There is a better-than-average chance that your family doesn't look like the Cleavers.
- Traditional family vs. non-traditional family
- Benefits of non-traditional families
- Arguments against marriage
- My single mom family definition
Traditional family vs. non-traditional family
Today, two-parent, monogamous, heterosexual traditional families (by definition) are the weirdos. Statistically, they are a 49 percent minority — a figure poised to plummet in our lifetimes. After all, 57 percent of Millennial moms are unmarried (according to Johns Hopkins University), marriage rates are at a record low in the United States — and around the globe. LGBTQ, multi-generation and other household configurations are on the rise.
Traditional family definition
For reference: the definition of a Nuclear family is a family unit consisting only of parents and their children, though it is understood to be straight, married parents, a.k.a. a “traditional family.”
Non-traditional family definitions
There are any number of other family configurations, but here are some of the most common:
Broken family definition
This is a dated term, and I urge you in my quest to phase it out. “Broken family” refers to divorced or separated families, or single-parent families. It implies (strongly) that there is something wrong, something very broken, because it does not fit into the traditional family mould.
Single-parent family definition: What is a single parent family called?
This one is equally controversial. In a bout of the misery Olympics, women forever bitterly debate the right to call themselves a “single mom.” Some people believe this title is not allowed for any parent who has an active co-parent, or receives child support, or has a live-in romantic partner or new husband, or any romantic partner at all (because, by definition, she is no longer single).
The Census Bureau defines as a single-parent household any family in which the primary adult in a home including children is not married. These and other statistics deduce that a single-mother household automatically means that the children are fatherless. This is not always the case. A child raised by a single mother can have an actively involved dad whom he or she sees regularly, a step-father, or biological parents who live together in a committed relationship, but are not married. There are countless other ways that children are raised by both mothers and fathers that census efforts do not accurately measure.
I define a single-parent household as any person who chooses to call themselves a single parent, except for overwhelmed married mothers who are angry at their husbands for not helping enough, or travel a lot for work. Those women need to go away.
Modern family definition
‘Modern family,' or “alternative family” is a general description of any family outside of that traditional, nuclear model, and can include step-parents, grandparents, gay parents, adoptive and foster families, single-parents by choice, collective groups of people who find creative ways to live together or raise children, or otherwise create community.
Blended family definition
Blended families typically refer to step-families, or households where the parents each have children from previous marriages or relationships, and may have children together as well. The children in a blended family may have step-siblings and half-siblings from both their mother and father.
Single mom by choice definition
Single mothers by choice typically are considered unpartnered women who actively seek out sperm by way of a friend or sperm bank, and have a child without a romantic partner. You can also become a single mom by choice by way of adoption, or foster parenting.
It can be argued that you are a single mom by choice if you got pregnant outside of a relationship, the biological father chose not to be involved, and you chose not to abort or put the baby up for adoption.
Benefits of non-traditional families
As I personally see fewer and fewer marriages that I aspire to, and more and more happy thriving people in all kinds of configurations outside of June and Ward Cleaver, my own assumption about what my romantic and family life should look like has settled into more than acceptance of the status quo, but rather a thrill in enjoying the life I have created. In other words:
My family is complete, and yours is, too.
I urge you to accept this, not only for the political benefit of all families, everywhere, but also for your own well being. Saying your family is whole does not mean there is no room for more people, or that you are closed off to romantic love and partnership — far from it. It means you accept your family for what it is, now, as complete. If you go through life with the sense of a gaping hole in your heart, life and family, a hole that can only be filled with a man, you are indeed likely to fill that hole with a man — and the wrong one. And if you go through life believing that your family is incomplete, this informs your parenting, which you do from a place of shame and with a sense of scarcity, opposed to acceptance and pride.
While absentee fathers is a big issue, that creates many documented issues for children and society, there are many benefits to raising children in non-traditional families. These include:
- If your modern family includes loving step-parents and their step-grandparents, as well as a healthy mix of new siblings, this can mean more emotional, logistical and financial support for the children. Plus, more people who love the kids, and more people for them to love.
- Studies conclude that kids raised by gay parents fare just as well in school as those raised in “traditional,” straight families.
- Studies found that kids raised in step-families receive just as much parental involvement as those raised in homes headed by the biological mother and father.
- Many adults who were raised in non-traditional families say that their childhood family structure gave them the confidence that they had to power to create a family that works for them — and not default to societal norms.
