to Argos, he shall have my daughter to wife…I have three daughters, Chrysothemis, Laodice, and Iphianassa; any one of these he shall have without bride-price to take to his father’s house; and I will give her a dowry greater than ever man gave to a daughter. (The Iliad 121-122)
An envoy of generals visits Achilles’ tent to make the offer, which he rejects.
Agamemnon’s proposal contains beliefs that must have seemed obvious to the culture that mythologized him as a national hero. (For centuries The Iliad was recited orally at public gatherings before it took shape as a written text.) First, the practice of ancient armies taking the spoils when they conquer a village includes appropriating both goods and people: namely, women, although men were customarily taken as slaves as well. Second, the way of healing a breach between men is with the “giving” of a daughter in marriage. Her consent is not deemed necessary. The waiving of her bride price (a token fee paid by her husband) is represented as a gesture of noblesse oblige intended to cement an alliance between men, the operative figures in Greek society, and the only ones whose desires, intentions, and decisions, matter. In The Iliad these beliefs are not put forth in the form of arguments; they are assumed. Like most assumptions, they appear to require no explanation and no defense.
I first encountered Homeric epic in high school, when, I dutifully trudged through a few chapters of The Iliad, found it tedious, and put it aside in favor of the more immediate pleasures of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello. Like many teenagers have before and since, I resisted my teachers’ best efforts to convey the greatness of epic as a “cornerstone of Western civilization,” a “book whose influence rivals that of the Bible,” and other magisterial descriptions that evoke boredom in the minds of sixteen-year olds attending public schools.
*To finish reading ”Why the History of Marriage Matters” download the PDF.
Book Review: Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family by Brian Powell, Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist and Lala Carr Steelman
BY JANELLE BRAZINGTON
In their book Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family, the authors Brian Powell, Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman publish the results of an in-depth study called “Constructing the Family Survey” conducted in both 2003 and 2006 regarding what domestic structures constitute families in America. The study surveyed 712 and 815 Americans, respectively, about their views regarding gay couples, cohabiting couples, gay marriage, gay adoption, the extension of marital/family rights to gay or cohabiting couples, and finally what Americans count as families.
Counted Out begins with the results of the study being divided into three categories—the Exclusionists, Moderates and Inclusionists. Exclusionists hold the most rigid view of family and require marriage, the legal contract between a man and a woman, as the foundation for their definition of family. The Exclusionists’ family may or may not have children. But even with children, their definition of family leaves out unmarried couples or even married same-sex couples. Exclusionists used words relating to the religious and legal aspects of marriage in defining what counts as a family.
In contrast, Moderates will include any combination of adults, but children must be present for the combination to be considered a family. The survey asked a series of closed-ended questions followed by open-ended questions. The Moderates, at times, found that they had conflicting views. Their closed-ended questions revealed one viewpoint, but the open-ended questions where they could talk through their answers without having to choose one option revealed a broader acceptance of varying family systems. Finally, Inclusionists counted all structures as family, but focused on the quality of the relationship. Intimacy, cooperation, love—how the members feel about each other and treat each other—defined a family for Inclusionists regardless of a legal marriage, the presence of children or the gender of the adults in the home.
Correlations in the data were found in levels of education; whether or not people believed the Bible to be the actual word of God, the inspired word of God or a book of fables; in racial differences; and urban vs. rural and/or regional differences. Interestingly enough, having gay friends or relatives had a significant impact on one’s views of what constitutes a family, with many Exclusionists not having any gay friends or family. In addition to analyzing people’s views on what domestic structures count as families, the study also collected data regarding Americans’ views on religion and sexuality, gender and parenting, and changing one’s name as a result of marrying.
While religion and/or the legality of marriage influences many Americans’ opinions on what counts as a family, the authors point out that over the time between the two phases of the study (2003 to 2006), there was a significant decrease in the number of people who hold the Exclusionist viewpoint in a relatively short period of time. And during the opened-ended questions, many respondents revealed their viewpoints as being tied directly to their comfort level with certain words, phrases or concepts. This shift might suggest that as more people are exposed to ways of life and love that are different or foreign to their experiences, people will be more open in what they count as a family.
