Mommie Dearest: The American Family Has Changed Forever

Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivikkah in our household) is upon us, bringing about the start of the winter holiday season. What better time, then, to think about our families? Regardless of our relationships with our families, there’s no doubt that, for better or worse, they shape who we are.

Just in time for the holidays, Natalie Angier took a look at the changing American family over at the New York Times. Not only is the make-up of American families changing, but it’s doing so at a rapid pace:

“Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.”

I only have to look as far as my own family to see this. I’m the child of two immigrants, my mother having moved to the United States when she was a toddler, while my father emigrated from Israel at 28. I now currently live with my husband, our son, and my brother, who has lived on and off with us for the last seven-and-a-half years.

A look at my son’s 1st grade classroom tells an even more diverse story. One-third of the students in his class come from same-sex parent households, and you can find blended families, divorced families, and multi-racial families as well. You will even find families where one parent is not only not Jewish, but atheist — a rather remarkable feat for a Jewish day school. If I expand my view to my circle of friends, the definition of “family” changes even further to single-parent homes, young (i.e. teen) families, families who live with their grandparents, adoptive families and more. And for some, family isn’t blood related, but rather that village of choice you surround yourself with, and it’s no less valid.  The Norman Rockwell motif is no longer the norm. Furthermore,  it feels like it’s no longer the desired norm by many.

What stood out to me from the Times piece was the data relating to the trend of motherhood. Women are now having children later in life, and having less children overall. Which is ironic, given a recent poll reporting that most Americans feel that women should have a baby by the age of 25. The same poll noted that the optimal age for men to have babies was 26 and older. Of course.

In addition to having fewer babies at later ages, women are also having babies out of wedlock at higher rates than ever before, with 40 percent of all babies being born to unmarried women.  Marriage rates have actually been falling for several decades and are currently at a historical all-time low. Feel free to pull that out of your pocket at Thanksgiving dinner when you’re getting grilled about your relationship status by your Aunt Nancy. You can also toss in that when people do get married, the trend now seems to be with first marriages happening in “later adulthood.”  That Norman Rockwell picture is become more and more blurry with each statistic tossed our way.

The Times article highlighted each changing trend by focusing on a real-life family that exhibits the reported on changes, whether it’s the Schulte-Wayser family who embody the growing number of same-sex parents or Ana Perez and Julian Hill, the heads of a blended family living “in sin.” It also explored the myriad of reasons — from education, immigration, economic disparity, access (or lack thereof) to upward mobility, and more ‚ that we’re seeing these rapid shifts in what the “typical” American family looks like.

And I, for one, appreciate the change. The reality is that not every family looks the same and we may as well be realistic about it.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Follow her on Twitter.