Gracy Olmstead: The Church Is Where American Families Should Go for Support

I grew up in rural Idaho as part of a homeschool family with four kids. A lot of our neighbors had big families and most also had stay-at-home moms. In this atmosphere, getting married and having kids were frequent and encouraged practices. More generally, we had an integrated community where singles, kids, parents, and grandparents inhabited a shared world and together laid the foundation for neighborly and familial health. Our “little platoons”—the circles of community that Edmund Burke pointed to as the “first principle” of public life and civic strength—were strong.

This kind of community is increasingly rare. Over the past several decades, America’s birthrate has dropped to concerning levels, and marriage rates have continued to decline. Senator Elizabeth Warren has argued that some of these changes stem from the “two-income trap,” a concept Helen Andrews described succinctly in a New York Times op-ed last week: “When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off than before. The result is a two-tiered system that isn’t working for anybody.”

The cries for egalitarianism during this period led rise to a career-centric economic system that has made childrearing more expensive and stressful for everybody. As a result, the argument goes, we’re all getting hurt in one way or another, either by not having the children we want to have, not pursuing the work-life balance we would like, or not achieving the familial stability that might add value to our lives.

It would appear that the economy we’ve created is at fault for the nation’s baby bust and marriage rates. Because of this economic pressure, Andrews argues in her Times op-ed that we need a woman (or several women) like Phyllis Schlafly to lead a fight for the American family and to advocate for pro-family policies like paid family leave.

However, economist Lyman Stone has suggested that the familial struggles of our time are not just related to monetary hardship. Throughout our nation’s history, people with tenuous financial situations still chose to get married and have a lot of babies. So money doesn’t explain everything. Instead, Stone writes, our culture—and its underlying ideals—most determines people’s childbearing decisions. “Put simply,” he writes, “there is robust empirical evidence that people ‘learn’ fertility ideals from their parents and immediate communities.”

In more traditional societies in the past, childrearing was seen as a “collective project,” one that the entire community helped with. “Even in the United States today, many communities that maintain strong family social norms have this kind of ‘modern village’ parenting style, whether it’s immigrant communities in big cities or Mormons out west,” Stone wrote for the Institute for Family Studies last year. “Unsurprisingly, these groups tend to have higher fertility, perhaps in part because parents, and especially women, have more volunteer help on hand to assist them.”

For the rest of us, what happened to the village model?

In our time, Stone notes, the fabric of community that once supported families and more traditional “fertility ideals” has suffered serious blows. A lot of Americans live farther from family members than they used to. Church attendance is down. Intergenerational community is much less common. According to Tim Carney’s book Alienated America (and Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone), our free associations are fractured, and that fracturing has resulted in increased loneliness and despair in communities across the country. “[F]or most Americans today,” Stone writes, “we have ‘absentee villages’”:

Young and old people are probably more culturally different today than at almost any time in American history. Fewer and fewer people participate in multigenerational intentional communities like churches. … Indeed, as childcare becomes more and more atomized, we have seen the time parents spend parenting rapidly increase, fertility decline, and childcare costs explode.

This decline in community doesn’t just hurt two-parent families. I would argue that it hurts single parents even more, and as we see single-parent households on the rise, the decline of multigenerational intentional communities will have a huge impact on their wellbeing.

But this communal component also matters a good deal for the women Helen Andrews describes in her column, the ones who want more children—or more time at home—but find these desires beyond reach.

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Source: Christianity Today