Episode 2 Myths About Family

Untying the Knots | Episode 2 | Myths About Family

Dawn Smith and Kristen Files, partners at Atlanta-based family law firm Smith & Files, host “Untying the Knots.” Season 1 offers practical advice and resources to families navigating crisis and covers such themes as co-parenting, intimate partner violence, myths about marriage and divorce, support systems, and financial safety after divorce. The 10-episode series launched July 1 with new episodes weekly through September 2 and includes special guests Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stolarski, and Historian and Marriage Expert Stephanie Coontz.

Below is a transcript of Episode 2: Myths About Family.

“Untying the Knots” is available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To learn more, visit smithfileslaw.com/podcast.

DS: Dawn Smith | KF: Kristen Files | SC: Professor Stephanie Coontz


DS I’m Dawn Smith.
KF And I’m Kristin Files.
DS This is Untying the Knots, a podcast about family crisis…
KF And what it takes to survive the tangles and strengthen the ties.
DS Welcome to Untying the Knots. Today we’re talking about myths about the family: how these myths that we’ve told ourselves in our heads and in our hearts affect family dynamics, particularly during times of dissolution. We’re honored today to be joined by Professor Stephanie Coontz who has done a deep dive into the research and data in history around family, marriage, gender roles and the like.
KF It’s really easy to fall into the idea that there’s only one way for a family to look. The way that the families looked on all the sitcoms when I grew up watching TV, the way that I thought my parent’s relationship needed to look for me to be really, really happy and stable. And I told myself that the only way that that could happen is that myself and my daughter and her father needed to live in one house. And he and I be in a relationship until she graduated from college and moved on, and then we would go to her wedding together. And that would be a happy, you know, life for us. But it took time once I began to come to the realization that, you know, our relationship wasn’t best served in that structure. And after I did all of the beating myself up of, “Oh, my daughter is not going to have the quote unquote, right quote, unquote, healthy quote, unquote, perfect, quote, unquote, nuclear family. That’s going to be so hard for her, and that’s going to be so difficult for her, now she’ll have to have two birthday parties, and all of these things, you know.” In the journey that happened over the next decade, I’ve been able to get to this place and model for my daughter that a really healthy and happy family can look much different than The Cosby Show or any of the other sitcoms that were around when I was growing up. As a matter of fact, a lot of the shows that she watches now, I’m like, “Wow, this is great. I wish I had this when I was growing up.” There’s Modern Family. There’s these shows on Disney where the family structure is different with adopted children or with blended families, which is very much what our life and family looks like now. And I remember once I did my own healing and was able to accept that more. I realized that normal or healthy is what you make it.
DS I so understand where you’re coming from. It’s almost like over the course of my coming to terms with what my family and my children’s family looked like that I’ve replaced a lens on the camera that when I chose earlier on to view every situation from the point of view of our family is broken. And I just want to go on the record right now how offensive I find it to call divorced or split up families broken homes.
KF Absolutely.
DS It is not at all broken. But once I chose to change the lens on that camera like – for a long time, I’d go to the preschool parties or whatnot, and my lens would see, “Oh, look at my little son. There’s a mom and a dad with all the other kids and there’s just me and his dad sitting separately.” Right? And when I eventually changed the lens to see, “Hey, we got this pretty cool family.” When I chose to view that through a lens that said, “It’s all good. They’re all types of families.” You know, I didn’t impart that heaviness to him of what was quote unquote, broken in our family. But it was a myth, man. My extended family growing up, my mom and dad were the only broken, divorced people. So I always, always felt like we were less than at all the gatherings, and people loved us, don’t get me wrong, but “Oh, there they are. There’s the divorced part of the family.”
KF Right. And there’s this negative stigma…
DS Right.
KF Which is really a complete fabrication.
DS Right, and to have a different family constellation. So…
KF Right.
KF As you might imagine, Kristen and I could talk about this forever. But we did get together and talk about some of the most common myths that we have seen personally and professionally, that we believe are harmful, both to individuals as members of families, as members of families that are splitting apart, and harmful to kids. So we want to go through a few of the myths; we’re going to talk to our expert about some of the primary myths. The first one is the myth that the role of a wife or a husband or a spouse is supposed to look like one thing, right? That there’s only one right way to be a quote unquote, healthy family. And we want to bust that myth and say, right here right now: wrong.
