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Susan Pease Gadoua

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Is Divorce Getting Harder As Families Change Shape?

Posted: 05/23/11 06:42 PM ET

I learned a great deal about the contemporary family at a conference I attended recently for the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF). I found it to be a very enlightening series of talks spanning two days on family trends. Speakers included representatives of the U. S. Census Bureau, authors and scholars, among others.

To find out more, I interviewed Social Historian and founding member of CCF, Stephanie Coontz. She is also the author of such books as Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, and her latest work, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

Having studied historical trends of marriage and gender roles, Coontz has written extensively on how families have evolved.

In providing some background, Coontz points out that through most of history, there was no such thing as the "male provider family," because all family members -- including children and wives -- were involved in producing the goods or income the family needed.

While there has always been some diversity among families, the more common reasons for single parent families or stepfamilies were death and sometimes desertion, rather than divorce or not marrying (which was not socially acceptable -- especially when it came to having children).

After World War II, there was a tremendous increase in male breadwinner families, and a new orientation toward the nuclear family developed. Immigration rates fell to an all-time low and suburbanization increased the separation of classes and races. Additionally, people began to marry younger and, because so many couples in all social classes began having children, a new cultural norm or consensus was reached.

As a result, the family was defined much more narrowly than it is today with most men being the bread winners and most women staying home to take care of the children.

Many give Betty Friedan the credit (or blame) for almost single-handedly disrupting the newly established family and gender roles by encouraging women to voice their discontent over their restricted roles in the home. Shortly after her book, The Feminine Mystique, was published, more women began demanding equal rights, more and more women joined the workforce and, not surprisingly, families began to change fairly drastically in a short period of time.

Fast forward forty years. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau defined family as "two or more people who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption who are residing in the same house together." What we now include as "family" was considered an aberration only a couple of generations ago.

According to Coontz, these days there is no such thing as one type of family. A CF certainly includes the "traditional" family of a husband, wife and 2.5 kids, however it also includes same sex couples with or without children, single parents, married couples with no children.

In 2011, a contemporary family in one neighborhood may look starkly distinct from a contemporary family in another neighborhood - or even two doors down.

Whereas in the early 1960s, the demographic make-up of the suburbs was married couples of approximately the same age, race and social class, today a suburb may include married and unmarried couples, blended races, classes, generations, sexual orientations and cultures and there is a much wider range of socio-economic status within neighborhoods.

Now, add the component of the rise in divorce and remarriage rates in the past thirty to forty years, and Coontz points out that we see an even great array of family configurations.

There are family constellations in which he brings his kids; those in which she brings the kids; and many "Brady Bunch" families wherein both spouses bring children.

There are marriages where one spouse is on his or her first marriage the other is on a third marriage. There are more marriages across traditional boundary lines of age, culture, race, socio-economic status and religion.

International adoptions are also quite common today, although, according to www.adoptions.state.gov, the number of intercountry adoptions went from approximately 9,000 in 1991, to over 19,000 in 2001, back down to between 11 - 12,000 in 2009 and 2010.

People have many more choices when it comes to where to live, where to work, who to couple with and what kind of family they want to create than ever before.

We are seeing blended families of all kinds as "normal" today because the numbers of those choosing a different way of life -- shall we say, a lifestyle that is more personally suitable than one that fits societal expectations -- has risen beyond the tipping point.

It makes sense, then, that the Contemporary Family is any family and every family. There is no long just one "correct" or "acceptable" kind of family.

This is good news and bad news. It's good news in the sense that there is less stigma for those who don't fit the traditional mold. It's bad news in the sense that, because we have become such a complex culture, creating policies or solving particular family issues becomes a much greater challenge.

This is where the Council on Contemporary Families plays such an important role.
CCF members study social trends and norms and they produce new research at the cutting edge of how, when and why families are changing. This group of talented professionals ranges from demographers, to economists, to family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners.

CCF is dedicated to enhancing the national conversation about what contemporary families need and how these needs can best be met.

CCF has also taken on the task of ensuring that the media has access to this crucial breaking information so they can report what's happening accurately to the public.

One of CCF's most recently published studies is on depression among working mothers and homemakers: 
http://www.contemporaryfamilies.org/temporary/working-mothers-stay-at-home-mothers-and-depression-risk.html, 
or: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/opinion/08coontz.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Finally, while CCF is not an advocacy group, policymakers as well as journalists turn to CCF for research and best practice findings that can inform public policy, which more often than not impacts state and federal legislation on family matters.

CCF was formed in 1996 and is expanding its reach and membership. For more information on who CCF is and what it does, or to inquire about the benefits of membership, visit them on line at www.contemporaryfamilies.org.

 
 
 

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