What is the “Traditional American Family?”

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An interview with Stephanie Coontz

What is the “traditional family?”  Working father, stay-at-home mom, and two kids? In this day and age, so few families fit that description, it’s basically a ridiculous notion. As the Holidays approach, we’re very interested in learning more about what today’s families really look like, and how it’s affecting our kids.  At what point will the vision of what makes the “Traditional American Family” be altered to reflect our new realities?  We got a welcomed reality check from Stephanie Coontz, esteemed author and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. We want to know:  who sits at your holiday table?  And more importantly, who’s making dinner?  — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC

What is the most current percentage of American families that fit into the “traditional” category – that is working dad, stay-at-home mom, and kid/s?

New census figures show that as of 2011, only 23% of married couple families with children younger than age 15 have a stay-at-home mother (SAHM).  These days, there are more kids being raised by single moms than by married couples where the man earns all the income and the wife stays home.

What are the stats of gay, lesbian, stay-at-home-dads, and other “non-traditional” families?

Married couples with children account for less than a quarter of all households. More than 30 percent of households are single person households. 23 percent of children live with a single mother, 5 percent with a single father. More than 70 percent of all children live in families where every adult in the household is employed. Stay-at-home-dads are still a small minority — less than a million in the country –but dads do the primary childcare for more than a quarter of the children whose mother works outside the home.

According to revised estimates from the 2010 census, there are 131,729 same-sex married couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the united states, but this relies on self-reports, so is biased toward the low side. About 20 percent of same-sex couples are raising kids.

What are the myths about the “Traditional American Family’?

One myth is that male breadwinner families were “the” traditional family. Much more traditional has been the custom of having a family labor force — either with the wife as co-provider or the children, and often both. It was not until the 1920s that a bare majority of kids grew up in a family where the mother was not working on the farm or in a small business, and where the children were in school instead of in the workforce. That family form receded in the Depression and World War II and came roaring back in the 1950s, largely due to a combination of discrimination against female workers and unprecedented rises in real wages for young men, as home prices fell in the postwar boom, wages rose, and government invested in new jobs, job training, and educational opportunities. Most researchers agree that it will never come back as the majority family form.

Another myth is that parents used to spend more time with their children in the 1950s and 1960s. While the hours moms spent looking after their children did initially fall as women entered the workforce, they started to rise again after 1980, so that today, parents spend more time with their kids than in 1965. (In 1965, kids spent more time with siblings and friends or just playing, watching tv in their rooms, and less in direct contact with mom than today, even though moms were often around more.) Working moms today spend somewhat less time interacting with their kids than SAHMs, but they spend more time with their kids than SAHMs did in 1965, the high point of male breadwinner families.

Meanwhile, dads’ time with kids has quadrupled, and husbands of working moms spend more time with their children than husbands of SAHMs.

Yet another myth is that there is this deep divide between what SAHMs and employed moms want. While a majority of employed moms would like to cut back their work hours, 40 percent of SAHMs wish they had a job. And when moms “opt out,” this is very often not their first choice, but their fallback when their employers won’t adjust hours or policies or their husband won’t or can’t lessen his hours enough to pitch in at home. Most women would like more balance in their work and family options, and so would most dads. In fact, unlike 35 years ago, men now report higher levels of work-family conflict than do women.

How are young children (ages 3-6) affected by their non-traditional families?

How a family functions is more important than how it looks from the outside. For example, statistics say that the best predictor of a child’s academic success is the mother’s education and aspirations for her child, not her marital state. A new study finds that on average, kids who have SAHMs during the first year of life have some small advantages over those who have working moms, but the reverse is true for those whose moms work during years 2 and 3 — and ultimately, most of the differences average out over the next 5 or 6 years. The big risk to kids is moms’ depression, and a study shows  — this is a win-win situation, somewhat like the fact that the more you nurse, the more your breast milk comes on — that moms are least depressed when they are doing what they want.

For example, another recent study shows that the highest rates of depression are found in SAHMs who wish they had a job and in employed moms who want to stay home but have to work, and have only been able to find work in a low-quality job. Interestingly, moms who want to stay home but have a high-quality job have just about as low rates of depression as moms who are getting their first choice. Which suggests that SAHMs should be sure to keep their social networks and skills up so if they do want or need to go to work, they can get a job that gives them more control over their work and more flexibility.

It’s very important for parents not to let themselves be tyrannized by averages. There is tremendous variability in outcomes, and parents have to find what arrangements suit both their individual needs and the dynamics of their family life. That said, children do better, whatever their parents’ working arrangements, when parents have access to parental leaves, well-funded and carefully regulated child care, and work-family benefits. And the U.S. lags behind every other rich country in the world in these matters.

Is there any indication that the “traditional family” form is more or less stable than the “non-traditional” family?

Again, variations in functioning and background count for more than the specific form. The most stable families are those with college-educated parents, whoever works. But women with higher education are LESS likely, not more likely, to opt out of the labor force. In heterosexual couples, the important predictor of marital stability is how fair the woman perceives the division of housework and childcare to be. (And a word to the wise for men: Women feel more intimate and more sexually attracted to their husbands when their husbands do housework and childcare — there’s another win-win proposition.) Another factor is the age at first marriage. For every year a woman postpones marriage, right up to her early 30s, her chance of divorce goes down.

Why is the image of the traditional family (working dad, SAHM, and kids under 18) so entrenched in the American consciousness?

The breadwinner family of the 1950s was, in fact, a very new — and short-lived — invention. But it coincided with the development of television, and those images were burned into our consciousness. Also, most of the political and economic leaders in America, until recently, were products of that generation. They assumed that was the norm and that’s what they taught their own children. They designed their work and social policies around that assumption and idealized that family form in the mass culture.

How long will it last? I do think people are much more accepting of diversity than even 20 years ago, but our work policies, social programs, and even school schedules have been designed in ways that assume every working American has someone at home to take care of the rest of life, so a lot of economic and political leaders are in denial. Fearing it would be expensive and troublesome to adjust to the complex realities of family life today, they ask the rest of us to adjust to their simplistic fantasies about family life.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, which she chaired from 2001-04.  She has authored many books including, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992 and 2000, Basic Books) and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2011).

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