Families in Crisis

The New York Times’s Judith Warner (whom I would also nominate for a bigger presence on the Times op-ed page), says what I tried to say a few weeks ago about the coverage of families adjusting to this new economy.

Journalists are going nuts finding stories that show that the lives of the formerly epoch-molding opt-outers — the rich, educated, non-working moms who set the tone of the talk about motherhood in the boom years — aren’t all they’ve been cracked up to be. London’s Daily Mail this week took a searing look at wealthy “yummy mummies” — the at-home types who “have it all,” with rich husbands, “beautifully cut, wonderfully-dyed hair,” great skin and nannies and found an “epidemic” of dissatisfaction.

We — journalists and readers both — simply must, for once, resist the temptation to let what may or may not be happening to the top 5 percent (or 1 percent) of our country’s families set the story line for what women’s lives are becoming in this recession.

Because, the fact is, the story’s not about them.

Warner points out that some articles create the myth of a novel shift in which high-earner dads are staying home with the kids, while MBA moms are going back to work, when, those gender dynamics aren’t new for most Americans, and letting the rich part stand for the whole creates a false impression.

The kind of marital tensions that we’re seeing in the downwardly mobile lifestyles of the rich and wretched, the family historian Stephanie Coontz told me this week, aren’t necessarily typical of couples further down the income scale, either. Wealthy families, she said, have tended, with their work-around-the-clock husbands and at-home wives, to have adopted a rather old-fashioned model of marriage, with fixed sex roles. They’ve set the tone, but the rest of the population hasn’t necessarily followed.


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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.