The Changing Face of the American Family

The nuclear family is changing. Take a look at how divorce, family timing and size, adoption, and LGBTQ families are creating a new norm.

In the Encyclopedia of Couples and Family Therapy, the authors note that "traditional" nuclear families are typically thought of as having a mother, father, and children. However, the term dates back to the early- to mid-twentieth century, when the characteristics of a nuclear family were significantly different from today. For example, compared to today, people in the 1950s married younger, had more children, and divorced less frequently.

Since then, various economic and societal changes and hard-won legal battles—like those establishing rights for the LGBTQ community to marry and adopt children—have challenged stereotypes obsolete in reality but not always in people's minds or the media. And that poses a problem.

"When people in other families don't see themselves in those types of depictions, we can feel a lack of belonging, shame, confusion, questioning, and an inability to appreciate our own culture," says Farzana Nayani, diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist and author of Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for Nurturing Identity in a Racialized World.

Even if the two-parent, two(ish)-kid unit was the norm for a short time, Nayani rejects the notion that it was ever the definition of family. Instead, she believes that family was then, as it is today, "a collective of individuals who love each other."

Over the last half-century, different types of families have become more visible. At Parents, we have amplified those stories on our podcast series We Are Family. Read on for experts' dive into the changing dynamics of the American family.

Divorce Is More Common

In 1960, 73% of children lived with two parents in their first marriages. But in the years that followed, divorce rates climbed. By 2014, the number of children living with two parents in their first marriages fell to 46%. By 2019, nearly a quarter of U.S. children lived in single-parent households.

Custody arrangements post-divorce have also changed. A 2022 study published in Demographic Research found that shared physical custody more than doubled between 1985 and 2014, from 13% to 34%. When parents share custody, family life for children of divorce will look different, particularly if one or both parents remarry. According to Pew Research, 16% of children live in blended families, a number that has been stable since the 1990s.

"When there is a married couple who divorces, you're talking about two family units," says Christine Tangel, LCSW, a therapist at Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children in New York City. "The good news is that people can figure this out and create a loving environment for their child even if the couple themselves can't remain together."

Divorce hasn't been completely destigmatized, but families without married parents have become more normalized because it's more common. "It creates more visibility into ways families come together," says Tangel.

No Rush for Marriage and Children

These days people are getting married later in life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2022, the average age of marriage was 28 years for women and 30 years for men, compared to 20 and 24, respectively, in 1950.

Life doesn't always follow the old "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage" plan. However, the fact that people are getting married later likely contributed to a 32-year low in birth rates in 2018.

In addition, people are having their first children later in life. The average age of a first-time gestational parent increased from 27 in 1990 to 30 in 2019. That's nine years later than the mean age of 21 in 1970.

A reason for this? "You'll see that women have a lot more economic opportunities," says Tangel. Indeed, women held more than half of the jobs in the U.S. as of December 2019, but working mothers make about $18,000 less than working fathers. As a result, the economic divide has likely led to people delaying or forgoing child-rearing altogether, thus changing the American family's demographics.

Interracial Marriage Has More Than Doubled

During the height of the stereotypical nuclear family, interracial marriage was still illegal in parts of the country. However, the Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 made it illegal to place restrictions on marriage based on race. That year, 3% of new marriages were between people of different races or ethnicities. This number rose to 17% in 2015.

"The byproduct of that is there has been an increase in the number of multiracial children," says Nayani. By 2015, 14% of infants were multiracial or multiethnic, which was nearly three times more than in 1980.

Rights for LGBTQ Parents

When Bill Jones adopted a child in 1968, the social worker told him not to mention he was gay. It took until 2010 for Florida to overturn a ban on gay and lesbian adoptions, the last state in the country to do so.

But some states continued to bar unmarried couples from adopting, making it difficult for same-sex couples to become parents. That is until 2015, when the Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, made same-sex marriage a right nationwide. In 2022, the Respect for Marriage Act enshrined that right under federal law.

According to the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute, 114,000 same-sex couples are raising children in the U.S. Further, an estimated three million LGBT Americans have had a child, and as many as six million Americans have an LGBT parent.

