New 'Non-Traditional' American Families

Gina Smith and Heidi Norton of Northamption, Mass., have two sons. Norton is their biological mother, and Smith adopted them.

They live in a community in which there are several gay- or lesbian-headed households, but when they travel, they meet families with no experience with gay families and sometimes encounter clumsy questions.

While they may not fit the mold of what many Americans consider a typical family, they are a contemporary American family. There is no single typical American family anymore.

"We're in the midst of a major change in the way families and marriage are organized," says Stephanie Coontz, a college professor and author of The Way We Never Were, American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are, Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families. "It's distressing, because all of the rules we grew up with no longer work and so we're having to learn new ways of thinking about families."

Smith and Norton, both 39, head a family that helps others rethink their ideas of what a family is. When they're asked about themselves and their sons, Avery, 7, and Quinn, 3, they assume that questions are well-intended and that the clumsiness simply means that the questioner doesn't have the vocabulary to deal with the situation.

"What's worked for us is stepping into the void and giving people some language to use," says Smith. "We would say things like, 'Avery is a very lucky boy who has two moms who love him,' so we just give them that language."

The 1950s Myth

Most children these days have buddies whose families are very different from their parents'. In fact, they quite possibly are growing up in such a family.

Most people still believe in the two-biological-married-parents-with-kids model, says Alexis Walker, editor of the National Council on Family Relations' Journal of Marriage and the Family (www.ncfr.org).

"Family is both a belief and a practice," she says.

When she asks her students at Oregon State University, where she is a professor of human development and family sciences, if they think their family will be a mom, a dad, and children, most raise their hands.

But practice is far different. When she asks if they come from a family like that, only a few put their hands up.

Americans have to deal with the great myth of the 1950s, an era in which 60 percent of families consisted of a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother. But this model was actually a 15-year-aberration, fueled by post-World War II prosperity and a GI bill of unprecedented generosity that funded the education of returning war veterans, according to Coontz, a professor of family and history at Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash., and co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families (www.contemporaryfamilies.org) The council's mission is to publicize the way the family is changing and to cover the consequences and implications of those changes.

Coontz says that for most of history, families have been co-provider families, with husband, wife and often children, all working to provide for the family.

"The fact is that families have always been diverse, and they've always been in flux and we've always been worried about it. As far back as colonial days people were complaining that the new generation of families was not like the old one," she says.

No Single Model

The 21st century child-rearing family can take any number of forms.

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