Stephanie Coontz has been working for a long time to shatter the myth that the traditional family was accurately portrayed in Leave it to Beaver.
Even for the short time such nuclear families reached their peak, as Mia Birdsong and Nicole Rodgers [ht: ja] explain, only 65 percent of American children were living in this type of “traditional” nuclear family unit (with a father employed and mother out of the labor force). Today, it’s just 22 percent.
There has been an explosion in the diversity of family structures in the U.S. over the last several decades, much of it the result of delayed and declining marriage rates and higher nonmarital birthrates. Forty-one percent of babies born in the U.S. today have parents who are not married, and among millennials, it’s over half.
The traditional family, which dominated for just over a decade, wasn’t replaced by one kind of family, but by many kinds of families. Unlike in the early ’60s, today, there is no single-family arrangement that encompasses the majority of children. More individuals live alone, there are more families with married parents who are both employed, more single-parent homes, children living with grandparents, children living with unmarried, cohabitating parents, and households composed of people who are not biologically related or legally bound. Family diversity is the new normal.
The problem, of course, is both liberals and conservatives retain a nostalgia for the Leave it to Beaver nuclear household, and overlook the many ways (from tax breaks to employment policies) that supposed norm is reinforced.
Even progressives often tacitly accept the logic that marriage and “keeping families together” is the best way to support the wellbeing of adults and children. But just beneath the surface, this is the same underlying “good old days” nostalgia used by conservatives. It’s the same logic that says that working women going to back into the home is a legitimate solution to the inaccessibly of affordable childcare.
The Left, for its part, has done a very poor job over the years of imagining alternative forms of householding, much less of supporting public policies that might support and enhance “family diversity.”
The evolution of family we are experiencing is a complex, sometimes confusing, but also beautiful thing. It means that despite all the policies, practices and social pressures supporting the nuclear family, people are continuing to create family in a variety of ways. It’s not always intentional, or without struggle and challenge, but it requires a creative spirit to navigate and bypass the myriad structures and institutions that get in one’s way. We have so much to learn from the wisdom and resourcefulness of those whose families have too long been thought of as broken, when really, they are sewn together by ingenuity and love against all kinds of odds.
That’s not to say all the forms of householding we’re seeing today are beautiful. They’re not. People still struggle to assemble various kinds of households, to raise children, and to get ahead in life. And some of the results are pretty ugly—with, as we know, many forms of spousal abuse and child neglect, inadequate opportunities, and a shredded or nonexistent safety net when it comes to helping both parents and children.
So, yes, people have long been pretty creative in terms of how they manage the task of setting up one or another kind of family householding—before and after Leave it to Beaver. And we can help them become even more creative, by relinquishing the nostalgia for the single household that never was and imagining and supporting the diversity of alternative households that can be.