Counted Out is an in-depth presentation of thoroughly-analyzed data but in an easy-to-read format and language. This book could be used as a text for classroom discussion, a monthly selection for your book club, or an insightful read over your next holiday. While academic in its approach and integrity, Counted Out is an engaging book. Through this presentation of data, we can see a more tolerant and accepting world in our near future. A world where individuals choose their own family structures and these varying structures are respected and accepted in society.
*The term ‘gay’ is used instead of ‘same-sex’ or ‘LGBTQ’ in accordance to the authors’ usage in the text.
Janelle Brazington lives with Matt, her cohabiting partner, in Kansas, where they are raising her daughter.
Book Review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Often it is assumed that, through the course of one’s life, the closest relationship one will have is with their romantic partner. While this is far from reality, we are constantly bombarded with reminders and pressures of this supposed truth, whether it’s from T.V. commercials picturing a couple going shopping together or at family reunions when your relative asks you why you haven’t brought someone special home for the holidays yet. Everyone seems to be coupled off or wanting to be coupled off. Not so in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a book by Gail Caldwell about her relationship with her friend and non-romantic partner, Caroline Knapp.
Caldwell takes the reader through the start and end of her relationship with Knapp, who passed away in 2002 from lung cancer. “We knew from the beginning, I think, that this friendship was different, that we would work to make it immune to the erosion of time” (175). Caldwell and Knapp connect with each other on multiple levels, whether it’s over their writing professions, their love of dogs, or their histories with alcoholism. Caldwell tenderly recounts the walks they share in the woods, the fights that both tested and strengthened their relationship, and the mutual love, affection, and dependence the women had upon each other.
While the book takes some time to grab your interest, the second half of the book is boiling over with emotion. Regardless of the fact that I cry easily at books and movies, the description of Knapp’s diagnosis, the way her friends gathered around her in those last final days, the struggles Caldwell went through trying to reorganize her life after the loss of her friend – all of it had me bawling and feeling for not only Caldwell’s pain, but the pain that everyone knows will come when they lose someone they care for this much.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home is not only a touching memoir of Caldwell and Knapp’s relationship, but also serves as a reminder of the intense intimacy and importance of friendship. Even though Knapp has a long-term partner, her friendship with Caldwell appears just as strong and loving, if not more so, as her romantic relationship. It challenges the concept of what it means to be single and what kinds of relationships are deemed most important. An easy, lazy afternoon kind-of-read, Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a wonderful memoir of friendship that won’t leave you disappointed.
Kathleen Shea Peters is currently living in Flagstaff, AZ as a graduate student in History. She has been a supporter of Alternatives to Marriage and their values for the last few years.
Book Review: Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama by James T. Patterson
BY EMMA ROSENBERG
Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life—from LBJ to Obama is a verbose title with a revealing indication of what is to come. James T. Patterson, a Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, offers a rigorous 288 page account of the Moynihan Report and its aftermath. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a politician-academic and an Assistant Secretary of Labor, wrote a report in March 1965 summarizing the poor conditions of the black community in America. The Moynihan Report, officially titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” highlights the destructive forces of unemployment and poverty for black Americans. Moynihan emphasizes the deterioration of black family life and the retarding nature of the matriarchal structure. Moynihan criticizes the structure of the welfare system, which preferentially assists families with absentee fathers and therefore encourages broken homes. Moynihan’s groundbreaking discovery, which Patterson fondly refers to as ‘Moynihan’s Scissors’, details the puzzling correlation between the fall of unemployment rate and the rise in the number of new welfare cases. In other words, a growth in the economy does not necessarily decrease poverty. At the center of Moynihan’s findings is the detrimental rise of non-martial births, a trend that he claims will push the black community further into poverty and create a “tangle of pathologies.” Patterson emphasizes that the report “was diagnostic, not prescriptive,” merely outlining the societal issues in the hopes of turning the heads of government officials and directing the political agenda. In June, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson relied on the report for his commencement address at Howard University, in which he spoke the famous line “freedom is not enough.” While the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act granted equality as a right, Johnson called for equality as a result.
