Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider


Noelle Bodick

To the jaded feminist of our day, family life can look like a losing proposition. Not for us the sentimentalizing of romance novels, pandering to the quaint longings of a bygone girlhood. If Jane Austen’s set could take a code of hypergamy as second nature, women today are instead taught — by writers, artists, theorists, brands — to want something very different: solitary selfhood, exalted friendships, and a romantic life of careful, self-preserving quid pro quos. We are too wised-up, too experienced, too cynical to fall for the old con. Marriage, we think we know, is a trap, a ludicrous patriarchal heirloom. Smash it! Short of that, by God, keep your surname.

How did we become so skeptical? Today the study of the “history of the family” looks like a curio of the twentieth century. Even the phrase betrays notes of mid-century certainty one can no longer presume: it’s not the history of families, infinitely variable and particular in their insults, but of the family, solely conjugal and nuclear. Scholars subjected this bourgeois entity to furious scrutiny amid the delayed engagements, spiraling divorce rates, and experimental lifestyles of the 1960s and 1970s. On the left, “the family” would become caught between two competing visions. Was the “traditional” family the bedrock of society, at risk of siege by potential invaders (be it the intrusive state, commercial enterprise, or the prying help of therapeutic professionals)? Or else did families consist of detachable, replaceable parts and freedoms — were they flexible entities that might be rearranged into multiplying formations and permutations?

Writing under the high sign of demographic studies and Freud, dour (and, for that matter, male) historians pushed the first, hermetic view. Despite their cloying titles, scholarly works like The World We Have Lost (1965), American Kinship (1968), A Little Commonwealth (1970), and Haven in a Heartless World (1977) were often systematic accounts of how industrial capitalism had wrenched apart home and work, hollowing out both. The family — tightly bound and emotionally laden — was, in Christopher Lasch’s telling, the last sanctuary for love and care in a corrosive and competitive market economy, the last refuge for precapitalist, even socialist, principles in the United States, where resources flow “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Family love, David Schneider sermonized, was “enduring, diffuse solidarity.” For Lasch, the psychic conflict engendered by parental love was the incubator for robust, democratic citizens. Without it? Wan, narcissistic sick-souls, unfit for self-government. 

Feminists of the 1970s and 1980s pounced. “Heterosexual monogamy, dutiful love, hierarchy, suffering, grim fucking come to mind,” the radical sociologist Winifred Breines recapped. Family life, according to such critics, was nothing more than a stifling dollhouse for cajoling gender norms, or, even worse, a cover for male violence. Scores of battered wives, neglected children, ill-starred marriages attested so. That public institutions — welfare programs, day cares, schools — were absorbing the roles of the conventional household was hardly an intrusion; really, it was salvation for women who were still the sacrificial victims of malignant, patriarchal forces. The perimeter enclosing family life must be permeable, most of all, Molly Ladd-Taylor and Linda Gordon argued, in order to support or rescue its most vulnerable members. 

What is there to salvage from this pitched culture war? Suddenly Lasch is everywhere: simplified, quotable, prophetic, like a clean-shaven Che Guevara. But the prophet’s injunction that we render work and family life inseparable can sound like misguided foreshadowing. A “post-pandemic” work-from-home life, which might otherwise be seen as a contemporary collapse of the separate spheres, has not returned white-collar workers to a preindustrial productionist paradise. Rather, it has created boom times for the private-equity day-care sector, as parents park tots offscreen for $4,000 per month. Lasch’s other solution, that men involve themselves in child-rearing and that women “have useful and interesting careers,” sounds naive today. Parental parity in two-income households has often resulted in family life being run as a corporation, with reports from The New York Times of domestic chore spreadsheets, marriages subjected to an “H.R.-style audit,” and bountiful yearly bonuses paid in spousal embitterment. Little wonder some are convinced that the columns — the cost-benefit analysis of freedom and autonomy, of compromises and constraints — do not add up. We can restore the term “economic” to its original Greek meaning (“oikonomia,” or “household management”), but to what end in the era of Excel?   

Meanwhile, feminists who have inherited the second-wave family phobia, colored as it was by metaphors of domination and subordination, and with an overarching vision of cynical individualism, continue to miss half the plot. Where is the love? They approach domestic life as either a site of simple oppression or tragic compromise; as a private hell, or as a self-evident problem to be answered with centuries-old repudiations of monogamy. These aggressively hip dabblings in family abolition, polyamory, ethical nonmonogamy, and other adventures in laissez-faire eros stretch ardor all too thin: the brisk interchangeability of intimates is the mirror image of the smooth, frictionless world of the free market that these same modern-day Fourierists otherwise reject. At least corporations are on the ball. This fall, a Tinder campaign plastered New York City subways with images of Berghainian, pore-less couples that look like something sinister cooked up by A.I. One pair, dressed like a bag of Starbursts, pushes a dog in a pram: “Finally having kids.” 

If there is hope for the study of family, and for families themselves, it will not be in submitting to a new round of agitations. A sense of personal betrayal permeated last century’s scholarly conversation so thoroughly as to make intellectual impasse inevitable. Lasch summarized the bad-faith readings typical of the period: “If you talk about the growing tensions that so often seem to characterize relations between men and women,” he wrote, “it’s assumed that you want women to return to the kitchen.” He admitted it was likewise a difficult period for him “to keep a civil tongue.” In later years, it took cooler heads of legal history to insist that individual “rights” — poorly suited to parsing the sphere of the family, a realm often operating beyond the reach of individual prerogative — were to blame for the deadlock. What would a language of family be that aspires to neither atoms nor fortresses but ensembles? Today’s historians might yet discover a fresh lexicon, a counter-idiom, a new political grammar — dreamy, eccentric, heretofore vanquished — that transcends the limited pessimism of our contemporary vogues and doesn’t shy away from that all-too-common, all-too-rare four-letter word.

Noelle Bodick is a writer living in Washington, D.C.