American Depressions Series: What Produced the Crisis in Personal and Family Life?

Posted on November 16, 2011 by

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Editorial Note: Socialist Agenda is running a week-long series. The series was originally published on tikkun.org in January 2010.

By Harriet Fraad

Economic desperation pushed many more women into the labor force to increase money for the household. Previous to the 1970s, most white, nonimmigrant American women entered the labor force only in times of particular and urgent family need: upon divorce, or if a husband died, was ill, unemployed, or deserted his family. Women’s labor outside the home provided some safety in times of emergency. In 1970, 40 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly part time. By the year 2008, 75 percent of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly full time. Many women enjoyed the greater autonomy, variation, and creativity that jobs could provide. Many others were forced by economic necessity to work outside of their homes in routinized dead-end jobs with scarce assistance from governmental supports for day care, after-school programs, or elder care.

Women’s work outside of the home helped to improve the standard of living for most families, but it did not compensate families for lost white male wages. Women’s wage work imposes not only the obvious expenses of additional clothing and transportation, but also the costs of purchasing some of the goods and services that women previously produced at home free of charge, such as cooking, mending, cleaning, shopping, and child care. Those goods and services are crucial. Once they become commodified in the marketplace, they become expensive. The latest figures from Salary.com indicate that if a stay-at-home mother in the United States were replaced by paid domestic products and services, the cost would be $122,732 a year. The domestic products produced and services rendered by a mom who works outside of the home would cost $76,184 per year.

Economic Chaos

Even with women flooding into the labor force, families were still financially hurting. Working women had no time to perform full-time household labor and child care, and there was still not enough money for consumption. More money was accumulating at the top while the mass of Americans suffered from frozen wages. The wealthy then promoted the credit card to lend to Americans the money that they formerly would have earned in growing wages. Families became dependent on credit card debt. Since the interest rate on credit cards ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent, Americans descended into debt at record-breaking levels.

The living standard of Americans deteriorated psychologically as well. In American culture, women provide most of the emotional labor to make home a warm and comfortable place for men and children. It is women who usually arrange children’s social lives and activities, from play dates to dental appointments. Women are usually the directors of adult social life as well. Indeed, women are usually in charge of emotional life for the entire family. The more women work outside of the home without social support in the form of child care programs and domestic help, the more stressed, overworked, and emotionally unavailable they become. Overwhelmed women have less energy for the roles of social director and organizer, as well as emotional and physical caregiver. Households are hurting emotionally. When Bush took office in 2000, he cut many of the already hobbled social programs that allowed families to survive. Families are in trouble.

Women are no longer willing to work outside of the home, do the lion’s share of the domestic work, and simultaneously take care of their children’s and husbands’ physical and emotional needs largely unaided either by their husbands or by social programs. For the first time in American history, the majority of women are abandoning marriage. Women now initiate two-thirds of divorces. Half of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce. These impressive figures do not include the many people who end their marriages outside of the legal system.

When men’s emotional relationships with women break down, they have little intimate emotional support. Women usually count on other women to emotionally sustain them. Women still manage to befriend and support each other on a personal level in a way that few men can. These changes in households and family life are a third tributary to America’s deluge of disaster. Americans have lost both the financial dream of ever-increasing prosperity and consumption, and also the emotional family dream of a stable family connected by a present wife creating emotional connection and domestic order. In short, Americans have lost what was the comfort of home.

Editor’s Note: Harriet Fraad is a psychotherapist-hypnotherapist in practice in New York City. She is a founding member of the feminist movement and the journal Rethinking Marxism.  For forty years, she has been a radical committed to transforming U.S. personal and political life.

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