BLOG #19, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY—THEN AND NOW
May 11, 2016
During the last few weeks as I have been leafing through thousands of old magazines, gradually, just as is true with photographic negatives developing in a tray, an image has been evolving of the American family during the first half of the twentieth century. A number of things contribute to it: magazine cover art, story illustrations, advertising illustrations, story plots, cartoons, quotations, articles, essays, etc.
The century began with an almost stereotypical template of the roles of men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Initially, there was a very clear line of demarcation between male roles and female roles. Boys were expected to be strong, somewhat reluctant to exhibit emotion, masculine, competitive, work-driven, and dominant. Girls were expected to be soft, loving, emotional, dependant, homemakers-in-training, spiritual, care-givers, and appreciators of fine arts.
As I read or scanned through stories, again and again I was jolted by teenage and young adult women who were motivated to flower and achieve . . . up until a certain point: when the male has made good in the job world, has enough money to invest in a home, and proposes, the female is expected to surrender the rest of her life to him. “Love, honor, and obey” were wedding vows. In most cases, the male would assume almost total control over the purse. The jolt, for me, came in reading love stories in which the male would often threaten to spank, or actually spank, the female. Once married, women were regularly ridiculed, demeaned, and (in jokes and cartoons) depicted as being inferior to the male in judgment and decision-making.
Then came 1914-1918; during World War I, women filled many of the roles heretofore filled by males (now serving in the Armed Forces). After the war, women were more than a little reluctant to be pushed back into their boxes. World War II (1939-1945) accelerated the change in roles. I could see it changing in the fiction carried in popular magazines.
The major shifts came later, no small thanks to birth-control. Thanks to it, women had a say in whether or not they were to remain in thrall by almost perpetual pregnancies. All this was followed by Women’s Lib, the gay movement, deconstructionism, secularization, cohabitation out of wedlock, substance abuse, and a resulting major shift in male self-worth.
Which brings me to Frank Bruni’s April 10, 2016 New York Times column: “Building a Better Father.” Here are some of his observations:
“As a child I was schooled constantly in how different mothers and fathers were. TV shows spelled it out. . . . A mother’s love was supposedly automatic, unconditional. A father’s love was earned. Mothers nurtured, tending to tears. Fathers judged, prompting them.
“And while mothers felt pressured to lavish time and affection on their children, fathers could come and go. As long as they did their part as providers, the rest was negotiable.”
Then Bruni references a new book, Ron Fournier’s Love That Boy. In it, Fournier admits that it took his wife’s command (tougher than a request) that he spend more time with his twelve-year-old son who was battling autism and Aspergers. . . . Fournier’s narrative, however, ends up addressing fatherhood, then and now.
“He examines his paternal feelings and failings with a nakedness that was rare in fathers of a previous generation. He wrestles soulfully with what kind of father he is and means to be. He weeps. He trembles.
“And he mirrors many of today’s dads, who are so changed from yesterday’s. In Fournier I saw my two brothers, who don’t adore their children any more than our father adored us but who do it with a gentler, tenderer touch, unafraid to broach discussions and display emotions that most men once shrank from. . . .”
“According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, men spend almost three times the number of hours a week with their children than they did half a century ago. And they feel conflicted about not devoting more. While 23 percent of mothers said they shortchanged their kids on time, 46 percent of fathers did.”
I know that one of my own biggest regrets, in terms of my involvement with our two children during their growing-up years, was that I let my wife carry a disproportional percentage of the load—especially time-wise. In a homily I recently gave to parents of third-grade students in six area elementary schools in our Colorado mountain community, here are some thoughts I shared with them.
Friends, up to now, everything we’ve said and done today has had to do with your kids; but now, I’d like to share some thoughts and concerns with you:
As I look back through the years to the time our children were young like yours, I can’t help but realize I failed to take full advantage of those crucial years. I had other priorities that seemed more important at the time. In the process, I let my wife bear a disproportionate share of the load at home.
But there came the day when I was shocked by the discovery that our children were already bridging to mentors other than us. If the speed of child growth could be accelerated and shown on a screen, we’d realize that our children were changing all the time—there are no plateaus in a child’s life. So I can tell you, from personal experience, that the sobering day will come all too soon to you too, and you will look at your spouse and say,’We’re all but through; whatever they are now, our children are likely to be as adults. Our window of opportunity to make a significant difference in the trajectory of their lives is closing.
So I urge each of you, in the time you have left, to make your children your #1 priority. Institute a daily story hour and spend that precious time moulding their characters while you still have time to do so. May God bless each of you and the children entrusted to you.