The All-New American Family

By , Monday, April 30, 2012, at 2:53 pm.

 

[Originally posted on the Huffington Post.]

I remember being blown away by “An American Family,” what was a compelling and unorthodox documentary miniseries when it was made back in 1973, which showed the world that the “typical” American family was anything but. Much time has passed since the Louds captivated our psyches (HBO recently did its own take on the wacky family, starring a rather fetching Diane Lane as the reluctant matriarch), so it’s worth exploring what today’s “average” American family looks like.

The new American family has taken all the old averages—divorce rates, notions of wealth, favorite pastimes, social norms, etc.—and dumped them on their perfectly coiffed heads. As psychologists try to make sense of our new normal and America’s drastically altered demographics emerge ready for dissection, I’ve been keen to observe the impact of the redefined American family. Look no further than the recent political debates that had us discussing everything from Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to Newt Gingrich’s marriage trifecta, not to mention John Edwards’ trial over using campaign money to fund extramarital trysts. (Good thing he’s not running for anything.)

The American family’s structure is no longer a perfect slice of apple pie. We’ve got nests that are no longer empty as jobless millennials move back in with mom and dad and redefine our latest obsession with what it means to be “occupied.” Some families are led by a single parent; some kids are cheered on at soccer games by two moms or two dads; some childless families treat their dogs better than most human children are treated. No matter how you slice it, the new American family has many flavors, and there’s simply no such thing as convention anymore. (And now that mom brings home as much bacon as dad, or more, it no longer matters who’s frying it up in the pan.)

Big strides are being made to acknowledge our new notions of family. Same-sex marriage is being slowly legalized, and a new Pew Research Center report finds interracial marriage at an all-time high (more than 15 percent of new marriages). Not all the changes are so heartening, though. Most of us are at least peripherally aware of our shifting demographics, but here’s a steely glance at today’s American family in all its glory:

  • Marriage and childrearing: In 2008, only 52 percent of us were married, compared with 72 percent in 1960. The United States now lays claim to the highest divorce rate of any industrialized nation, which some psychologists connect with our escalating tendency toward narcissism. The last few decades have also signaled a move toward cohabitation and the birth of more children out of wedlock (41 percent of all births). More than 25 percent of women with more than one child had some of them with different men, which is part of today’s “blended” families, including heterosexual and gay couples bringing children from prior relationships into new partnerships. In 2010, a year when more American women were employed than men, we also saw a shift back to the one-income household, this time with men staying at home on daddy duty while their wives battled it out in the boardroom.
  • The vanishing middle class and the new income gap: The percentage of American families who live in middle-income neighborhoods has declined considerably since 1970; more families now live in either low-income or affluent neighborhoods. Two results: The disparity in standardized test scores between rich and poor children is now 40 percent bigger than in 1970, and the gap between them in completing college has grown by more than 50 percent since the 1990s. While more than half of children from high-income families finish college, fewer than 10 percent of low-income children finish. One Harvard sociologist says that our country’s sense of community is in jeopardy because our affluent citizens and middle- and lower-class citizens live their lives in such essentially different ways. And, interestingly, while it is the nuclear family of yesterday that played out marital woes behind closed doors, this generation’s dysfunction plays out publicly in the form of Facebook status updates that change from “married” to “divorced” as quickly as we check in on Foursquare.
  • Technology and premade play: Forget rock, paper, scissors; even crayons are so very yesterday as today’s tech-savvy kids require a wireless connection for entertainment. With our kids plugged voraciously into social networks, smartphones and video games, the way they relate to other people might never be the same. It’s been suggested that the media is playing the role of surrogate parent to many of our country’s children. Will “Facebook” replace “Mama” or “Dada” as Junior’s first word?

And while the media is babysitting our children, are politicians trying to parent our brood? That’s what psychoanalyst Molly Castelloe said recently, pointing to former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, whom President Obama has called the “most popular politician on earth.” In a 2010 campaign speech, Lula said, “The best example I can give of the art of governing is the art of being a mother. Governing is nothing more than acting like a mother taking care of her family, assuring everyone the right to have opportunities. Incidentally the word ‘govern’ is really wrong … it should be ‘to care for.’”

Big business is showing its chops at parenting, too. Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, recently trended big-time on Twitter when she infamously proclaimed that she leaves the office every day at, gasp, 5:30 to have dinner with her family. Who knew big tech moguls kept bankers’ hours? Oh, and how can we ignore the endless loop of bump watches in all the tabloids as celebrity parents make childbearing and -rearing more aspirational than ever? (#lookmanoepidural)

St. Angelina and her ever growing brood aside, Americans don’t seem particularly easygoing about those who deviate from the nuclear family. Many voters were appalled by Marianne Gingrich’s accusation that her former husband asked her for an open marriage, but tongues have wagged even more furiously about polygamy’s roots in Mitt Romney’s family tree—even though the former Massachusetts governor has decried polygamy as “awful” and has been married for 43 years to Ann, she of this recent gaffe: “I love the fact that there are women out there who don’t have a choice and they must go to work and they still have to raise the kids.” Thus furthering the claim that the Romneys are clueless when it comes to how the average American is living these days.

And why do we even care what they say, you might ask? Because, for better or worse, richer or poorer, the pursuit of a solid family unit—whatever that looks like, whatever that means to us individually and whether you are more a helicopter than a dragon—family is still a top priority for most of us. In this brave new world of parenting and family life, we sure have come a long way since the Louds. Views on what the word “family” means nowadays will surely be debated throughout this election, and in Mommy (or Daddy) and Me groups from Manhattan to Modesto.

[photo: creativecommons.org/John Haynes Photography]

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