Symposium: The Contemporary Family

Encumbered womanhood

Jui-Shan Chang, University of Melbourne

Susan Maushart Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2002 (268 pp). ISBN 1-87700-818-4 (paperback) RRP $19.95.

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim Re-Inventing the Family: In Search of New Lifestyles, Cambridge, Polity Press 2002 (170 pp). ISBN 0-74562-214-3 (paperback) RRP $58.25.

An emerging tradition in sociology might be termed ‘funeral sociology’, for it informs modern readers that in post-modernity we are witnessing the ‘death’ of the family, of community, civil society, learning, and citizenship, to mention but a few. Modern times were ushered into being with the announcement that ‘God is dead’. Since then, institutions seem to be dying too. Many institutions that might have enabled people to take charge of a new social order of industry and individualism have themselves left a wake of problems and frustrations.

Two recent books on marriage and family in the secular West do not so much announce the death of the family, as diagnose a pervasive malaise. Both offer feminist diagnoses of social relations: conventional gender roles persist, and wives, even when working, still do more housework than their husbands. Both offer the same remedy: men will have to do more to redress imbalances in the way men and women live out a marital journey. They pose ‘solutions’ in terms of raising awareness and (re)socialising men to do more housework.

These diagnoses and solutions have significant policy implications, ranging from educational initiatives to socialise boys, to encouragements and inducement for women to be more assertive about familial imbalances, and they gesture towards increased surveillance of on-going gender power disparities. Yet both authors do little to probe how culturally specific the expression of these problems in gender relations might be. Our global context gives us the opportunity to see how other cultures have reacted to modernisation and, in the process, filtered out aspects of Western culture while adapting to the structures of capitalism.

Susan Maushart’s Wifework makes gripping reading — it’s alive to the foibles, fashion, and frenzies that make up the role of ‘wife’. The core issue for Maushart is that deep inequities persist within the marriage bond: it’s a bond of comfort for men but, alas, bondage for women. She writes ‘As Dalma Heyn has observed, compared to single women, wives suffer “more nervous breakdown, inertia, loneliness, unhappiness with their looks, more insomnia, nervousness and nightmares; more phobias; more feelings of incompetence, guilt, shame and low self-esteem”’ (p. 5). Women may have become assertive at work, but they find they cannot easily raise matters about equity at home. Women have compromised. They have settled for what Maushart call ‘pseudo-mutuality’ and have yet to fully enjoy real mutuality. Maushart goes so far as to surmise that men, who indeed discover on a second marriage that, by doing more they obtain more satisfaction, could not see this trade-off earlier because in the end, the inequities suit them:

There is some evidence to suggest that by a man’s second or subsequent marriage he will be much more likely to give true mutuality a try … The irony is that equality probably is a better deal for men, too: psychologically emotionally, and spiritually. Unfortunately, inequality ain’t bad either — and no man has to lift a finger to achieve it (p. 197).

Maushart devotes much of the book to explaining how this can be so in a mix of anecdotes (some of which are quite funny) and citation of research findings. Marriage is a final frontier for liberation — untouched, it seems, by women’s advances in other sectors of society.

Fixed roles and assured familial futures seem impossible.

Maushart’s solutions emphasise husbands doing more: not just by offering ‘help’, but by taking on responsibilities directly. However, Maushart does note research that found ‘If the marriage was working on an emotional level, women were unlikely to complain about equity’ (p. 109). In other words, if the wives have good emotional rapport and intimacy with their husbands, they don’t mind doing more wifework. Maushart’s feminist lens seems to have prevented her from putting these two points together and seeing a more fundamental matter. Clearly, women are struggling for individual recognition and validation from their most significant others — that is, their husbands — rather than solely engaging in a struggle for equity; a point to which I will return.

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s Re-Inventing the Family, although a more scholarly work that engages with academic debates, is also a good read. She mixes theory, policy debate, documented social trends, and some compelling examples to make her case. Beck-Gernsheim’s diagnosis of the problems of the contemporary family is more thorough than Maushart’s. For Beck-Gernsheim, the core issue is individualisation. Social policies are aimed predominantly at individual citizens. Capitalist labour markets require individual flexibility and presuppose a mobile workforce. Increasingly, work careers are fragmented and require intense commitment. At the same time, everyone is encouraged to ‘be him or herself’; an ‘individualised’ individual charting for him/herself an autonomous trajectory of personal accomplishments and experiences. A crucial element of this trajectory is pursuit of personal identity through socially recognised job roles. Long central to masculine identity, now women too construct their identities around paid work. Of course the problem then is that the family becomes a site to which tired people return from their ordeals in the world of work. Yet with so much individualisation the ‘family’ is becoming a flux of competing demands on the time and energies of its members. Frustration ensues. Fixed roles and assured familial futures seem impossible.

Beck-Gernsheim points out that many of the new calls for ‘family values’ and social policies focusing on ‘family’ are not grounded in existing social trends. Indeed, these calls almost sound like wishful thinking. She comments:

This is the contradiction in which New Labour has trapped itself. On the one hand, it wants to train everyone in self-assertion and personal initiative and to keep increasing the demands on labour; on the other hand, it seeks to conjure up a new marriage culture and expects people to be more family-conscious and willing to have children (p. xi).

Beck-Gernsheim argues that of the two objectives — individualisation and enhanced family life — individualisation dominates: everyone is to ‘make something of themselves’. Thus life becomes a big ‘planning challenge’. In this context, regardless of how much ‘planning’ an individual does, divorce becomes more prevalent. Families become ever more mixed — not only do children have extra ‘step-relations’, but in a more globally (and socially) mobile world, ethnic intermarriage is also increasing. Further, with the development of fertility-enhancing medical technologies and loosening norms about what is a ‘normal marriage’, family form itself is being ‘re-invented’ to include single headed families, gay marriages, children from in-vitro fertilisation, and looser ‘living together’.

