Americans like to romanticize the family.
They cling to the notion that the nuclear family - father, mother, and children all living in the same abode - is a fairly recent development. A misty-eyed nostalgia prevails as they imagine a past in which extended families predominated, with grandparents, in-laws, uncles, and cousins living together. All those built-in baby sitters! All that mutual support! All that wisdom passed daily from old to young!
But myths don't always match reality. As social historians sift through old documents, they are discovering that for much of the past millennium, the nuclear family reigned as the primary family form in Europe and America. Far from being merely a passive domestic unit for procreation and survival, it exerted an influence extending far beyond the walls of home.
The nuclear family is "the driving revolutionary force of the millennium," says Brigitte Berger, author of the forthcoming book, "More Than a Lifestyle Choice: The Family in the Postmodern Age." She sees the entire millennium as an epic featuring this type of family.
Calling this grouping "the carrier of the modernization process," she explains that when people reflect on what the past millennium was about - the rise of democracy, capitalism, and industrialization - they are talking about big structural and institutional changes. Ms. Berger takes the position that these macro-changes actually grew out of the triumph of an all-important micro-unit, the nuclear family.
Stephen Morillo, a medieval historian at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., considers the year 1000 a significant marker for the family. Around that time, he says, the family structure of Western European aristocracy began changing. Instead of continuing to live in loose clans that traced relationships through common ancestors, people began narrowing their lineage, following family connections from father to eldest son.
At the same time, aristocratic families began adopting last names. Surnames were typically the name of a place, such as a castle, that identified the seat of family power.
Between 1000 and 1500, many peasant and merchant households consisting of parents and children and perhaps a few servants also resembled nuclear families. Families with too many children would often lend a child to a family with too few children.
"It was about labor," says Professor Morillo. "It was about getting farm work done." Women also played an important economic role, he notes. Peasant households could not survive without female labor.
As far back as the 13th century, long before the onset of industrialization and democracy, a family system called the proto-industrial family existed in northwestern Europe. One of its distinctive features - marriage by choice rather than parental arrangement - gave individuals the freedom to shape their own future. Another feature, primogeniture, promoted economic stability by passing land to the eldest son, rather than dividing it.
"You didn't split up the family possessions," Berger says. "The plague of China was that the family possessions got smaller and smaller, because everyone inherited."
Under primogeniture, younger offspring had to leave the household and go out, usually to cities, to earn a living. Forced to rely on their own skills, they produced what Berger calls a new kind of energy in their efforts to become competent and self-sufficient. No longer tied to tight-knit agricultural communities and lacking a host of relatives nearby, these independent adult children promoted the development of nuclear families.
"People were freed from the tyranny of the complex family and could be more equal and more individual," says David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "They could also be more entrepreneurial, in the sense of developing new technology."
Because people wanted to marry and establish their own households, the industrial system flourished. These households became the earliest consumers of industrial goods. "People were willing to take on the burden of the whole industrial way of life to have freedom," says Berger. Children could also remain at home, rather than being contracted out to work for other families on the farm.
Although family members enjoyed considerable equality, injustices remained. Between 1300 and 1550, wife-beating was allowed by canon law. And when marriages ended, either through death or desertion, women and children often became impoverished. In 1570 in Norwich, England, 1 in 12 indigent residents was a deserted wife.
As centuries passed, the nuclear family became the primary family form brought to the United States. Most immigrants came alone or with a spouse. "You didn't have too many relatives coming with you," says Professor Popenoe.
He traces the rise of the so-called "modern" nuclear family, in which the mother stays home and the father goes out to work for wages, back to the British upper classes in the late 1700s. That form became more prominent in the US in the early 1800s and remained dominant until the 1950s.
Today social historians caution that in the past four decades, the nuclear family has been disappearing in America. "We're at a crossroads," says Popenoe. "The tendency is more toward raising children just by mothers, with some fathers, or shifting fathers, and with more assistance from outside institutions."
To those who wring their hands about the "crisis" of the family, Berger insists that any perceived crisis lies not in the nuclear family but in a widespread failure to continue seeing this family form as a worthy model. "Who is in trouble today?" she asks. "It is the female-headed household."
As a new millennium dawns, Berger finds Americans wrestling with a critical domestic issue that makes a case for the nuclear family. "We have carried the notion of freedom to the extreme," she says. "It was always for the protection of children that families stayed together. You need two individuals to raise a family."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society