The perfect American family is an idealized image. Mom,
dad, boy, girl and probably a beloved and loyal family pet in there too. Father
is the breadwinner. Mother is the loving nurturer who probably stays at home.
This mold is reinforced by movies, TV shows and books. This family model is
the nucleus of our nation. And much of our laws and policies and moral values
are formed around preserving family. Welfare was first introduced as a way to encourage couples to marry.
Health care benefits, tax incentives, they are all formed around incentivizing
a static idea of family.
According to a recent study done by the Council on
Contemporary Families, there is no such thing as a typical American family.
Only 22 percent of American children grow up with married, heterosexual parents
where the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays at home. Contrast this
with 1960, when 65 percent of children grew up with that arrangement.
Today’s modern family is characterized by diversity. Children are growing up in homes headed by
single mothers, grandparents, co-habitating couples, gay parents or single
fathers. The most common model (34 percent) is a heterosexual, dual earner
household, but even that is subject to variation.
And to that monolithic family structure, I say, good
It’s a myth to assume that when Adam and Eve walked out of
the garden, wearing their wedding rings, bearing their two perfect (albeit
murderous) baby boys, that the form and function of family was set into stone.
On the contrary, the idea of the nuclear heterosexual family is a modern
construction. Even Biblical families were sprawling, complex nomadic
communities comprised of multiple mothers and concubines, half-siblings and
The truth is family is far more fraught and complicated than it appears on the surface. So, why do we fetishize it?
In America, early census data
shows that while the majority of families were comprised of heterosexual,
dual-parent households, the actuality of what that meant was a lot more
complicated. For example, high mortality
rates among women in childbirth gave way to multi-generational and blended
families. Additionally, after the Civil
War, many women were left widows and often relied on extended family.
The truth is family is far more fraught and complicated than
it appears on the surface. So, why do we fetishize it? Why do we pretend that
this is the only way we can ever be or that we ever will be as a society? Don’t
agree? Look at media portrayals of family. Even the dinosaurs on “Dinosaur
Train” adhere to the monolithic, mythical model of family. Why can’t Daniel
Tiger’s mom get a job? Why doesn’t Word Girl have two dads? It’s not about pushing
a political agenda, rather than reflecting our children’s cultural realities.
I am part of one of these much storied, monolithic family
structures. My mother was a stay-at-home mom of eight. My father the
breadwinner. Now, I am a work-at-home mom of two. My husband is the
breadwinner. It’s not a structure we cling to out of loyalty, more out of
economic and geographical necessity. But I’m not convinced it’s any better or
more stable than any other system out there.
In a Mother’s Day speech he gave two years ago, one I was
lucky enough to be present at, Zach Wahls, author of the memoir "My Two Moms," said, “[My family is]
defined not by some external perception, but by love, strength and the
commitment we made to each other to work through the difficult times so we
could enjoy the good ones. That’s what makes a family.”