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Sunday, September 19, 1999
'Ozzie and Harriet' Families have Become the Exception
By Polly Summar
Journal Staff Writer
The Roland family is an endangered species. Frank works as a pharmacist. Denise stays at home to care for their two children, Emily, 5, and Aaron, 2.
It's an "Ozzie and Harriet" life, harking back to that happy family of 1950s television fame.
But today, the Rolands' lifestyle represents only about 10 percent of all households, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures.
The Rolands recognize the rarity of their situation. "I have one other friend who's a stay-at-home mom," Denise says. "I know we're very fortunate in being able to do this."
We used to refer to a family like the Rolands as a "nuclear" family. But a funny thing happened to the nuclear family on the way to the millennium.
The term has changed; it's come to mean any family with a mom and a dad and kids. But Mom and Dad probably both work, they could be on a second marriage, and the kids may be half siblings or stepsiblings or include a child born out of wedlock.
As a society, we've simply adapted our usage of the term "nuclear family" to fit what's really happening: Every type of "family" is growing but one -- Ozzie and Harriet's.
Even with our more encompassing definition of the nuclear family, a Scarborough Report market survey last year showed that fewer than 30 percent of households consist of a mom, a dad and kids. The rest of the families in our society are an assortment of combinations.
Diane DelCampo, a family life specialist with New Mexico Cooperative Extension, says the family of the future will have a number of forms. "There will be a lot of variety -- stepfamilies, original families, singles and grandparents running families," DelCampo says.
According to the Lincoln, Neb.-based Stepfamily Association of America, by 2010 the stepfamily will be the predominant American family type. But with a mom, a dad and kids, it may look like just another nuclear family.
The association estimates that about 35 percent of children born in the 1990s will spend some portion of their childhoods as part of a stepfamily.
Statistics from the U.S. Census of 1992 confirm the changing family in which many children will continue to find themselves living:
* Single parents accounted for 30 percent of all parenting situations.
* The number of single fathers with custody of their children is about 10 percent of all single-parent families. That number has almost doubled since 1980.
* Of the 10.5 million single parents, 1.6 million were living in the households of relatives, and 600,000 were living in homes of individuals not related.
A typical family?
In looking at the specifics of what's happening to family structures, Polly Turner, professor of family studies at the University of New Mexico, says simply, "There is no longer a single, American family type."
One of the most interesting findings of the census, Turner says, is the information gathered on single mothers. "The percent of families headed by single mothers who have never been married is now almost equal to the percent of families headed by single mothers who have been married," Turner says. "That's changed rather dramatically over the past five years."
What concerns many people is the impact these varying family forms will have on the children involved.
But Turner says, "Family is more about the emotional, consistent relationships that children have than whether they all live in the same house or not. Most of these changes may be traumatic for a short period of time, but with the right support, these kids get over it."
Arlene Skolnick, a research psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees with Turner that the impact on children of the changing family does not have to be negative.
"The whole emphasis on family structure is extremely destructive to children because it misses the point of what's most important -- the relationship," Skolnick says.
Born into revolution
Recently, sociologists have been studying children who were born during one of the most socially turbulent times in our history (the years from 1969 to 1981) to find out what kind of people they've become.
Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, calls that time period the gender revolution. She is studying a group of people who range in age from 18 to 30.
"They've grown up in a period in which they've watched their own parents and society transform into a gender-conscious and gender-egalitarian world," Gerson says.
"They have very high aspirations for both jobs and relationships. It doesn't mean they're particularly optimistic about being able to find them. The ideal for most of them is for some kind of egalitarian and mutual commitment, but they're also aware that it may not be possible to find.
"And if a relationship doesn't provide what they need, they're prepared to go it alone. The worst-case scenario (for them) would be to be trapped in a relationship."
Gerson says society will need to create new structures of work that fit more easily with family responsibilities, that presume women as well as men will be working.
"I think it will become increasingly clear to ordinary people and to policy-makers," Gerson says, "that this new world of men and women who want to integrate work and family is here to stay."
Psychologist Skolnick, who is also a consultant to the Families and Work Institute in New York City, compares society's surprise at the changes in families to the situation of people living in California who are surprised by earthquakes. "You know the fault lines are there. What do you expect? Tiny incremental changes can lead to great, cataclysmic events.
"We have the idea that family was a constant form that never changed until the '60s, with sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll -- that women's lib blasted the family," Skolnick says.
"But women didn't decide to go to work after the feminist movement of the '60s. Women had been going slowly into the work force every generation; every generation of women had a little more work in their lives than the preceding generation.
"In the '70s, it reached the tipping point," says Skolnick, explaining that a majority of women were in the work force by that decade. "That was the dynamite lying around that enabled the women's movement to take off."
Skolnick says that at the same time, other quiet revolutions were happening that contributed to the changes. "Women were getting educated," she says.
"Education has many effects on people. Women were in school for a very long time with men, and the notion that females were inferior was not born out in schools."