God only knows, nuclear families have their problems. One has only to look at the plays of Eugene O’Neill. Mourning Becomes Electra is a grand guignol melodrama involving a mother, father, and their two children. Murder, incest, deceit, and calumny are all part of a day’s work in the Mannon family. The Tyrone family is no different. A desperate, domineering mother; a weak, disengaged father, and two damaged, willful sons.
The Pollitt family in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is intact, but barely so. Big Daddy is a domineering patriarch. Big Momma is the dutiful but weak-willed wife, and Brick and Gooper play out a particularly dramatic sibling rivalry.
Agnes, Tobias, and their daughter Julia are an intact family but barely so in Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Everyone in the drama is unhinged, uncertain, and desperate. In his American Dream Albee constructs a nuclear family, albeit with an adopted son:
About twenty years ago, a man very much like Daddy and a woman very much like Mommy lived in an apartment very much like theirs with an old woman very much like Grandma. They contacted an organization very much like the nearby Bye-Bye Adoption Service and an adoption agent very much like Mrs. Barker, purchasing a "bumble" of joy. Quickly they came upon trouble. The bumble cried its heart out. Then, it only had eyes for Daddy. Mommy gouged its eyes out, but then it kept its nose up in the air. Next, it developed an interest in its "you-know-what"—its parents cut it off. When the bumble continued to look for its you-know-what, they chopped those off as well. Its tongue went when it called its Mommy a dirty name. Finally it died. Wanting satisfaction, its parents called the adoption agent back to the apartment to demand their money back. (Sparknotes)
Shakespeare, like Albee, was no admirer of families, and created some of the most dysfunctional. Goneril and Regan are the two thankless daughters of Lear. Henry VIII desperately wanted a nuclear family and cut off the heads of wives who could not produce an heir. Hamlet was the son of loving parents until his father, the King, was murdered and his mother jumped into bed with the murderer. Hamlet loved his mother incestuously, could not avenge his father’s death, and had sexual issues with Ophelia.
Cymbeline and his Queen (Cymbeline) clash over the future of their children. Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter wants to marry a lowborn man instead of the noble but stupid son of the Queen, Clotus. The plot evolves in the fashion of Eugene O’Neill with plenty of treachery, villainy, death, murderous intent, and deceit to go around.
The Loman family in Miller’s Death of a Salesman is intact – Willy, his wife, and two sons – but that integrity goes for naught as each member loses his bearings, and falls into cycles of deceit, jealousy, and is destroyed.
All these playwrights, however, understood one thing – that marriage is the crucible of maturity. As a hothouse microcosm of the real world, we all learn the best and worst about ourselves as we are pitted son against father, son against son, husband against wife and are all challenged by the strictures of discipline, jealousy, love, and frustration. As much as Albee, Shakespeare, Williams, and O’Neill hated families, they all knew that society cannot do without them.
What they did not anticipate was today’s breakdown of the two-parent family and the damage that can be done by a fatherless household; but they certainly offered playgoers an inkling. Tamora, the Queen of the Goths (Titus Andronicus) was a single mother who incited her two sons to rape and mutilate the daughter of Titus for revenge. She gets her comeuppance when Titus kills the sons and serves them up to their mother in a pie.
Volumnia, the single mother of Coriolanus, invests everything in her heroic son, but when he shows signs of weakness she destroys him. Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer is a single mother with an incestuous love for her gay son for whom she pimps.
The statistics concerning the children of fatherless families today and reported by The Fatherless Generation are dire:
- 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
- 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
- 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average. (Center for Disease Control)
- 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average. (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
- 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average. (National Principals Association Report)
It gets worse:
Incarceration – Even after controlling for income, youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds. A 2002 Department of Justice survey of 7,000 inmates revealed that 39% of jail inmates lived in mother-only households. Approximately forty-six percent of jail inmates in 2002 had a previously incarcerated family member. One-fifth experienced a father in prison or jail.