Arguments against marriage
Science, I love you. But, also, speaking off the cuff: It is hard to find a reason to marry. I'll skip the history of marriage, its 10,000-year history of matching powerless women with men for everyone's economic and political security, and the mere 150-year history of love marriage, which, citing the above divorce rates, has proven to be a disaster.
I'll go straight to summing up our lives today: Very few things you or I do every day has anything to do with any tradition. You likely work in an industry that has been invented in the past 10 years, or completely changed in that time. The fact that you are a female and have equal rights to attend university, earn, open a bank account, vote and own property are facts in their blissful springtime. The way you eat, socialize, raise your kids, your sexual politics, all have nothing to do with any tradition at all. So, why, especially after finding yourself an unmarried mom, would you be excited to wear a white (huh?) dress and a man's 2.5 month's salary and try to shoehorn yourself into a box that is rooted in another century — or millennium?
I am all for you doing you. I really am. But let's think about this for a minute.
I was pleasantly surprised that the Millionaire moms were over it. Most of them happily so. It is tough to live outside that box and forge your own way. I know I have received lots of pressure from well-meaning family, neighbors, and men I've been involved with to have a “real family” — you know, with a man. A man I'm married to. Living in the same house.
I try to give them the benefit of doubt, understand that this is simply an uncreative way of approaching life, one limited to simply what one knows — something we are all guilty of at some time or another (I still cannot shake the advice my mom gave me 30 years ago: “Never wear open-toe shoes without your toenails painted!” Or the rule that a meal is incomplete if it does not feature meat, a vegetable, starch (ha!), and dairy). But when faced with facts, and given the freedom to live one's own life in such unprecedented freedom, it becomes irresponsible to lazily follow the herd on to the marriage train. Again.
When I was at the height of my family drama a few years ago, my mom – also a single mother for most of my life – comforted me. “You and Helena and Lucas are a whole family,” she assured. I was a little surprised. That we weren’t never occurred me. But I could see that had been a struggle for her. After all, she was part of that crush of divorces in the 70s and 80s that followed her own very 50s nuclear-family upbringing. Raising children alone didn’t look a thing like what she had known “family” to be.
An upside of being raised by a single mom is that once you become one yourself, it’s less of a shock to your paradigm. I was chatting with a single dad friend who said he’s struggled so with single parenthood because family is so important to him. That shook me a little – I mean, family is important to me, too. My family just looks different than a J.Crew catalog. And I’m pretty cool with that.
Just yesterday Helena and I were talking about families, and how each one is different. Some kids live with a mom and a dad, others with their grandparents. If her dad remarries, she’d have a stepmom – or if I do, a stepdad. When our friend Matthew goes on dates, he goes with other men (to which she noted: “And some families have two daddies. And then they put their penises together to make a girl baby.” Oh. Good to know.).
“I’m slowly accepting that the kids, my ex and I are still a family,” my friend said. I’m not sure I agree 100 percent. Of course many of us are involved with our exes, and as Helena so sagely noted, family can mean anything we can imagine. I hope to be closer with my own ex for lots of reasons including what that might tech our kids, and also to maintain a relationship that has been part of my life for a long time. But the reality is that when we divorce, we start new families – those that includes our respective exes less than before. We build new lives that are separate from our former husbands – in different romantic relationships, different homes and separate time spent with the kids.
That doesn't make it any easier for all parties involved. Helena has sometimes disparagingly compared our's to other families. And while we all want to feel normal and accepted, the reality is: life sometimes stinks. And then it goes on. And then we find a new normal, which will ultimately be upturned sooner or later. And each time, we pull ourselves together, gather our loved ones close, and find that we are still — remarkably — whole.
My single mom family definition
Last month, as part of our big Midwestern single parent family roadtrip, my kids and I stayed for 10 days in a gorgeous five-bedroom turn-of-the-century lake house in northern Michigan, a home swap with the older couple who live there and, in turn, stayed at my apartment in Queens.
The kids and I drove more than six hours from Niagra Falls that day, still fresh road warriors a mere few days into the adventure. As we cruised by Toronto and up through the fields of Michigan, I thought a lot about a good friend whose mother recently passed away. There was a line in her obituary that got me:
“They lived in Biloxi, M.S., Fulda, Germany , and Rapid City, S.D. In October, 1968, they returned to Illinois to continue to build their life and family together.”