Unfortunately, the United States did not reach Johnson’s goals for racial equality. Patterson largely connects this failure to the accidental leak of the report to the press and the “tortuous trail of misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and destructive controversies” that followed. With utmost craft, Patterson interweaves the racial, political, cultural, and social issues and events that contributed to the creation of the report, its unfavorable reception, and the present-day repercussions. His sweeping collection of academic and media sources, from W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X, to Bill Cosby, provides a much-needed chronicle of a crucial document in civil rights history and a scrupulous survey of black family life in America from the 1960’s to the present. His depiction of black family life, while wide in scope, feels light in weight, merely serving as a backdrop for his defense of the Moynihan Report. Patterson’s ultimate (and limited) goal is to lament the misinterpretation of the report and prove its prophetic nature, especially in regards to the dangerous rise in out-of-wedlock births and overall deterioration of traditional black family life. At the time of the report, 23.6 percent of black births were out of wedlock; by 1984, 60 percent. In 2008, the rate reached 72.3%, with the white out-of-wedlock birthrate at 28.6%. Any innovative findings, however, are watered down by a profusion of tedious statistics strung together by poorly constructed sentences. Patterson is ambitious in tackling such a large time span, but does so at the expense of the reader’s interest, making the book a mind-numbing read.
Surprisingly, Patterson does not dedicate much space to the report itself, leaving the reader in suspense for nearly 50 pages, but does provide ample and unnecessary ink on the life of Patrick Moynihan. The structure of the book may feel perplexing, but Patterson’s point is clear; the Moynihan Report deserves more attention than it was previously given and is still relevant today given the U.S. government’s continual failure in dealing with the growing ills of the black lower class. However, Patterson’s full-fledged endorsement of the 1965 report feels uncomfortably outdated for the present times, given the evolving notion of family structure in American society. His brief smattering of modern-day references–the cultural influence of the Cosby Show, the threat of hip-hop culture, and the presence of sexually-transmitted diseases—are intriguing at best, yet together build a sparse representation of the current times. Freedom Is Not Enough is a substantial and benign read in understanding “the story of a great missed opportunity in American history”, but the reader is left to wonder, what now?
Emma Rosenberg is a senior at Barnard College-Columbia University studying English Literature and Religious Studies.
Why do you have children? This question, rarely posed to parents, often results in baffled and unprepared responses. Alternately, if you’re someone who is childless by choice, having a quick, not-too-personal, witty response for the question, “why don’t you want to have children?” is a necessity for getting through cocktail parties, family gatherings and workplace discussions.
Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice by Laura S. Scott details the experiences of couples who have made this choice, the processes that led to their decision and the consequences thus far. She details her survey and qualitative research, including interviews, identifying and rebutting common myths and assumptions made about the childless by choice.
If you are new to the idea of being childless by choice or are just starting to consider this option, you will find a validating and thorough account of the many circumstances leading to this choice. Scott offers an honest portrayal of the complexity of such a decision. She thoroughly presents diverse stories, each illustrating different lifestyle choices, values and reasons for remaining childless. She also succeeds in illustrating, through interviews and survey responses, the amount of thought and intention the childless by choice put into their decision. Of note, Scott categorizes people who have made this choice into categories of acquiescer, early articulator, postponer and undecided. She uses these categories to delineate the various thought processes and routes taken to the same end, which enhances her thorough account.
Overall the book starts out very strong, but towards the end it becomes redundant and boring. As someone who has read many books on this subject, there was little surprise or innovation in Scott’s research findings. Although well written and passionate, it is not a guide, as implied by the title. A guide implies tips or advice for couples making the decision, ways to navigate social challenges and personal doubts. Although there is a chapter on navigating a pronatalist culture, it continues the personal stories and insights, rather than offering a true “guide” as the title promises. Further, her interviews with the couples are interesting, but she includes too many, contributing to the feeling of “haven’t I already read this?”
If you are interested in learning more about why someone would make the choice to remain childless and the personal circumstances leading to this decision, you will find Two is Enough helpful and interesting. If you are amongst the firmly decided childless by choice, or looking for practical advice, there isn’t much new or different to discover in this book.
