real, the idealized often at odds, experts say

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday March 26, 2006
By Gracie Bonds Staples - Staff

He was divorced, with a son. So was she.

And so when Cathy and Denny Dobbs merged their families nearly 20 years ago, it was much like the popular 1970s sitcom "The Brady Bunch."

They both worked on the job and at home. They spent time with their children and with each other. They still do.

The same can be said for Leslie and Anthony Royal's family. And Nancy and Richard Schulz.

But is "the family that stays together" the image most of us conjure up when we think of the modern family?

Not according to Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

In reality, most people believe families are less stable than in the past, less likely to spend time with their children and less likely to work toward a happy marriage the way they used to.

Those and other myths about America's families will be up for discussion during a two-day conference that starts Thursday in the Jones Room of the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

Coontz will be among some of the nation's top family scholars exploring, among other things, the origins of American family myths in popular media and culture, schools, religious institutions, history, advertising and politics.

The conference, open free to the public, is sponsored by Emory's Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.

"We live in a society in which there are very specific institutions whose job it is to pump out myths," said Bradd Shore, professor of anthropology and director of the center. "We have media. We have advertising. We have art. The idea is to survey a variety of different sources of family myths."

Mythic images of family can be positive or negative, and they change over time. "There are a wide range of images and stories about family" that distort or exaggerate the reality, Shore said.

This is particularly true, Coontz said, when it comes to African-American families like the Royals, who have a rich history of close family and community ties.

Not only are they less likely than whites to institutionalize their old, ill and dependent members, but there is also a strong tradition of "other mothers," of sharing aid and compassion beyond the family, she said.

Yet what often emerges in the media is parental stress, family conflict, hopelessness and recklessness, present in every ethnic group and geographic region.

At the same time, the media often ignore black families like the Royals, who struggle day in and day out to do right.

"White America has a long history of projecting its own fears and crimes onto African-Americans,'' Coontz said. "Think about Charles Stuart in Boston murdering his pregnant wife and blaming it on a black mugger. Or Susan Smith murdering her kids but trying to blame a black carjacker."

Nancy Schulz, who co-owns a golf course with her husband, said she grew up believing family was what she saw in the popular sitcom "Leave It to Beaver." "But it's much more complex than that," she said.

Still she says she believes that American families are much healthier than they are portrayed.

"I can't imagine anyone working harder at their marriage than my husband and I do or my friends and their spouses," said Nancy Schulz. "We are all committed to making our marriages work."

The same is true when it comes to spending time with today's children, they said.

Denny Dobbs left the Georgia Legislature because he wanted to spend more time with his kids, his wife, Cathy, said. "He wanted to be available to them --- and he has been."

Cathy Dobbs, who has been married 20 years, said she and her husband found each other late in life, after each had divorced.

But even with a blended family, they've managed to carve out what they consider a typical American family.

That means family is a top priority, she said. And even if they're not at home, they are together. They attend the children's ballgames, sometimes working concessions; they attend church together.

Three times a week, she and Denny have lunch.

Two families in one

Shore said every family lives with two different kinds of family: One is the real family we live and interact with; the other is the set of images or idealized family we compare our real family to.

Those family mythologies, Shore said, evolve from many different institutions, from religion to advertising and consumption to mass media.

No matter the origin, myths always combine something true with something fictional, Shore and Coontz said.

For example, Shore said, images of the supermom are often reinforced by advertising; one part, you're stressed out (the truth); one part, you can have it all --- if you just buy this product (the fantasy).

"Historian John Gillis says that we all struggle with the gap between the families we live by --- the ones we mythologize --- and the families we live with --- the real, complex families that surround us," said Coontz. "The result is that sometimes we make these big, rigid pronouncements in the abstract but allow for all sorts of exceptions in practice."

Coontz said, however, that people are beginning to recognize that they can't tell how well a family functions by how "traditional" it looks.

And some families --- through hard work and conscious effort --- happily discover that their real family can be just as close as in the most saccharine episode of "Leave It to Beaver."

"When I was growing up, the ideal family was ... parents who loved one another and their children," said Leslie Royal, 39, of Lithonia. "For me, it actually worked out to be like that."

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