For Better or Worse

By Daniel Bodden

The American dream of mom and dad, son and daughter, dog and white picket fence is not a reality for a growing number of families who no longer Screen-Shot-2015-03-03-at-12.56_copy2follow the classic family formula. Many look to “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy” as the golden days of the wholesome family, but, according to Dr. Chelsea Garneau, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Mizzou, this idealized 20th century family portrayed in pop culture is a misconception.

“People perpetuate the idea that the ideal family structure always existed and only recently we’ve strayed from the traditional family form,” Garneau said. “We didn’t always live this way. People hold the family of the 1950s on a pedestal, but there is not a specific, ideal family structure.”

As the transition to more complex families continues, Dr. Judith Stacey, Professor Emerita of Social and Cultural Analysis and Sociology at New York

University, believes that the “nuclear family,” a couple and their dependent children, is no longer the norm.

“The biggest change is that the nuclear family has not been the majority family,” Stacey said. “There is no single majority family. There are many, many different types of families. Families, of course, always have changed over the life course, but now they change a lot more than that.”

DIVERGENCE

The reasoning behind the change in family structure lies in huge changes in American society in the late 1900s through the present. Stacey believes that the shift began in the 1970s.

“The three main things I could identify quickly would be the demand for women to be in the paid labor force — the normalization of paid employment for women, especially white women who were not expected to work once they had children for much of the 20th century,” Stacey said. “Female employment had a huge impact on changing the expected roles in family life and marriages. The second major fact, connected to that to some extent, was the steady rise in divorce rates and that meant that you had a lot of recombining families, and stepfamilies, and single parents and stuff of that sort. Connected to that was, of course, the development of reliable birth control and ultimately the legalization of abortion which made it possible to separate sex from reproduction for women. That led to increasing numbers of women who could live outside of marriage and make decisions about having children apart from that.”

More recently, changes in the type of lifestyles lived by both adults and children have contributed to changes in the way families interact and behave. According to Carol Love, a clinical coordinator at Kids in the Middle, a local non-profit organization that provides family counseling and education, the advent of social media, increased Internet usage and filled-to-the-brim personal schedules has led to noticeable outcomes in family life.

“A lot of times, we don’t have as much time with each other,” Love said. “Everyone is busier and busier, more and more activities, and so I think one of the challenges for the modern family is how you stay connected emotionally and not just talk when things need to be fixed, but how you keep all that kind of positive, knowing each other, and validating each other.”

In her work, Love has also noticed a shift in the settings where families spend time together. Rather than sitting down to dinner or gathering in the home, she has seen an increase in the amount of family time spent in organized activities and children’s events.

“When I grew up, I ran out of the house at 9 a.m. and came back at five, even though my mom was at home,” Love said. “In high school, it would have been weird for our parents to show up to our sports games. Now, parents are involved a lot more in kids’ activities. The way we spend time together is a lot different. It’s challenging to make sure everyone is staying connected.”

DIVORCE

Although there is some controversy over the collection and analysis of divorce rates in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics, divorce rates have actually been decreasing for more than a decade, a fact that is often overlooked. Divorce can cause some of the largest shifts in family dynamics for children; however, Stacey believes that divorce is sometimes better for the kids than unhappy parents remaining married.

“Two committed parents are usually better than one if those parents get along well,” Stacey said. “It depends on the quality of the relationship. A good divorce is better than a bad marriage for most kids, but a bad divorce is pretty bad. High conflict in families is usually negative for children, so it depends a lot on how those things are managed.”

At Kids in the Middle, Love sees divorce from both the parental perspective and the child perspective. Love refers to divorce as “an explosion in the road” for kids. Even though one or both parents may be able to see and understand long-term improvement in their personal lives through the divorce, it is often very difficult for children to adapt this perspective.

“I think people have more interaction with people of the opposite sex than they might have in generations past, so I think it’s just more common that people may find someone that they prefer over someone else or people are a lot less willing to live a long time being unhappy or with someone who is abusive or has a mental health problem,” Love said. “People see a way out and now people are able to support themselves separately. I don’t think children, however, see it the same way at all because I don’t think they understand that. I think for children, it’s always a loss, not that they can’t get over it, but I don’t think it’s easy for them to see the end result being better.”

Along with a decrease in divorces is a decrease in marriages; more households than ever consist of non-married adults. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 48 percent of households today are married couples, down from 76 percent in 1940, and 27 percent of children live with one parent only, up from 9 percent in 1960.

“Cohabitation, people who live together without being married, is rising among younger people, and often it’s not intended to be prior to marriage, but instead of marriage,” Garneau said. “Partially because of this trend, there are increasing rates of children born outside of marriage, and those children are likely to experience family instability and living in a single-parent family.”

DIVERSITY

Even as complex families become more commonplace, it doesn’t mean they are always understood and accepted by their peers, especially in high school. According to Love, family offers a new type of diversity students may not always recognize.

“I think it’s really hard for us to totally appreciate the challenge of other types of families, the same that it’s sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the challenges of being, for example, a different race or having a disability,” Love said. “I think people know it cognitively; I’m not sure they can always appreciate it otherwise. For example, if you’re in a two parent family, [being able to understand] having a single working mom and what that means in terms of being able to participate in things time-wise and get rides to places and have the money to be on, for example, Select soccer instead of CYC soccer and that kind of stuff.”

The nature of high school can also make it difficult for students with nontraditional families or who are in the midst of a family transition or crisis. Guidance Counselor Stephanie Johnson sees a connection between home life and school life in the students she works with.

“If they’re having trouble at home and they’re taking on roles like a parent then they come to school, and maybe they’ve been up all night raising their baby sister or they’re having to work all night because they have to help with bills, that definitely affects their schooling,” Johnson said. “I’m not saying that just because there’s a bad family situation means a student can’t be successful, because that’s not the case at all. There are students that fight through daily struggles, and still come to school and do very well.”

Johnson believes that the strong diversity in families at FHN is positive and that the support of families is more important than the family structure itself.

“I’d say FHN is as diverse as it can be,” Johnson said. “We have parents that have been married forever, there’s split families, there’s some that have not been married. You know, ethnic-wise, there’s diversity, I would say same-sex wise, too. I think it’s a good thing; families are becoming a lot more diverse, in general, not just at Francis Howell North. I feel like our country as a whole is kind of moving, yes there’s room for change, but I think it’s moving in the right direction as far as being able to be an individual and make your own decision, whether that’s who you’re dating or who you marry or having kids. I think that the more diversity in regard to anything, not just family, the better.”