The Changing Family

The traditional nuclear family is on the wane. It's being replaced by more varied and complex arrangements.

January 02, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

When Darla Lansman was growing up in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s, she dreamed of being like her mother. Her life didn't turn out that way. She married and had children -- just as her mother had. But divorce and remarriage have made her family relationships far more complicated than those she knew as a child. There are half-sisters and step-parents, custody schedules and ex-spouses and many other issues with which her mother never had to contend.

"When I was growing up, I had no friends who had divorced parents," says Lansman, 37, a stay-at-home mother of three living in Reisterstown. "Now, quite a few of my friends are in the same position. It's totally different."

Lansman's experience is typical of her generation. America's definition of family has shifted considerably in the past several decades. No longer are we a nation of nuclear families where father works, mother cooks and they and their children live under one roof.

It isn't just about divorce. Collectively, we are less likely to marry and we raise fewer children. We are more diverse racially and ethnically. Women are more apt to work outside the home. Parents are more likely to be single.

Demographers and social scientists contend that U.S. families have never before undergone such radical change in so short a period of time -- not during wars, or depression, or the economic upheaval of the industrial revolution. And the trend is expected to continue well into the 21st century. "The majority family of 25 years ago is no longer the majority," said Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Council, which annually surveys nearly 3,000 people. "There just isn't a dominant type anymore."

In 1972 when Smith began questioning families nationwide for his widely-respected annual "general social survey," 45 percent of households were married couples with children, the most common living arrangement. By 1998, only 26 percent of households lived that way.

During the same period, the number of children living with their original two parents decreased from 73 percent to 51.7 percent while the number of children living with a single parents nearly quadrupled.

The change didn't happen overnight, but slowly and progressively. "It adds up" says Frank F. Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor, "to a tremendous growth in the diversity of families."

Dealing with divorce

One hundred years ago, less than 200,000 people in the U.S. were divorced. Today, that population is about 19.4 million.

For Lansman, it's meant raising a family without a role model. She married a high school sweetheart, gave birth to a son, Ryan Kaufman, but divorced after five years. Seven years ago, she married Andy Lansman and had two daughters, Lillie, 5, and Megan, 17 months.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband remarried and had two daughters, leaving 11-year-old Ryan with an abundance of half-sisters. "We don't use the term half-sister. You wouldn't know we're a blended family and I believe it's the same in the other household," says Lansman.

Dealing with the consequences of divorce has not always been easy. Lansman had to get comfortable with Ryan spending weekends and summer months at his father's home. Harder still, she's taught herself to accept the idea that Ryan is mothered by another woman when he's there.

"Nobody wants to divorce," says Lansman. "I still think it's best for a child to grow up in a home with loving parents and that's what my son has now."

Indeed, studies have shown that children of divorced parents tend to have more problems in life than children in intact, two-parent families or even widowed parents. A major part of that is purely economic -- some single mothers live in poorer neighborhoods with worse schools and more crime.

Being a single parent is not a new phenomenon. For eons, fathers have left the home to fight in wars or support the family. And while women greatly outnumber men as single parents, a growing number of single men are raising families, too.

Since his divorce six years ago, John Hutson, a natural resources planner in suburban Annapolis, has had sole legal custody of his two children, Erin, 12, and Thomas, 10. He knows few other men who have made his choice, and sometimes grows tired of having to explain his lifestyle to strangers.

"Women are generally supportive and curious. Men often don't know what to say to me," says Hutson, 45.

An avid bicyclist, Hutson had to put some of his hobbies on hold to devote more time to his children, but has no regrets. "You have to accept reality. Divorce happens. It's not realistic to turn things back to the '50s. Those days are gone."

Over the past decade, both births to unmarried women and the U.S. divorce rate have leveled off and even declined a bit -- leaving researchers wondering if the decades-long trend toward divorce and single parenthood might reverse itself in the 21st century.

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