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Cover Story: We Are Family

New demographics don't necessarily mean different values

By James Proffitt · November 21st, 2006 · Cover Story
C. Matthew Hamby

A married couple -- a him and a her -- with 2.7 children and 1.5 pets, living in a 2.5-bedroom residence. Throw in a Chevrolet out front and an apple pie on the kitchen counter, and you've got the quintessential American family.

Wrong. What many people have long accepted as the "American family" is a concept whose once unquestionable relevance and political clout are quickly fading as its numbers decline. In fact, what has long been considered the traditional nuclear family -- and considered by many as the only legitimate family format -- is a rather new form historically.

"It's a truly modern concept," says Jeffrey Timberlake, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati. "A married couple moving out and living completely apart from extended family members would have been much more difficult economically."

Only the wages of the Industrial Revolution made it possible for such families to exist, according to Timberlake. Just as the economy long ago moved beyond the extended families that made up our agrarian past, household makeup has continued to evolve.

"The idea that, if we stray from the two-parent household, we are moving away from deep human principles and needs isn't accurate," Timberlake says.

The new normal
If that's true, then what does define the American family?

In 1960, 45 percent of American households had married parents with juvenile children living at home. Forty years later, in 2000, the U.S. Census showed that figure at less than 25 percent. In Cincinnati, a 2003 Census Bureau Community Survey reflected similar numbers: 26 percent of households were married couples and 23 percent were other families.

The "other families" designation reflects single-parent households, non-married couples and other family members raising children in non-traditional structures, generally grandparents.

Many conservatives have expressed alarm and concern over the perceived erosion of the traditional family. This is partly in response to the near-term possibility of widespread social acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriages or unions. While fear of the new and sadness at the passing away of something so Americana is understandable, it can't last. Nostalgia won't keep the structure of the American family from changing.

What's changed in the past four decades isn't likely to be reversed anytime soon. The trend is caused by several factors, including social acceptance of divorce, readily available birth control, changes in attitudes toward sex outside marriage and the fact that women today, for financial reasons, are increasingly less likely to marry and bear children early.

The stigma of single parenting is nearing its end, and the realization that family values can be -- must be -- important to non-traditional families is here.

Dara Burgin is a 29-year-old mother with a 2-year-old daughter. Burgin lives with her partner, 28-year-old Tanneku Gardner, who also has a daughter, age 8. Gardner is an expectant mother whose pregnancy was planned well in advance. Through in vitro fertilization, she and Burgin hope to have a little boy together.

How long do they plan to be a family?

"Forever," Burgin says.

One new kind of American family: two women and their children. But looking forward five years, Burgin talks about their future, and it sounds familiar.

"I'll be looking to own my own barbershop and my own home," she says. "And raising our kids, that's what I see."

When asked what comes to mind when she hears the phrase "traditional family values," Burgin's answer isn't surprising.

"I think of somebody providing for the family and coming together," she says. "Teaching your kids and raising them the right way."

For Burgin and Gardner, that means children who are respectful and honest. Burgin says they are just that. Gardner's daughter aims for excellence in school.

"She makes good grades and is on the honor roll and gets principal's awards," Burgin says.

She says she'd be offended if someone told her that she, Gardner and the girls were not a family.

"Why aren't we a family?" she says. "We're normal. My lover and I just happen to be the same sex. That's it."

Real and legitimate
Jane Whalen spent seven years as a facilitator of the Single Parent Support Group at the Family Life Center at Northminster Church in Finneytown. Whalen was very blunt when asked about the relationship between family values and structure.

"My experience is that family values have nothing to do with family structure," she says.

After being a single parent for years, Whalen has witnessed many parents, both men and women, cope with the issues of single parenting.

"I learned early on not to take judgment from other people too seriously," she says. "Whatever you might think of me, I don't care."

Her matter-of-fact attitude not only helped her successfully raise her son, who is now over 18, but has helped others along the way. Two or three times per year the Family Life Center held seven-week classes for single parents.

"If parents are committed to providing a loving, stable home, they will succeed," Whalen says, pointing out that many two-parent homes have adults who are physically present but emotionally absent.

Her outlook has been helpful to others who have come to the group.

"If people can identify sources of support and can seek help and guidance, it's a big step in the right direction," she says.

The rise of single parent and other non-traditional households, according to census statistics, means they are becoming, by virtue of their numbers, normal.

"Single-parent families are just as real and legitimate as dual-parent families," Timberlake says. ©



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