Society has long idolized the nuclear family—two married heterosexual parents of the same race with two biological children. But statistics show that ideal is best left to the Cleavers. Take a look at the new norm. 

By Beth Ann Mayer
Updated August 20, 2020
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There's long been a stereotype that the quintessential nuclear family consists of two married, heterosexual parents of the same race and 2.5 kids. Forget that it's not possible to have half of a kid for a second and consider this: The picture of this purported "typical" nuclear family really only existed from 1950-1965, a time when divorce rates were low, men ages 25-29 made about 400 times what their fathers did at the same age, and women tended to stay home to raise children.

Since then, a variety of economic and societal changes and hard-won legal battles—like those allowing members of the LGBTQ community to adopt children—have made that stereotype 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. 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 emerged as more visible. At Parents, we have amplified those stories on our podcast series We Are Family. And here, experts dive into the changing dynamics of the American family.

Divorce Is Being Normalized

In 1960, 73 percent of children were living with two parents in their first marriages. But in the years that followed, divorce rates climbed. In 2000, 4 out of every 1,000 marriages ended in divorce. That number dropped to 2.9 per 1,000 marriages in 2018, but that still accounts for some 39 percent of marriages.

It's one reason why about 25 percent of adults living with children in the U.S. are unmarried. Absentee fatherism is down, though—in 1968, 88 percent of unmarried parents living with children were single mothers, but in 2017 that share declined to 53 percent.

If the parents share custody, family life for children of divorce will look different, particularly if a parent remarries—16 percent 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. In 2018, the average age to get married was 27.8 years for women and 29.8 years for men, about a decade higher than it was in 1950.

Though life doesn't always follow the old "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage" plan, the fact that people are getting married later has likely contributed to a 32-year low in birth rates in 2018. People are having their first children later in life—the average age of first-time mothers is about 26, up from 21 in 1972. It's 31 for first-time fathers, four years older than it was in 1972.

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. The economic divide has likely led to people delaying or forgoing child-rearing completely, 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. The Loving v. Virginia ruling in 1967 made it illegal to place restrictions on marriage based on race. That year, 3 percent of new marriages were between people of different races or ethnicities. This number rose to 17 percent in 2015.

"The byproduct of that is there has been an increase in the number of multiracial children," says Nayani. Fourteen percent of infants were multiracial or multiethnic in 2015, 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 until 2015 when marriage equality became federal law. Today, between 2 to 3.7 million children under the age of 18 have an LGBTQ parent, and about 200,000 kids are raised by same-sex couples. Some of these parents came out later in life after having a child with a partner of a different sex.

As same-sex marriage has become legal and normalized, it's also become more common for these couples to start families of their own. LGBTQ couples are four times more likely to adopt and six times more likely to foster children than non-LGBTQ counterparts. And that's only one way members of this community become parents—sperm donation, surrogacy, and other forms of assisted reproduction also help these couples expand families. For example, news anchor Anderson Cooper welcomed his first baby via a surrogate this spring.

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 three, along with Carly's adoptive parents, continue to keep in touch. Tangel says if the biological and adoptive parents set expectations, this can be beneficial for 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

About 700,000 children spent time in foster care in 2018, and one-third of them were children of color. These children, particularly those who age out at 18 years old, often face tough challenges—they're more likely to be homeless, incarcerated, or pregnant. That year more than 63,000 of these kids were adopted, the highest number the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had ever reported.

But it's important for others not to judge these children, as they 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."

Foster and adoption can often lead to families with parents and children of different races or ethnicities. While this can be a good thing, Nayani warns to beware 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 percent of the U.S., lived with multiple generations in 2016. There are many reasons for this, including the desire to keep elderly parents out of assisted living or nursing facilities and the rise in millennials, straddled by student loan debt and lower wages than their parents, moving 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 have become more common during COVID-19 as people struggle with the economic crisis and need for child care and have fled larger cities to live with families in less dense areas. More millennials moved in with their parents. With daycare 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."

They're creative in a sense, but multi-generational families were common at the turn of the last century. The number of people living with extended families nearly doubled from 1750 to 1900.

Tangel sees their reemergence as a good thing, and Nayani agrees. Even when the virus hopefully fades with a vaccine, the strengthened bonds may outlive the pandemic.

"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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