About a quarter to half of transgender people report being parents. Higher parenting rates were reported by those who transitioned later in life, likely due to becoming parents before identifying as transgender.

As same-sex marriage has become legal and normalized, it's also become more common for LGBTQ couples to start their own families. LGBTQ couples are four times more likely to adopt and six times more likely to foster children than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.

Adoption is but one way members of the LGBTQ community become parents; sperm donation, surrogacy, and other forms of assisted reproduction also help couples expand their families. For example, news anchor Anderson Cooper welcomed both of his babies via a surrogate. And Brandi Carlile and her wife used in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) to conceive their babies.

Changes in Adoption

There used to be a cloud of secrecy surrounding adoption, says Tangel. "In the '50s and '60s, adoption was seen as a way to fulfill that ideal [nuclear family]," she says. "Parents would look to find children who looked like them so that the family would look like two married parents with biological children. We know that's not healthy."

About 135,000 children are adopted each year. Parents may be heterosexual, single, LGBTQ, and of different races or ethnicities. These days, open adoptions are more popular, allowing the birth parent or parents to continue to be involved in the child's life in some way.

Teen Mom's Catelynn Baltierra (Lowell) put a national spotlight on open adoptions when she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Tyler Baltierra, placed their baby, Carly, up for adoption in 2009. The Baltierras, Carly, and Carly's adoptive parents continue to keep in touch. Tangel says if the biological and adoptive parents set expectations, this can benefit everyone.

"This is someone you will try to maintain contact with and do your best on behalf of the child who is going to be in your family," she says, adding that social media has helped people remain connected.

Increase in Fostering

Nearly 632,000 children spent time in foster care in 2020. Of kids in foster care, 43% were white, 23% were Black, 22% were Hispanic, and 8% were mixed-race.

Foster children, particularly those who age out at 18 years old, often face tough challenges. They're more likely to experience homelessness, incarceration, and unplanned pregnancy. In 2021, more than 54,000 kids in foster care were adopted.

Foster kids need love and support, and the system needs dedicated foster parents. "I think it's really special to be a caregiver to a child who does not have kin or family able to do that," says Tangel. "We often talk about how childhood is a very finite amount of time. Children deserve to have that time to play and grow."

Fostering and adoption can often lead to families with parents and children of different races or ethnicities. While this can be a good thing, Nayani explains the importance of being aware of the savior complex that can occur when white parents adopt or foster a child of color.

"We want to have healthy relationships that honor the identities of the kids we have," she says. "A family who is white will not understand immediately the plight of a child of color."

Instead of preaching color blindness, Nayani suggests families recognize and embrace their differences. "Noticing race is not a bad thing," she says. "We're doing them a disservice if we don't teach them to notice race in a healthy way." Exposing children to dolls with different skin colors and books and movies where the main characters have different skin colors are good places to start.

Multi-Generational Households on the Rise

Households with multiple generations—such as parents, grandparents, and children—all under one roof are rising. A record 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S., lived with multiple generations in 2016. That's up from 12% in 1980.

There are many reasons for this. One reason is the desire to keep older parents out of assisted living or nursing facilities. Another is the rise in millennials, straddled by student loan debt and lower wages than their parents, moving out later or moving back home after school.

Nayani actually grew up in a multi-generational home. "That always seemed strange to other people because they had not seen that in movies," she says. "If we're not telling stories of different cultures, we're going to see that as weird."

Multi-generational homes became more common during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people struggled with the economic crisis and the need for child care. Some fled larger cities to live with families in less dense areas. With daycares closed, Tangel moved in with her parents so they could help her and her husband with their children.

"So many families I know are juggling children, schooling them, having a full-time job, and trying to get that done between one or two parents in the household," says Tangel. "Creative solutions come out of that."

Tangel sees their reemergence as a good thing, and Nayani agrees. "I think it's beautiful we're coming back to that in this collective approach to parenting," says Nayani. "It's done out of necessity and strain, we can't ignore that, but there might be more of a flexible understanding of the shape of the nuclear family because of the need for caregiving at home…and potentially stronger bonds and less stigmatization of needing help."

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