The End of the Family?

You’ve heard the news, no doubt. The American family is changing. No, not just changing—it is being revolutionized. New models are replacing the old. The traditional family, announced one of the great newsweeklies, is fading fast. Who needs a husband? asks another. On the op-ed page of The New York Times, the columnist Frank Rich delights in reminding all who will listen that the days of the Cleaver family are long gone, a cultural event Rich finds immensely satisfying.

Yes, you’ve been hearing about this for some time, and when the Census Bureau released its snapshot of life in the United States in the year 2000, you heard a lot more. The census numbers were trotted out to ratify the impressionistic, anecdotal conclusions reached years ago: yes, the traditional family is fading fast, America.

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Or is it?

The media, particularly slick magazines and the cable-television shockathons, bombarded us right around Mother’s Day with stories built around census data showing that more kids than ever live in single-parent households. And that trend, they reported—no, they celebrated—will continue in the coming decades.

There is certainly no denying that more kids today live with one parent than in the 1950’s, that decade that seems to stir so much anger in so many people for reasons that rarely seem coherent. But there is quite another way to look at the data used to celebrate the end of the traditional family. After decades of divorce and family breakdown, 75 percent of white children live with two parents—that’s three out of four, down from nine out of 10, but a surprisingly high figure given all the hype in recent years. Among black children, 36 percent live with two parents, compared to 58 percent in 1970. But wait. There’s an uptick in the percentage of black children in two-parent households. The single-parent trend actually topped out in the mid-1990’s, and has begun to decrease. Among Hispanic children, the same is true—64 percent live in two-parent households, down from 78 percent in 1970 but up slightly since the mid-1990’s.

So what about the end of the traditional American family? Could it be that folks in the media are exaggerating just a little bit? One of the newsweeklies offered an approving sidebar of a young woman who has had three children by three different men and has married none of them. Her kids have asked her why she doesn’t get married. She replied—and her reply was written in large, headline type—I had the kids. Why should I marry? (Well, ma’am, rather than talk about you, let’s talk about what’s best for your children....)

The media’s reporting of the changing American family—and make no mistake, it is changing, and sometimes for the better—is filled with the bias of false inclusion, so much so that any parent who lives with a spouse and children could hardly be blamed for thinking that he or she is a cultural anachronism. And anybody who insists, as most level-headed people would, that two parents are better than one is immediately dismissed as a right-wing fanatic, a borderline cultural fascist, who seeks to impose outdated ideas of morality and family on others.

It surely is true that many single parents are heroic; it is also fair to say that many heroic single parents would rather not be single at all. Most are moms whose partners or husbands are out of the picture, for whatever reason.

And certainly it is heartwarming to see single men or women willing to adopt children—infants who might have been aborted, or baby girls faced with grim futures in cultures where boys still are preferred. Sadly, too, many parents, mostly women, probably are better off alone than with abusive spouses.

Yes, society is far more tolerant of single parents than it used to be. Is that the same as saying that the traditional family is dying, or that two-parent families are hopelessly archaic and—worst of all!—ridiculously unhip? Certainly not.

Certainly the church, at the pastoral level, has become far more understanding of the complex problems in which families find themselves.

Parishes reach out to single parents, divorced and otherwise. Most of us know a one-parent family, and appreciate that whatever happened between two adults, the children and the parents are deserving of love and support.

All the same, there is something disturbing about the media’s enthusiasm for nontraditional families, and the speed with which they have declared the traditional family dead—even, or especially, when the data actually indicate otherwise. It may be nothing more than a misguided attempt to make everybody feel nice and warm and fuzzy. Maybe it’s just a gimmick to get other people to write indignant columns denouncing a magazine cover or a network television report. Or, given the rather complicated personal lives of some of our media elites, maybe it’s just projection.

Perhaps this dutiful correspondent lives in a cultural bubble, but every Sunday—no, every day—I see lots of two-parent families in my little town in New Jersey, and they not only seem happy, but utterly and completely vital.

They are stories waiting to be discovered. And maybe, when the media are again looking for some photogenic trend, they will be.

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