Build their life.
A lot of the time I am happy in my single-mom life. The kids and I have a good thing going, they're turning into great people. I am building my business, and as a family we have friendships and family relationships that grow. But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family. Doing a fine job keeping the ship afloat. But building not much.
At our Michigan destination, the Subaru cruised into the beautiful resort town just as the son was setting over Lake Michigan, and pulled into the driveway of our temporary home. It was 9 p.m., we were all hungry, but ran through the rooms of the this giant house, which was far lovelier than the online pictures. Being from the Midwest, I have known many big old homes, and this was an excellent one, the kind with solid walls and surrounded by giant Sycamore trees, both of which leave the house cooler inside than outside in the summer.
Scattered throughout the house were many family pictures of the hosts, Harry and Nancy, in their 70s, and glowing and smiling alongside four of five grown, blond children with their handsome spouses and a mess of blond grandkids of all ages who appeared to excel in nautical sport.
The home was so lovely, filled with very good antiques and lots of floral bedspreads that coordinate perfectly with drapes and rugs without being stuffy — but rather call to be featured in Traditional Home magazine.
This is a real family home, I thought. I imagined this couple must have known each other since college. That she must have stayed home with the kids and devoted herself to this beautiful place and her beautiful blond children and her smiling, committed husband with whom she is nuzzled in the silver-framed photo on the walnut dresser in the giant master suite that I now occupied. This is why women stay home. To create all this wonderfulness.
While my own kids ran through the rooms, turning on all the lights and deciding which rooms would be theirs (sharing a room in our apartment, they opted to sleep in the same queen bed all week), I hit the kitchen, outfitted with an enormous assortment of good china, endless baking tools and a second refrigerator in the adjoining pantry where Nancy, clearly a prolific cook, kept an overflow of excellent cheese, beer and condiments.
I could hear the kids squabbling upstairs, and in the kitchen I, too, felt exhausted and ornery. The car would need to be unpacked, towels located. But first I had to feed my kids. My children were hungry.
I wasn't at my quickest. Not sure what foods might be rude to use from the kitchen. What would be quick and tasty to cook. The assortment of bottles and cans and boxes and pans and utensils was so vast, so overwhelming. Harry and Nancy were so perfect. I was such a mess. I couldn't even feed my children in that moment, much less build a life for them. I am a failure in this moment. And I am a failure in life! I thought, and a giant, desperate sob overtook me before I was able to collect myself and boil some expensive, imported pasta in a shape I had never seen before.
The next day I called a contact Nancy had left for me, and the lovely woman who contributes to the local magazine came by to chat about kids and writing. I asked what she might tell me about my hosts. “Oh Nancy was a divorced mom, too — for many years,” she said. “Her first husband was a terrible alcoholic, and she was a successful real estate agent here.”
I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because, really Nancy. Oh Nancy! I had told myself so many stories about who you are, and they had nothing to do with anything at all except for my own bullshit. My own bullshit about not being or doing enough. That everyone has it better than me. That out there, somewhere, there is a perfect family in a perfect big house on the lake that a stay-at-home mom decorated and bakes all the live-long day so that her gorgeous, functional extended family can come together for weekends and drama-free holidays.
When I got done laughing, I started to see. I saw that yes, Nancy, you have some lovely traditional oil paintings that coordinated perfectly in your rooms that are indeed traditional, but also so graciously laid out and in colors like bright apricot or the palest of lime green that are quite modern and sophisticated. Your art collection was not what it first appears, but includes sly folk pieces, like a painting featuring a 3D papier-mâché woman with the hand written words: “She looked in the mirror to find her youth had disappeared. The bitch never even bothered to say goodbye.”
Your books throughout the house — a wall in one of the sitting rooms, on end tables, not to mention the cookbook collection spilling from the kitchen to the breakfast room — say a lot about a person. But in the master bedroom, between two windows opposite the king-sized bed, is that narrow shelf of titles that I could not help but imagine are your favorite. Carson McCullers, Memoirs of a Geisha, biographies of Hillary Clinton and female Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nancy, you are smart, and you are edgy. Complex. You've been through it, just like everyone. Just like me.
Struggling with single mom guilt? Worried that you are failing your kids? Read: Lies that keep single moms broke, lonely and full of guilt.
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Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker,” her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.