Restoring the Family
There’s No Place Like Work: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession
with Work Have Driven Parents From Home
reviewed by Kevin J. Doyle
The mixed sex composition of today’s workforce is a commonplace reality, as few across the political spectrum question the presence of women in the paid professions. This social change has gained the force of law in the form of federal and state anti-discrimination statutes designed to encourage greater representation for women on the job. Our popular culture hails this phenomenon as an example of American progressivism. According to our society’s individualist ethos, personal self-fulfillment is paramount, and this goal is achieved in the workplace. Yet in the wake of disillusionment with the welfare system, school violence, and a soaring divorce rate, there is increasing debate over the amount of time Americans spend at work and the destructive effect this often has on families and children.
There’s No Place Like Work by Brian C. Robertson challenges a culture of work that subordinates the family to the job and proposes a reformation of our personal and national priorities. In short, he argues that we are “obsessed with work” and that this obsession is reinforced by the political and economic establishment, the very element in our society uniquely positioned to influence this disturbing trend.
Robertson is concerned about the rapid dissolution of the two-parent household and its corresponding deleterious effect on family life and the rearing of children. He remarks candidly that the book arises from his belief that as a nation we are delinquent in our familial obligations because of the increased pressure to work longer hours. The author describes his book as a “historical interpretation” and invites the reader to decide, not if the argument is objective, but if it resonates with his own experience.
This appeal to our innate sense of what is good and reasonable is in marked contrast to the approach so often taken by mainstream shapers of the debate. Frequently, the authentic decision of a woman to forego professional achievement for full-time maternal commitment is not afforded the validity it deserves (even in the church!) because somehow it suggests a contrary model of womanhood, one that differs from the current orthodoxy. Robertson seeks, therefore, to penetrate the layers of current fashion and “socially acceptable” sentiment that insulate us from the truth of the matter.
In the first chapter, the author outlines what he terms the “child care crisis,” describing the intellectual and social forces responsible for the shift away from the traditional family structure. Principal among these was the post-1950s emphasis on personal liberation. The individual should be free to define his happiness apart from any social convention. Traditional mores were suspect because they implied “oughtness”—obligatory ways of thinking and acting that were imposed by those of a different era. The family was one such convention—a patriarchal structure designed to deny women their self-fulfillment. Chief among the critics of the “old order” was the radical feminist, a breed of activist unlike any of the feminist reformers that had gone before her.
The radical-feminist school insists that the traditional notion of family is a Western construct derived in no way from “nature” as they see it. In academic circles, to term a social habit or custom a “construct” is to effectively remove it from serious consideration in the world of ideas. This intelligentsia holds that man’s most authentic existence is found closest to nature, as they falsely conceive of it. Regrettably, “natural man” is often synonymous with “impulsive man,” a being apparently unrestrained by social conventions or standards of conduct.
The social construct is a cause for concern because it is man-made. Furthermore, injected into the idea of social construction are the elements of malice and domination. In other words, the most powerful in society create a world designed to oppress the weak. In time, this arrangement achieves the permanence of custom, and an unjust regime is in place. Ironically, this view is sustainable only if we accept that man is not a part of nature.
In Christian terms, however, man is firmly situated in the natural order yet endowed with a special dignity by virtue of his reason and intelligence. Indeed, man is obligated to build a world in accordance with his true nature and dignity. What is so fundamentally disturbing about social-construct theory is its utter lack of confidence in man to order his world. Rather than being a philosophy exalting the beauty of man in some dubious natural existence, naturalism doubts deeply man’s ability to act on his social instinct.
And so for Robertson it is a collusion of factors—the politics of liberation, the rejection of the moral underpinnings of the traditional family, and the reluctance of the media to oppose the “reigning feminist orthodoxy”—that makes searching discussion on the American family irrelevant, if not impossible.