KF Absolutely. Myth number two: Parents should stay together for their kids. That they should wait to separate or wait to divorce until their kids leave home. That was, you know, the myth that I was living in. And I think now, “What if we’d stayed together all of this time and been really unhappy just for the fact to be together.” That does more damage, causes more trauma to children, staying in a home environment that has unhealthy underpinnings, just for the sake of living in what we have seen as the quote unquote nuclear or a traditional family.
DS And what we have learned and what the research shows is that being exposed to conflict and uncertainty about the future, or what’s most damaging for children, not the fact of the divorce. In fact, 80% of those aged 14 to 22, who have lived through family breakups would prefer their parents to part to break up if they were unhappy. And I can say that as a 12-year-old who was thrilled when her mom and dad decided to get divorced, because it meant the fighting would stop. Myth number three is if you share custody, you don’t have to pay child support. Hey, Kristin, is that true under the law?
KF That is not true under the law. The short answer is that is not true. There’s lots of different ways that parents share custody and Child Support is determined differently in each state, but it is not an absolute indicator that because you share custody, or you have a shared 50% schedule with each parent that you will not have to pay support for that child. The next myth: Everything I do is for my child’s best interest. We know that by doing the type of work that we do that often we have clients who are wonderful people, and are in the middle of a very emotional process of separating with their family and think that what they are doing are in their child’s best interest. A great example of this situation is of someone believing they’re acting in their child’s best interest, but they’re really motivated by their own needs is the trick or treating scene from the movie, The Marriage Story. Dawn, have you seen that movie?
DS I have seen it, but tell our listeners about that scene because you and I both saw it and texted each other and went, “Oh…”
KF Exactly, exactly. Marriage Story is a film that came out last year, 2019, on Netflix starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. If you have not seen that movie, you should watch that movie. It’s a good movie.
DS And it’s the real deal.
KF Yeah, the scene that I’m talking about is: the child’s father comes to pick the child up to go trick or treating. But when he arrives to pick up the child from mom’s house, the kid already has plans to go trick or treating with his cousins in a different costume and doesn’t want to have the costume that dad brought, even though it’s cool costume. So, mom is like, “Well, you know, he wants to go with his cousins,” and dad’s upset because he wants to spin trick or treating time with his son. So he says, “Well, fine.” Well, he has the kid come to him after he has spent an entire evening with his mother and his cousins trick or treating and having a great time. At the end of the night, the mom brings the child to the father’s place where he’s staying. And so dad’s like, “Yeah, okay, let’s go trick or treating again. Let’s do it again. Like take two. Now it’s my turn and get to trick or treat with you,” and the kids tired, he’s tired. He’s had a bunch of candy, like he’s already done the trick or treating, but dad needs that for him. And from an empathetic standpoint, I understand the feeling of, “Oh, I am missing out on this moment that I want.” But that goes to our myths that we’re talking about that family has to look a certain way. But it’s hard to see that often in the midst of it.
DS I think it’s really hard to tease out: “What do I want because of me? And what am I saying is really in the child’s best interest, but it’s more about what my needs are.” And I think that’s a great example of it. The last myth that we’ll talk about today is that we’re splitting up but it won’t get ugly. It’ll be different for us. And I would commend you again to Marriage Story where the husband and wife, the mom and dad are getting a divorce. They’ve decided to split up. And early in the process, they are doing it pretty amicably. But they begin to involve lawyers. They involve two different types of lawyers, one who’s a little more collaborative and wants to take the lead from the client, and one who is a ballbuster. Go for it. I’m going to get the best for you. And the parents, the clients end up taking the backseat to what happens in the legal situation. And it is, if you choose to bring your matter before the court, then you lose a great deal of control over how you resolve this dispute. And it is very hard for it not to get ugly. So it’s not just Dawn and Kristin, who believe that these myths are dangerous. We have an expert with us here today. Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College who is actually studied and written about the negative effects of these myths and our family, and we’re thrilled to have her with us today.
KF Stephanie, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Could you introduce yourself to our listeners?
