We are the people who sold slaves as property, breaking up families forever as a matter of commerce. We are also the people who invented old-age homes, warehousing parents and grandparents to give ourselves more freedom. Americans, for better or worse, will give up just about anything for freedom, including family. The American experience is individual experience.
In Paris, where I lived for a time, you could set your clocks each Sunday by the comings and goings of children and their children on the stairs before and after dinner with the grandparents. The most astounding thing I could tell my French neighbors about Americans was that most of them rarely saw their children after the day they graduated from high school. After that, it's weddings and funerals and a few holidays - if you're lucky.
We have trouble believing that ourselves. How many of us keep our children's bedrooms as mini-museums, exhibiting stuffed animals and rock posters, in the illusion that the kids will come back to them - even for a weekend?
We do love families, at least the idea of them. Many of us, like our President, Nancy's husband, start two of them - or three or four. Soon we will have a new first family, the Bushes, tied closer together than most by inheritance, property and trust funds. But young George and Barbara Bush took off from home the first chance they got, packing a car in Connecticut and heading for Texas.
With all their pro-family Saturday Evening Post rhetoric, this bunch of Republicans' greatest contribution to keeping families together has been to make it more difficult for young people to get enough education and jobs good enough to leave home. Maybe, though, there's more room around the house with Mom out to work to make ends meet.
It is the weakness of the American family, not its strength, that created new "family issues" in this year's political campaigns. The Democratic candidate for president, Michael Dukakis, said more than once that he thought the most important problem confronting the United States is long-term medical care for longer-living Americans.
Seven million Americans need such care now, and that number is expected to reach 19 million over the next five decades. If American experience is any guide, most of that care will not be planned or paid for by their children.
The same is true near the beginning of life. "The times have changed," said a conservative congressman, Rep. Don Sundquist, a Tennessee Republican. ''In the 1970s, people like me knew that day care was a communist plot to brainwash our kids. Now, it's something we see in all the communities of our districts and that people want more of."
Want it and need it. Many women want the same freedom from children that men have traditionally taken for themselves. Many, many more need it because they have no men or have men who can no longer earn enough to support their
families in the manner they feel they deserve.
The "pro-family" rhetoric of Reagan and Bush has not changed the trends of our restless society. One out of four Americans now lives alone - compared with one of seven only 20 years ago - a statistic quite different
from living patterns anywhere else in the world.
Half the marriages celebrated this year will end in divorce. Two-thirds of the children born this year will spend part or all of their younger years in one-parent families. One out of five Americans born this year will be the children of unwed mothers - and the percentage keeps increasing.
Some of those statistics come from a study by Peter Morison, director of the Rand Corp.'s Population Research Center. "Fewer and fewer American
families conform to traditional stereotypes," he said. "People think they are seeing departures from the norm. But departures now are 75 percent of the norm."
No matter what we say or our leaders think, America, the land of individualism, is about departures. Leaving home and the restraints of family and tradition is more American than apple pie.