Julie Bluhm lives and works in Minneapolis, MN. She has been passionately involved with AtMP since 2001.
Book review: Families As They Really Are edited by Barbara J. Risman
BY MICHAEL ORTIZ
Many of us harbor this sort of normative image of the “ideal” American family as a married, co-parental, child-producing, child-rearing, cohabiting, heterosexual, democratic, working or middle class unit which assumes an essential nature of its own and can prevail through policy and law. However, the strong message that Barbara J. Risman sends out in Families As They Really Are is that contemporary families come in all different forms, shapes, and sizes; outright defying any notion that non-traditional families represent some sort of social crisis. Various types of families have come to be defined as their members see fit; thus making for greater human connectivity and qualitative social bonds.
Families As They Really Are is an anthology consisting of 40 essays written by members of the Council on Contemporary Families with the intention of exploring families as they truly exist, why they exist in the ways that they do, and how the needs of these families can best be met. The purpose of this book, as stated by Risman, is to make a genuine difference in peoples’ lives by getting them to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves so that they may live their lives to the fullest extent possible. By breaking through all stereotypes and boundaries on personal, institutional, and state levels, families will indeed be able to exist and flourish as they really are.
The anthology is divided into five sections that focus specifically on certain aspects of family such as family conceptions, family creation, family resilience, and family relationships. What’s great about the book is that Risman begins part one by explaining scientific, causal, and correlative theories and approaches as they relate to the observed world around us; thus setting the foundation for how the anthology is constructed. For example, chapter three studies the correlation between unwed, single parent households and behavioral problems in children, but then explains how single parenthood is not the cause of children’s behavioral issues. In this way, we can begin to study and account for the social structure that encapsulates all familial phenomena.
Part two predominantly talks about the historical emergence of American family systems, marriage, gender, motherhood, and child socialization as they relate to developing economic production, exchange, land ownership, and patriarchal ideological structure. Chapter eight in particular explores the legal ramifications for changing family structures, and shows how new family forms challenge legal conceptualizations and traditional definitions of biologically-based families. This section also includes great work on interracial marriage and discusses childhood as a period of development that is not necessarily universal to all children, but rather, is socially constructed as it relates to existing social conditions.
Parts three and four generally focus on family quality in its many forms, as opposed to the promotion of one particular nuclear family structure as the ideal pinnacle. Chapter thirteen does a phenomenal job in studying cohabitation as “the most common form of co-residential romantic relationships” among U.S. households. It suggests that the state as an ideological apparatus has real problems viewing non-martial cohabitation as being legitimate. However, further studies in this section show that whether families are married or cohabiting, positive parental effects lead to better cognitive development of children and an overall positive household atmosphere. These sections cover an extensive amount of information beginning with the study of immigrant, gay and lesbian, low income, and divorced families, but ends up driving home the point that public policy reflects a real anxiety about sexual freedom, ability of people to marry, and redefined family forms.
Finally, part five is devoted exclusively to gender. In chapter 30, Risman does excellent work examining just how gender behavior plays out amongst middle school children. She shows how gender policing among children is really a form of socialization leading to the hegemonic reproduction of “normal” families. In this manner, dominant concepts of family are internalized. This section also touches on women’s involvement in the labor force, men’s involvement in the household, and domestic violence as an expression of patriarchal power in the family.
Families As They Really Are does a superb job in explaining the history of American families, illustrating diverse family forms, examining the intricate details of family interaction, and assessing the legal policies that directly affect all families. Risman arms her readers with the tools they need to dissect, analyze, and understand race, class, gender, and family formation. Those looking for ample evidence that family diversity is a good thing, will feel encouraged by what they discover in the pages of this fantastic anthology.
This book happens to be a great source for students and academics alike seeing as Risman also includes in depth review questions and exercises at the end of each section. Another great feature of the book is that Risman includes newspaper and media articles between certain essays. Hence, adding to the wealth of information already devoted to each topic. Once readers get through the entire text, they very well might feel as if they are connected to all types of families mentioned in the book; leading to the conclusion that we are all indeed part of one large human family.