DS Yes, I’m Stephanie Coontz. I teach history and Family Studies at Evergreen State College. And I write a books, a lot of books, about marriage and history. And I’m also the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
KF That’s so interesting. How did you discover your passion for this work?
DS Well, I’m a historian by training and I study the history of marriage and family life, divorce, the way that families have changed, a lot of the myths. One of my first popular books was called The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. And the bottom line was basically Leave it to Beaver was not a documentary. So…
KF Right.
SC But I’ve been so lucky to work with this interdisciplinary group called the Council on Contemporary Families, which is concerned to get good peer reviewed solid research out to the public, as opposed to the kind of cherry picked evidence that people get when they’re trying to take sides. A lot of work with sociologists, and I confess a lot, a lot of people think I’m a sociologist, but I’m just playing one.
DS Well, that might lead us right into what Kristin and I have been talking about. So, on Untying the Knots we’ve been very focused on looking at the myths that relate to family, and what n our both our personal experience as well as our professional experience, the myths that are damaging and sort of perpetuating some of the problems that we see families encounter, or more importantly, really exacerbating whatever trauma they’re going through because they feel like a family has to be a certain way. So the first myth that we see and have both experienced is the myth around that there is a special certain role that a wife, a husband, a spouse, a partner is supposed to have, and that a family is supposed to look like in order to be a healthy or complete or normal family. I imagine that’s what you were looking at way back when in The Way We Never Were.
SC Well, yes. And you know, it’s funny because when people think about what that supposedly normal family is supposed to be and was like, they’re actually looking at probably the single most untraditional family form in history, the male breadwinner family of the 1950s. For thousands of years, men and women worked together in the home. Women were called yoke mates. There was no idea that a man could or should be the male, a male provider. In fact, when you look at history, the only time a man would ever describe himself as a sole provider was when he was asking for mercy because his wife was unable or unwilling to work alongside him in the home. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a tiny majority of kids began to grow up in houses where their mother was not out in the workforce or on the farm, or working out of a family owned business. That family then subsided again in the Great Depression and World War Two, it roared back in the 1950s and lasted for about 17 or 18 years. And yet we think this is the way things ought to be. People think that this is normal; it’s not normal. It actually deforms the role of both men and women, by excluding men from the family life and making women’s second class in the work life where they used to be equal experts there.
DS That is fascinating, because, you know, as I hear you say that I’m struck by how convinced I am that I thought that that’s how families had always been: one breadwinner and a mom staying at home. That’s really fascinating to me. I sure have been influenced by that myth.
SC We all have and, and it turns out that kids get along perfectly well, by having other caregivers and in fact benefit by having many people. When you look back at the history of how humanity evolved, Sarah Hardy says that the real distinctive homo sapiens advantage was that we were cooperative breeders, that there were lots of aloe parents and you look at many societies, like the FA in Africa, where the baby is held by someone other than the mother 60% of the daylight hours, and yet they grow up to be peaceable, lovely people.
DS That fascinates me as well, because the thing is a working woman and a working mother, that thing that I have told myself over and over and over again, is I should be home with my children, if I’m a really good mom, and we know that part of the culture wars has been around, “Well, if you’re out of the home working, you’re really not doing what’s best for your children.” And that sounds like it’s just not true and historically we’ve seen families and children thrive with those different types of arrangements.
SC Absolutely, we’re, we’re pretty sure that whether a woman works out of the home or not, is really unrelated to how our kids do. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems now that work has moved out of the home, and you can’t combine family and work duties at the same time. And so the better predictors are: does the woman have job control, how valued she feels at work, how much control she has over her work, affects her ability to parent well, when she gets home. Does she have flexibility? If she has a male partner, does that male partner do his fair share? And if she doesn’t, does she have support systems? Does she have childcare? Does she have parental leave? And it turns out that all of these things are a much greater predictor of how the kids turn out than whether she works outside the home or even whether she’s a single parent.
KF That’s so interesting. Our next myth which is the idea that parents should stay together in a relationship for their children. For example, as a family law attorney, I speak with many clients who say to me, “Well, we’re going to stay together until our kids are out of the house, at least, because we want to make sure that we give them a good home and a good healthy family,” even though they have issues that are going on within their marriage that have brought them into the consultation that we’re having. Can you talk about your research and your findings on that myth?
