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EDITOR’S NOTE - Though she’s only a sitcom character, Murphy Bro

October 5, 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE - Though she’s only a sitcom character, Murphy Brown’s decision to raise a child out of wedlock provoked a heated election-year debate about ″family values.″ The words sound static and safe, but has American domestic life ever really been either? Here’s a second look.

Undated (AP) _ By LESLIE DREYFOUS AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Family values are a little like family vacations - subject to changeable weather and remembered more fondly with the passage of time. Though it rained all week at the beach, it’s often the momentary rainbows that we remember.

Like Dan Quayle, many Americans imagine simpler times even as a storm of social change swirls about, blowing parents here and children there. Sure, the 1950s ideal would be wonderful. But knock on the nation’s doors: Ozzie and Harriet are seldom at home.

Some argue they never were.

″We’ve wrapped up a lot of complicated social issues in a fuzzy blanket of nostalgia for a golden age of family life that never existed,″ said Stephanie Coontz, author of the timely new book ″The Way We Never Were.″

″Families are in real pain, but it’s been trivialized,″ she added. ″We turn back to mythology at times when the existing political structures are facing new challenges.″

Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., contends that the American family has always been in flux, amazingly resilient through industrialization, recession, war and post-war plenty.

But no less than religious, community and other institutions, the family is vulnerable to change. In the 1990s, Coontz said, ″people are feeling a moral crisis in their personal lives. They are struggling to adapt.″

It’s no wonder, she added, that people long for the seeming ideality of a 1950s sitcom home. Stack Donna Reed against Murphy Brown and things seem to have been blessedly simple in that earlier era of black-and-white.

The thing is, sociologists and historians say, the 1950s were an historical aberration.

The circumstances that grew out of World War II were unique. America was riding high on the wave of victory. Its factories revved up and the government prepared to bankroll GIs as they returned to begin the family dream that had sustained them on the battlefront.

Birthrates have steadily fallen, divorce rates have risen and women have moved into the workforce in greater numbers through the decades. Single-parent families and teen-age pregnancy have always been around.

″That is, except for one period - the 1950s. People forget that there were bad things in the past,″ said Steven Mintz, co-author of ″Domestic Revolution: A Social History of Family Life.″

In the late 1800s, for instance, ″people were obsessed with the American divorce rate. It quintupled in about 20 years,″ said Mintz, a professor at the University of Houston.

″Or how about in 1900?″ he said. ″A fifth of families were headed by a woman. Half of all parents had a child die. A quarter of all children lost a parent before reaching the age of 15.″

Just because alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse now are commonly discussed on daytime talk shows doesn’t mean such things didn’t exist before. If that were true, there wouldn’t be such a preponderance today of support groups for adults with dysfunctional pasts.

″People used to live year after year in loveless marriages,″ Mintz said. ″Women felt they had to have children whether or not they were psychologically, emotionally or economically capable of rearing them.″

Still, studies indicate that between 70 percent and 80 percent of parents believe their children would be better off growing up in the 1950s. People long for a sense of commitment to community and family ties, experts say.

Study after study suggests that Americans still cherish the nuclear ideal, a model of family life that stretches back generations.

″There’s a fault line that runs through the culture on many issues and it wasn’t created by Dan Quayle or anybody else,″ said Peter Berger, a Boston University sociologist and co-author with his wife of ″The War Over the Family.″

″We know that people’s attitudes on abortion, gays, a number of things having to do with personal lifestyle hang together. There are camps involved. That’s not an invention of politicians. Data indicate that a great majority of Americans would prefer a nuclear arrangement, if it were available.″

That last bit is key. The ″traditional″ family built around a monogomous marriage with mother at home and father the bread-winner applies to only a minority of Americans today.

In a 1989 survey taken for the Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Co., 74 percent of those asked which came closest to their definition of family said it was a group of people who love and care for each other. Only 22 percent defined it as a group of people related by blood.

″There’s no question but that ‘family values’ are one of the most important things to Americans,″ said Allan Rivlin, who worked on the survey conducted by Mellman and Lazarus Inc. ″But ‘family values’ as defined ‘Leave It to Beaver’-style are no longer what most Americans have in mind.″

Most families rely on two incomes, which means the Mom often is at work when the kids come home from school. The shrinking economy has increased the financial and emotional strain on couples, many of whom have moved far from the anchor of extended family in pursuit of jobs.

The spread of drugs and social acceptance of premarital sex - AIDS notwithstanding - have placed more adolescents at risk. The emergence of homosexual marriages, artificial insemination, divorce, blended families and longer lifespans have altered demographics.

Experts differ on how today’s family unit fits in historically, but virtually everyone agrees on this much: Children are hit hardest. Many experts are alarmed by the rates of juvenile delinquency and eating disorders, falling test scores and the amount of time kids spend by the TV.

″People are deeply concerned about how to do a decent job of raising kids today,″ said David Blankenhorn, president of the New York-based Institute for American Values. ″Parents feel it’s getting harder and harder. And it is.″

But Blankenhorn and other family experts say Americans are ″ill-served to rely on politicians and TV characters as proxies in the debate.″

″There’s no more important issue in the nation right now than what is happening to the family as a social institution. It affects people across all lines,″ said Blankenhorn, editor of ″Rebuilding the Family Nest.″

″We are in an historically unprecedented era in which the mother-father unit is being shattered,″ he added. ″We need to make a new commitment to preserving families. That’s what we ought to be discussing, but aren’t.″

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