“My mother was a saint.” ” In my time, we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” “A man’s home is his castle.” “The home is the foundation of society.” These are just some of the romantic catchphrases that are commonly recited by those who claim that things just aren’t like they used to be in the “good old days.” In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992/2000), Stephanie Coontz exposes these ideals for what they are: myths that portray an inaccurate perception of the past and hinder current discussions about the present and future. Crime, for instance, declined 20% between 1990 and 1998, and yet the number of murders covered by the media increased by 600%, leading many to believe that we live in a much more dangerous world than before. Other persistent but equally inaccurate myths include the belief that marriage is a dying institution, that black families are always in crisis, and that single parent-families produce dysfunctional children. Coontz also demonstrates that the 1950s, far from being the traditional norm for family relations in America, was actually a very unusual decade. In addition, she argues that what is believed to be natural and innate when it comes to gender roles is actually socially constructed, and that the notion of men as the breadwinners and women as homemakers is the result of a historical process.
The Way We Never Were is meticulously researched and offers a comprehensive view of the American family throughout the 1900s. It also effectively highlights the importance of not allowing feelings of nostalgia to skew our view of the past. The past, like everything else that is no more, can be easily idealized, but believing in a reality that never was can hamper the ability to deal with the reality that currently is.
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