SC Well, I think it’s pretty clear that two cooperative parents are a big advantage to kids. They model problem solving and how to negotiate conflict and that some people have different expertise and other people can work it up in other ways, but the cooperative is kind of the operative word there. That’s not to say that some parents can’t do that, that they’re in a friendly relationship and they can stay if the love is gone together for the sake of the kids, more power to them, but to put up with things that are upsetting you, that are making you hostile, and even if you’re not fighting in front of the kids, the kids know it. For example, uh, Philip and Carolyn Callen show that when outside observers look at the relationship between couples, and they will code it as cold but amicable, the kids experience that relationship as high conflict. So you have to be very careful. There’s no one size fits all generalization, except for the fact that if you stay together, and you cannot cooperate amicably, not just try to fool your kids, but actually convince them by the way you feel internally, you’re not doing them a favor. And in fact, one long term study, actually conducted by people who tend to be opposed to divorce, found that people who stayed together unhappily, their kids turned out worse than ones that were able to manage a productive and cooperative divorce. Of course, that’s an important too, not everybody can do that, as you know.
KF Right. Correct. Correct. But that’s so important for our listeners to hear.
DS Well, and you know, the research that I look out so frequently as an advocate for kids is that the single biggest indicator of Child Health is a level of conflict both in the home and post-divorce, that it is that high level of conflict regardless of whether you stay with the person or not, that influences the children.
KF On that similar topic, another myth that I’ve faced personally, and that I mentioned earlier in the show, in my own personal example, and that we talk through with clients is the idea that a successful relationship has to last forever, not only forever, but that it needs to stay the same. Do you have any opinion on that?
SC You know, I think that one relationship that does stay forever is if you’re the parent to somebody. So that’s an important thing to bear in mind, that: you can change your relationship with the partner but you’ve got to remember that you’re still parents. But in terms of changing relationships, you know, in a really good relationship, your relationship will grow. But if people are going in different directions, for example, when people marry young or people take different paths, then if you can’t change together, trying to force yourself to stay together is probably not always going to work. So I think that the idea that staying together for the sake of staying together, or making a relationship last for the sake of it lasting, is not the issue. The question is how do we help more people develop relationships that grow and thrive and change even as individuals change, and that can include a divorced couple, being co-parents and friends.
DS I’m such a better co-parent with my ex now that were exes than when we were married.
KF So let’s talk about the way that families have changed and the idea of the Modern Family today. What is your opinion on what the Modern Family is?
SC Well, I would take away the “The” in it. Because there’s no such thing as The Modern Family. In this particular period that was such a fluke in history, if you had 100 people, Philip Cohen points out, only, like three of them would have been divorced. The vast majority would be male breadwinner families. Today, there’s no single majority family, although the most frequent combination is a dual earner family. But there are more single mother families than there are married male breadwinner families. And so we’ve got a tremendous diversity of family life. And we have to understand that different families have different needs and different dynamics. And somehow we have to create social policies and emotional expectations that build on the different strengths and vulnerabilities of each. Every family can succeed, given the right social supports and personal supports, and there’s no family that doesn’t have weaknesses. If you want to ask what is most important in Modern Family nowadays, it’s really changed. Back in the 1940s and 50s, being a strong authoritarian as a parent was seemingly quite important for the kids’ well-being. And in the marriage, women doing most of the housework and men doing most of the breadwinning is how people said they were happiest. Since the 1990s, that’s completely reversed. That is the huge predictor of conflict and unhappiness in your marriage, that kind of authoritarian parenting and that unequal division of labor.
DS Absolutely. So I serve as a guardian ad litem quite frequently and authoritarian parenting, as children age causes, in my experience, more police intervention with the family and more injuries, both emotional and physical. The insistence on an inflexibility that we see with authoritarian parenting. So Stephanie, if you could look in your crystal ball of the future, and had to either one make predictions or wishes for what would happen to the Modern Family and what changes we might see, what would be your thoughts?
SC Historians hate to be asked that.
DS Sorry.