A chapter entitled “The Vanishing Homestead” sketches the evolution of feminist ideology from its nineteenth-century origins. For Robertson, the feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton bears no resemblance to that of Betty Friedan, and this is of core importance to the discussion. Pre-1960s American feminism was a “maternalist” movement, led by women who felt that female dignity is most respected in societies that allow women to avoid the paid workforce and devote themselves to the home. These reformers advocated better health care for mothers, setting maximum hours and minimum wages for women, and the establishment of a “family wage” adequate for the support of wife and children.
A dramatic shift occurred in the late 1950s, the author notes, that laid the groundwork for the current “assault on the homemaker”: the first public proposal that a mother’s absence from the home would not be damaging to her child. The “cult of the domestic” was questioned, and within a decade “positive animus toward . . . sacrosanct cultural icons of motherhood, home, and family began to pervade writings of feminists. . . .” Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique embodied this new contempt for the traditional mother and aggressively promoted “achievement of personal potential” (invariably accomplished outside the home) as the modern woman’s reason for being.
Robertson also trenchantly observes that our tendency to value things only in economic terms has rendered the homemaker a worthless entity. He posits that, unlike ever before, the economic and the domestic are one domain operating under the standards of the marketplace. If one’s activity does not result in some form of material wealth, then it is of little value to society. The incalculable value of motherhood is no longer proof of its profound worth, but a damning notion in the cold calculations of the marketplace.
This is perhaps one of the most significant cultural shifts of the last half-century. As the author describes it, “The home was seen as precisely that part of society exempt from the marketplace, an oasis of cooperation in a competitive economy, a refuge where the life of the family—which that economy exists to serve—is nourished.” Robertson is proposing that we restore the idea of family as something “set apart,” a thing of unique moral significance with unique moral responsibilities.
Instead, we seem to have relegated the family to the vulgar and ordinary. Devoid of sacredness, the families we create and how we choose to sustain them become merely issues of personal preference. Therefore, questioning how much parents work and the effect this may have on their children is irrelevant and, to some, even offensive. In fairness, it is not difficult to see why few in the mainstream press have asked the hard questions that Robertson does. A proponent of the two-parent household with the mother as the primary caregiver during the day, some would object, is a chauvinist who defines a woman’s fulfillment in hopelessly anachronistic terms.
This is illustrative of just how lopsided the debate has become. Yet this is why Robertson’s book is a refreshing read. Even a reader sympathetic to his thesis will sense how countercultural and even courageous these sentiments are. At the same time, the inescapable reality is that many models of family prevail in America, and it seems the one least encouraged is the traditional one.
The author proposes several concrete measures aimed at combating the decline of the family. Among his recommendations are a reform of the tax code to treat families as a unit, an end to no-fault divorce, replacement of the current welfare system with an anti-poverty policy that discourages illegitimacy, and protection for families against “government and business invasion into the ‘domestic economy.’”
None of these proposals are particularly novel, but they do remind us that governmental policy, for better or for worse, serves to implicitly endorse and perpetuate a certain vision of the family. And of course any of the above proposals could be implemented by a simple vote of the legislature. No elected body, however, is likely to pass a thorough pro-family agenda as long as it is answerable to an electorate firmly entrenched in the current culture of work and convinced that we are doing the best we can in a changed social climate.
Robertson is correct when he notes that we must “change the culture.” This language is reminiscent of John Paul II’s call for cultural transformation in creating a just world order. There is wisdom in this approach. In almost Chestertonian fashion, it recognizes that without a “philosophy of everything,” we are incapable of evaluating the truth of our individual policies and laws. When we have a sense of the whole, we can better appreciate the role of the parts. But obligations also come with this approach. To transform culture is to change personal philosophies, ways of living, and habits of being—surely no easy task. Yet in this era of great moral and political polarization, it seems nothing less than metanoia will do.
Kevin J. Doyle received a B.A. in Classics from Georgetown University and is currently a law student at Seton Hall University.
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“Restoring the Family” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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