Michael Ortiz is a Sociology grad student at CUNY Brooklyn College where he is currently working on a project studying conceptions of race amongst college students.
When does a person become an adult? What is adulthood, and why does it matter? How have the answers to these questions changed over time, and what do the changes mean for American society? How should civic institutions respond?
These fascinating questions are the subject of Transition to Adulthood, the latest in a research series called The Future of Children published by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School (my alma mater) and the Brookings Institution. This anthology of 10 essays does not answer all those questions. In fact, it doesn’t seem to recognize that some exist; but, it does provide valuable insight into demographic trends and policy responses.
Why review it here? Because, according to one of the authors,
Becoming an adult has traditionally been understood as comprising five core transitions – leaving home, completing school, entering the workforce, getting married, and having children.
Today… only about half of Americans consider it necessary to marry or have children to be regarded as an adult.
The question begs so hard it practically jumps off the page: should marriage and parenthood still be understood as markers of adulthood by researchers and policy makers? Amazingly, none of the 19 authors in this anthology seem interested in changing their traditional understanding. For example, one lists women’s tendency “to delay marriage and parenthood” as a factor that has “helped to delay and complicate the passage to adulthood.” Even the use of “transition” (singular) in the book’s title suggests the authors’ devotion to the idea of one right way to become an adult, despite the rich diversity of reality which their data describe so well.
Equally amazing, none of the authors unpack the implied moral or normative value of adulthood; no one explains why it matters. Of course, I’d rather live in a country where my fellow adults act like adults, not like children. But my common sense definition of “acting like an adult” has little to do with the “five core transitions.” A book that recommends governmental and civic action towards a goal ought to justify why that goal is good for individuals and society. Instead, the closest it comes to explaining why adulthood matters is to describe the negative
consequences of the extended transition. … [F]irst … the growing burden placed on the middle- and lower-income families who were providing their children with schooling, housing, health insurance and income well beyond the age range of 18 – 21, the traditional age of majority. … [S]econd… the unexpected strain being imposed on key social institutions.
One thing the anthology does very well is highlight the different life patterns experienced by people of different gender, race/ethnicity, economic class and immigration history. For example, it cites one study of children of immigrants who (rather than becoming a long-term burden) provide regular or even total financial support to their parents, and another study finding that children of immigrants “differed in several ways from conventional American norms of departing the parental household and setting up a separate home.”
Another question begged: whose norms are “conventional?” A different essay mentions that “youth and parents from less-advantaged families continue to favor an earlier departure from the home than do those of more advantaged means.” Furthermore, “women are typically younger than men when they leave home because they complete college earlier, form cohabiting unions earlier, and marry about two years earlier, on average, than men.” However, “young mothers who do not enter a union before bearing a child typically remain in the parental home for several years and receive financial support and child care from their parents.”
What Transition to Adulthood does best is provide heaps of fascinating data. Here are just a few highlights about marriage and its alternatives: “About half of high school seniors say that they plan to cohabit as couples before they marry. … By age 34, 7 in 10 have tied the knot. … [T]he percentages of people who have never married, and who are intentionally childless, are higher now than at any other time in American history….”
Given this nation’s obsession with marriage and parenting – and our politicians’ willingness to legislate behavior – I was especially struck by the fact that, while there are many studies of people who are relatively rich or poor, “[r]esearchers know far less about the family formation patterns of young adults who grow up in families with modest resources.” Isn’t that the majority of us? I was also glad to see recognition that “young people who can build stronger and wider connections to adults other than parents (for example, teachers and adult mentors) also end up faring better than those who do not.” (emphasis in original)
With essays on education, labor, the military, civic engagement and “vulnerable populations,” as well as the immigration and family formation sections I’ve highlighted, Transition to Adulthood offers plenty of food for thought. I do hope that its target audience of “policy makers, practitioners and the media” will dig into the rich details and give more thought to what adulthood is, how people get there, and why it matters. Otherwise, we’ll end up with more legal carrots and sticks, more media hype, and less real help to build a society where we all can thrive.