Crime - A study of 109 juvenile offenders indicated that family structure significantly predicts delinquency. Adolescents, particularly boys, in single-parent families were at higher risk of status, property and person delinquencies. Moreover, students attending schools with a high proportion of children of single parents are also at risk. A study of 13,986 women in prison showed that more than half grew up without their father. Forty-two percent grew up in a single-mother household and sixteen percent lived with neither parent (The Fatherless Generation
The reasons for fatherless families are many. Some reflect social pathologies that have their origin in history. Slave families were deliberately broken up during the plantation era, but both men and women were encouraged to have as many children as possible regardless of marital ties. The post-war period of the marginalization, discrimination, and isolation of black communities prevented assimilation into a world of white, middle class family values and structure.
Divorce among white families has increased dramatically over the years (16 percent in 1930, 20 percent in 1940, 33 percent in 1970, 50 percent in 1985), and the rate of 50 percent has held steady for the past twenty years. Over 60 percent of second and subsequent marriages also end in divorce.
Laws and society being what they are, young children are still raised by mothers, fathers granted only visitation rights. White single mothers, therefore, still represent the bulk of one-parent families.
Even under the best of conditions, raising a child in a one-parent household, regardless of the sex of the parent, is a difficult proposition indeed. Children are by necessity placed in the charge of third-party contractors (day care centers, nannies, after-school programs); and the demands on parents by normal, emotionally needy children are even more intense if they are alone all day. Add to that the unshared responsibilities of shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and looking after the dog, and single parenthood looks more and more like a drag.
Under the worst conditions – inner city dysfunctional communities, riven by drugs, crime, violence, and abuse – single parents can barely hold any semblance of family together. Mothers rely to a large degree on grandmothers for childcare.
Fathers and mothers are different and contribute differently to families. Mothers are more caring, nurturing, and physically loving. Fathers are more stern, demanding, and stand-offish, especially with their sons. The sexual rivalry between fathers and sons that playwrights have written about and psychiatrists noted for decades is the source of both antagonism and bonding. Sons cannot learn sexual maturity and responsibility without a father; and the stern, uncompromising Old Testament God the Father is still the rule.
Perhaps even more importantly children learn from the mother-father couple. They see how disputes are negotiated and decided; how personalities clash and complement; how love anneals and heals; how violence and hatred are a result of marital frustration and anger. As Albee and his colleagues knew, marriage and two-parent families are the crucibles of maturity.
There has been a predictable ‘progressive’ reaction to conservative views on families and so-called ‘family values’. A two-parent, middle-class, church-going family is somehow suspect. A throwback to the unenlightened Fifties, intolerant of diversity, and staunch in its refusal to accept any alternate lifestyles. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such families are Democrat and Republican, Northern and Southern, white and black. Their values are adopted defiantly – a radically conservative show of moral rectitude – but naturally. Whether inspired by Biblical tradition or practical common sense, two-parent families believe that the paradigm they follow is the best and most appropriate one for themselves and their children.
It is certainly true that many conservative families look critically and the dysfunctional families of the inner city and trailer trash hookups in the hills; and there is no doubt that many of these families are even more harshly critical of gay marriage. How could they not be when heterosexual marriage is the rule not the exception; when it is celebrated in the Bible; when it is the sine qua non of human survival; when it is depicted in song, drama, and dance?
This ‘natural’ family in fact embodies all that is American. “Honor thy father and mother” is both a Biblical precept and a foundational rule of society and civilization. Reverence, piety, and faith are as American now as they were in the time of the Founding Fathers. Hard work, parsimony, and commitment have always been the key to success and social and economic progress. Honor, courage, compassion, and respect are the same values enshrined by Cato the Elder in his educational guidelines for Roman youth.
America more than most countries is dynamic and ever-changing; and there is no doubt that marriage, like other social constructs, will continue to go through minor and structural change. Yet because we are all sexual, social, and dependent on others, some form of conjugal union will always remain.
Traditional marriage and family values are not destructive or damaging to the body politic as some claim. In fact they should be models for communities whose families are pathologically broken. The above statistics point to a grim trend and should not be ignored.
Those of us who grew up in the Fifties know how confining and frustrating traditional families could be for women and children alike. The Sixties were a breath of fresh air into hermetically sealed households where all members were told to toe the line, go to church, eat what you’re told, serve dinner on time, and don’t talk back.
At the same time most of us find ourselves in traditional families – husband, wife, and children. Each of us is more independent than our parents, less confined and obliged by tradition, religion, and social probity. Yet we are no different from our parents in trying to build family integrity, respect, duty, and love.
The traditional family should be here to stay.