What's Happening to the American Family : Interview with Dr. Margaret Mead, Noted Anthropologist

Dr. Margaret Mead, discusses the changed pattern of American home life.

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This story originally appeared in the May 20, 1963, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

Are today's young parents equal to their job?

Americans are marrying younger now, often starting families before they finish school. What is the effect on the children, on parents and grandparents? Is the  modern husband too tied down to household chores to make the best of himself? And how about working mothers?

In this exclusive interview a prominent expert on the family, Dr. Margaret Mead, discusses the changed patten of American home life.

At New York City

Q  Dr. Mead, what is happening to family life in America?

A  No society that has survived has ever been quite like ours today. Ours is made up largely of isolated families. The children are totally dependent on their fathers and mothers, with no other relatives to fall back on, or neighbors, or anybody. Yet we are coming to think that the only form of possible life is this kind of "nuclear" family. That could be dangerous.

Q  "Nuclear" family? What's that?

It is father and mother and several young children—just what you can pack in a station wagon. No children past their middle teens—any others are expected to be away in college, or working. They should, in the popular conception, be out of the house.

Q  Is this a true picture of today's family?

A  This is the popular notion of what the American family should be like. It is what we see in advertisements, what we see on television. So, when people say, "We've got a small family," or, "We've got a big family," they are comparing their family with this image.

And when they say, "We've got an unusual family," they mean "Grandmother lives with us," or something of that sort.

Q  What do you think this type of family life is doing to people?

To begin with, we are forcing everybody to get married. Not only is this the picture of the family everybody is supposed to have sometime, but it's getting to be the family that everybody is supposed to have very early. So the girls are very uncomfortable if they're not married very young. And the boys are beginning to be uncomfortable if they're not married quite young—the average age of marriage for boys has sunk from 27 to 23, for example.

Q  Anything wrong with that?

Well, nobody is going to be interested in doing anything except having children. And you can't run a society if everybody's main interest in life is domestic—if nobody wants to be a Senator or a Governor or a President; if nobody wants to be the inventor, the lonely thinker. The average American man today is more interested in being a father than he is in his career or his job.

Q  Why do you say that?

Most of our young professional people these days have several children before they ever get their final degree.

Twenty years ago, law students talked to other law students about law. Medical students talked to other medical students about medicine. Theological students talked about theology. Now these students are home giving the baby its bottle, or helping with the housework—and they want to be.

Q  Is that necessarily harmful?

It is not harmful for men to help in the home. It is harmful if they sacrifice everything else for it: if they won't accept advancement, if they won't move somewhere else, if they won't take a job that means that they're going to be away from home, if they won't go overseas—if they won't go anywhere or do anything because they are so trapped by the care of a lot of children.

Q  Well, do you think that is the trend nowadays?

A  The American father today is so busy being a father he hasn't time to do his own work.

Q  What about mothers?

A  Today's American mother is one of the hardest-worked women in history.

Q  Why? Doing what?

Washing and washing and washing and washing in her lovely washing machine. Doing a terrible lot of chauffeuring. The more gadgets she has, the more hours she works. If you compare her with the woman on the farm that brought water from the well, her back doesn't ache as much, but she works more hours.

Q  If family housekeeping has become such hard work, how can so many women take jobs outside the home?