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Stop Fetishizing Family

Photograph by Getty Images

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.

But guess what? It doesn’t exist.

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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.

In an interview on WBUR’s "Here and Now," the study’s author, Philip Cohen stated, “However we are going to go about helping families deal with their problems of insecurity and instability, we have to take an approach that does not assume — or try to construct — a monolithic family structure.”

And to that monolithic family structure, I say, good riddance.

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 servants.

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.

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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.”

And isn’t that what truly matters?

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