A new American family has emerged
Peggy Des Jardines and her boyfriend Michael Packard look like a married couple; they share a little blue house, take care of their puppy, Arnold, and their kitten, Fran, and bicker occasionally over dishes in the sink.
Ikeah Tate grew up in a house run by her grandmother and supported by her mother, who worked her way through high school and technical college to be a nurse.
Michelle Foster and her brother Matthew grew up in a family split by divorce, but lived no more separately than if their parents had stayed married.
All Georgia College students, they represent a nation-wide transformation. Across the country, the American household is changing.
By definition, family is “the basic social unit of parents and their children” – but over the last 50 years, a trend has transformed the way Americans describe family. A sharp decline in marriage and a rise in new family forms has redefined the contours of modern marriage, and a new American family has emerged.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year reveals that 40 percent of us think marriage is obsolete.
This movement away from traditional marriages toward the modern family emerges from a swirling cloud of economic strife, shifting tolerance, changing gender roles and developing individualism.
Victoria Brown, a GC sociology instructor, recognizes individualism as a major factor in this cultural change.
“We are becoming a more individualistic society,” Brown said. “Before, we used to think family-oriented. We used to ask ‘Why are you staying together?’ And the answer was always ‘For the kids.’ Now we use that same argument to validate why we should be separated. ‘If I’m unhappy – me as an individual – how can I be a good mother to my children?’ It’s a shift in the way we’re identifying what family is supposed to do.”
As emphasis rests on the individual, women further liberate themselves from dependence on someone else, challenging the “male bread-winner” cultural tradition and, consequently, the significance of marriage. According to Brown, the increase in the number of educated women directly relates to the decrease in marriage showing up in research everywhere.
“Women become more educated and able and likely to work outside of the home, and they see, ‘I can do this on my own.’ So we’re seeing that marriage roles have been reversed,” she said. “America is to a point where we’re asking, ‘What exactly do we do when we’re married?’ It’s not as clear as it was in the 50s and 60s when you had, say, June Cleaver cleaning the refrigerator in a white dress and heels.”
We have reached a different understanding of men and women in the union.
Individualism and changing gender roles reorganize the boundaries of modern marriage; mix in economic crises and growing tolerance and the face of the modern family looks very different too.
Of course, with every action comes a reaction. As traditional marriage and family ideals evolve, fierce political and legal battles rage over marriage rights and permission, and a variety of family arrangements arise for recognition.
“There can be real implications when you create your own family definition. Our culture is changing, so there’s a cultural lag. If society hasn’t changed to catch up to your new definition, then you’re not going to benefit from those same responsibilities or rights that another family that is recognized as a family will have. So there are definitely consequences to it,” Brown said. “I think with same-sex families we can see that most clearly. That’s a huge consequence because, essentially, you can’t even leave the state you got married in. It’s not recognized by the federal government. And so your family is in question.”
By emphatic margins, the public does not view marriage as the only path to family formation.
“I think that families are starting to look different,” Brown said. “So what’s really happening is that we have things like same-sex marriage that looks different; we have families with a single mother heading the household with no man around. It just looks different.”
According to the Pew survey, the public recognizes a single parent and a child, an unmarried couple living together with children and a gay or lesbian couple raising a child as families. Although marriage doesn’t matter in the public’s definition of family, the presence of children clearly does.
The Pew survey reveals that the public thinks children of single parents face more challenges than other children. Survey respondents saw even more challenges for children of same-sex couples and children of divorce.
According to the report, “Rarely is there a bigger chasm between what Americans believe to be the best thing for society and what actually happens than in the bearing and raising of children. Half or more of the respondents say that marital status is irrelevant to achieving respect, happiness, career goals, financial security or a fulfilling sex life. But when it comes to kids, more than three-quarters say it’s best done married.”