Husbands need to become more sensitive to the burdens of wives.

Much data and a few anecdotes reveal both the contours and consequences of trends to individualisation and ‘re-invented’ families. Like Maushart, Beck Gernsheim analyses how women — unlike men — have been caught at the intersection of competing claims.

However, unlike Maushart, she recognises greater complexity: not only do women have to deal with domestic issues (more than men), they typically have to span the generations in offering care to both children and ageing parents. She predicts that if women become more ‘individualized’ and so more aware of themselves and their lifestyle, they may become less inclined to help with grandchildren in their later years (wishing at last to ‘enjoy life’), and in turn, their children may not be inclined to help them in their old age.

Like Maushart, Beck-Gernsheim argues that the solution lies in enrichment of the husband role with new sensitivity for the burden of wives. Without change, she predicts serious consequences for the care of extended family members — primarily elderly parents. Governments will be increasingly unable to pick up the cost of expanding welfare needs that arise as family support declines. Quoting social policy analysts, she claims that if women are not given a better deal within marriage, they will withdraw from assisting across generations. Thus gender equity is a precondition for inter-generational support. Looking to the future, Beck-Gernsheim also comments that one possibility for ‘re-inventing’ families emerges from the challenge of ethnic inter-marriage. As the two partners negotiate two different family systems, they develop new family forms or arrangements.

Overall, I think both books are surprisingly culturally narrow. Family values and the institution of the family have been mobilised — rather than damaged — in many other ways in the wake of industrialisation. Modernisation has not caused the ‘death of the family’ in cultural contexts other than the secular West. For example, the family has been used, along with an emphasis on family values, to achieve economic ‘miracles’ in Chinese societies. In Latin countries, Catholic familialism has played very significant role in small and medium sized businesses. In these cultures, the family has been very resilient.

Further, both Maushart and Beck-Gernsheim leave a core issue untapped: the family in the secular West is now a unit of consumption, not production (as it had been for so many centuries). However, advances in information technology are changing labour markets in ways that may transform the home back into a centre of production, as more of the very people these books focus upon — apartment dwelling, dual career, middle class Europeans — explore new ways to work. Perhaps then new roles and meanings of marital and family lives will emerge in the secular West.

Both books also assume that conventional (nuclear) family norms and values are irreversibly fading away. Are ‘family values’ now to be reduced to empty claims? Maushart and Beck-Gernsheim only see structural problems, not the values that can make sense of them. I think this is due in part to their belief that individualism is a ubiquitous and unassailable value. Thus the solutions they propose — promoting ‘husband work’ (to balance out ‘wife work’) and more diverse forms of ‘re-invented’ families — are directed at changing structures; at making marriages more equal and arrangements more flexible. These solutions have significant political and policy implications. But can these structural ‘solutions’ deal with the more fundamental problem of individuals in the secular West: their need for recognition and validation as a man or a woman?

Emotional and physical intimacy is built on more than housework.

Recall Maushart’s report that when wives feel emotionally, including sexually, ‘recognised’ by the husbands, they don’t mind doing more ‘wife-work’. It is likely that when husbands share more household chores, the wives feel emotionally closer and enjoy doing even more housework! But we know that emotional and physical intimacy is built on more than housework. As a sociologist who has studied sexuality, marriage, family, and identity across different cultures, I think that the issue of ‘emotional recognition’ is crucial to understanding the predicaments both books so poignantly portray.

First, there is a gender imbalance in the recognition system. The principal source of recognition for being a woman tends to be from the primary relationship (although motherhood also provides significant recognition if she is a mother). Conversely, the sources of recognition for being a man tend to be multiple. They can get recognition from work, relationship, fatherhood (if he is a father), or other major hobbies. Thus, it may be this (constant?) need for recognition and reassuring from their men that causes women to experience more dissatisfaction and anguish in marriage than men.

Second, does the recognition as a man or a woman ultimately have to come from the most significant other in a relationship? Does the focus of the family have to focus so exclusively on the conjugal bond, that is, on ‘the’ relationship? Other cultures reveal other possibilities. For examples, in Chinese societies, the contemporary influence of modern individualism notwithstanding, the ultimate recognition and validation for being a man or a woman — or indeed, a decent person in general — is gained primarily from playing well one’s familial roles in a family, not just in a relationship or marriage. An individual may not have a relationship or marriage, but all have a family. The focus and definition of ‘family’ goes beyond a narrow horizontal conjugal bond or ‘the relationship’, extending in the vertical intergenerational direction. In Chinese families, the conjugal bond is released from the strains Maushart and Beck-Gernsheim document because marital partners don’t require from each other constant emotional/sexual intimacy and recognition.

In contrast, the focus of Western ‘nuclear’ family system, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is the horizontal conjugal bond, and this bond is expected to be always strong, intense, and reassuring to each partner’s ego. Inevitably, with a horizontal focus, the need for recognition and intimacy puts the relationship under stress. This stress is exacerbated if partners are also dealing with the structural tension of inequity. Individuals in secular Western cultures are vulnerable: ‘failing a relationship’ almost feels like ‘failing as a person’, and the harsh reality is that failing a relationship can happen several times during a person’s lifetime. On this front, Chinese people are fortunate because personal validation is lodged within a structure (that is, family) that is much less likely to fail compared to a single conjugal bond. In short, solving the problems diagnosed in these two books may require new perspectives, and cultures other than Western secularism offer insights, wisdoms, and possibilities. Individualism, after all, may have limits.

Dr Jui-Shan Chang is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Program at the University of Melbourne.

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