The 1950s-style portrait of a white, able-bodied, lucrative, masculine, man, contentedly married to a white, able-bodied, happily-homemaking, model-like wife, raising their biological, able-bodied children (and maybe a dog), is no longer a reality, if it ever was one. As AMC’s Mad Men
effectively dramatizes (in its subversion of 1950s norms), the conservative ideal of “the American Family” is, and has been, an oppressive, non-functional fantasy.
Is this cause for alarm, as Republicans and the religious right suggest? Hardly. As conservative commentator David Brooks states
, we shouldn’t conclude that the existence of non-traditional families means “the world is going to hell”; we should instead “investigate these emerging commitment devices.”
Before going any further though, we need to clarify: Upon winning the election, Obama didn’t instantly eradicate picture-perfect, white, traditional families with some kind of black magic; or as Jon Stewart jokingly responded
to O’Reilly, the president’s victory did not mark “the moment… the family from the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver
ceased to be real.” American families have been “non-traditional” for some time.
What this election did show is a more diverse representation
of American voters than ever before; not due to the “gifts” Mitt Romney has accused
Obama of offering, but more likely due to the threat that a Romney presidency would have presented: that anyone unable to play a role on Leave It to Beaver
would be kicked to the curb.
The fact is, many (if not most) families in America, are, and have been queer. (I use “queer” in the reclaimed sense, referring to those of us existing outside the rigidity of the gender binary, and traditional norms in general). This doesn’t necessarily mean that most homes are run by same-sex or transgender parents (though many are), but that families are generally non-normative in make-up — including various combinations of races, marital statuses, relationships, bloodlines, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and limitations.
In 2008 the US Census reported that 61 percent of children in the United States lived with both their biological mother and father, but that only 42.7 percent of those parents
were married. These findings alone reveal a majority of non-traditional American families, but hardly show just how much. For example, this particular report doesn’t provide a percentage of the parents who have been previously divorced (or how many times), the percentage of homes that are made up of mixed races, include stepchildren, adopted or foster children, the percentage of parents in open relationships, or how many of the parents are openly lesbian or gay and have made arrangements to live together for the sake of the children.
What the Census does show however, is an increase
in interracial and same-sex couples
(both married and not), as well as an increase
in adoption by same-sex couples over the past few years.
Also, recent studies indicate that unmarried parents are “increasingly the norm”
in the United States. We have reports
that 50 percent of mothers are or will be single at some point, and there has been an increase
in surrogacy births, as well as an increase
in single parents by choice.
For those married couples trying to raise kids in a “traditional” home, studies have shown that there is a 40 to 50 percent chance
of divorce, and that in the last decade, incidents of adultery have risen
to 50 to 70 percent, which suggests that (again, much like Mad Men
) the imposed rules of “traditional America” do not work; we need to embrace family systems that are more realistic and functional.
Not all of these non-normative family structures are choices. Those who are privileged enough to choose the design of their families, such as Sandra Bullock, and Charlize Theron (who have both adopted children as single mothers) are less common than single mothers in poverty, for example, who have had significantly less options
I’m also not making an argument about children being better off in one type of family versus another.
What I am saying is that for better or worse, the non-traditional pictures I’ve described are what our American families actually look like, what they have looked like, and how they’ll continue to grow. Rather than crying over the fact that we don’t resemble an antiquated fantasy, we could be curious about how these systems of attachment have managed to function, and learn how we can make them stronger — considering them as they are, not as they “should be.”
We also might look to the advantages non-traditional families offer. For example, in many cases, children of divorced parents get to experience
each parent as an independent, and content individual, and often times child care responsibilities are less burdensome with two households instead of one (so long as the divorced couple has learned to communicate effectively).
Children raised by same-sex parents are found to be more conscious
of and less victimized by patriarchy, as they tend to experience a more egalitarian distribution of labor in the home than their peers living with a mother and a father.
Also, an increase in mixed-race families (either through marriage, surrogacy, or adoption), could help reduce racism, as racial bias has been shown to decrease
when people of different races identify in the same group.
We shouldn’t be deceived into believing that this shattering of tradition means we are becoming a detached, radically self-serving society. We have familial attachments, just not the kind Bill O’Reilly fantasizes about.
During Obama’s victory speech, my brother and I were on the phone, sharing how awesomely American it is that though we are white, we are both likely to have children of color (myself because my husband and I will likely adopt when the time comes, and my brother because his long-term girlfriend is of Mexican descent).
We should celebrate the end of “Traditional America”, and revel in the diverse American families that we are part of, and that we continue to forge.