SC But I think what we need now are not futurist but activists because one of my biggest concerns about the families now is not what individuals are doing as far as we can tell most individuals are doing things better than the past marriages, there’s been a huge fall in domestic violence, actually marriages are lasting longer than they did. The divorce rate has fallen in the last 40 years. People don’t really realize that; marriages are lasting longer before they divorce and when they divorce, fewer men are not seeing their kids and fewer marriages are highly conflictual. All of these changes are very important. Unfortunately, our economy and polity is going in the other direction, increasing people’s sense of precariousness, the economic inequality, the fall in intergenerational mobility. All of these stressors we know, are bad for children, whether they’re in marriages or not. And they’re bad for marriages, the single best predictor of conflict and bad communication in a marriage is not somebody’s family background, but how insecure and chronic their economic stresses are. So this is a major problem, even before COVID-19. And the response of our government and political leaders has been merely to, in most cases, keep sending money to the top 1% of the population. So that’s not going to be very helpful. So I guess my wish would be that we would stop beating up on families and start taking on the people who are not paying people their full worth as workers, and valuing the most important resource we have, which is our growing generation we totally under invest in as a society.
DS Here, here. Paying women what they’re worth, and then paying all workers a working wage would go a long way in the work that we see. And certainly in the health of families.
SC Well, the COVID-19 just brings that really home, the majority of essential workers are women, and yet evidently not essential enough to be paid enough to keep themselves safe and to take care of their kids. It’s terrible.
DS Much less to pay for their childcare.
SC Right.
DS Right.
KF Absolutely.
DS So I wanted to ask you a last question from me about the Council on Contemporary Families and what its role is, as you see it as one of its founding members in society, in media, culture and with families.
SC Well, the Council first got formed back in the mid-90s by people like me who would be invited to speak at conferences from different points of view. Me, I’m a historian, sociologist, psychologist. We would go out for a cup of coffee or sometimes a glass of wine after the conferences, and complain that the press was not interviewing those of us who actually did research. But they were getting these press releases from these ideological think tanks, who really didn’t have family researchers and just were cherry picking evidence and pushing it. So we decided we want to be an organization that would allow good peer reviewed research to get out to the press and public and try to make it accessible. We want to be somebody you can trust to tell you both sides. For example, when we first started this divorce issue was huge. Reporters would call me and they’d say what is the impact of divorce and not only would I show them the sort of stuff that we have been talking about, but I would also say, look, there’s a lot of differences. Here is a reputable source, a reputable researcher who tends to think that the, there’s some serious impacts that you should take. Here’s another reputable researcher, who says that really, they’re all kind of phony, that they all represent different things that are happening. So I can’t tell you which of these is right. You can listen to them. But I can tell you this that Judy Wallerstein, who tells you that everybody is doomed by divorce is completely out in left field or right field or wherever you want to put her, she’s not in the ballgame anymore, and you don’t need to listen to her. So these are the sorts of things we try to bring people’s attention to and change their behavior on.
DS It has been such an honor, keep well, be safe. Keep up the good work. We’ll be reading it and following you and your cohorts as you attempt to tell us the truth and give us the data on what the real Modern Family is.
SC Oh, it’s a pleasure talking to you all.
DS I know that looking at all those myths made me really question some of the stories that I’ve been telling myself for a while.
KF Yeah, definitely. I know that I learned a lot. And I hope that it was as helpful for our listeners as it was for me and you.
DS Thank you for joining us. We look forward to seeing you here again next time.
DS If you’d like to know more about Stephanie Koontz and her work, you can visit her website at Stephanie Coontz. That’s C O O N T Z.com. https://www.stephaniecoontz.com/  You can learn more about the Council on Contemporary Families at contemporary families.org. https://contemporaryfamilies.org/
KF The Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Sciences is a great source for information and research about the myths we talked about in the episode today. You can find articles on their website ncfr.org https://www.ncfr.org/. If you would like to know more about the topic we discussed today, you can find show notes and resources on our website which will be linked in the episode description. https://smithfileslaw.com/blog/ and https://smithfileslaw.com/podcast/
DS Untying the knots is a production made in partnership with FRQNCY media. I’m your host Dawn Smith.
KF And I’m Kristin Files. Enna Garkusha is our producer. Peter lopinto is our editor.
DS Episode research is by Jessica Olivier, Becca Godwin and Vincent Mitchell.
KF We are recording in Atlanta, Georgia during the pandemic.
DS We want to thank all essential workers and those who are doing their best to keep us healthy and safe.